Party Like It's 1992

Editor's Note: This article has been adapted from the preface of  Biblical Patterns and Government.

I had been up much of the night watching presidential election returns in November 1992.[1] Third party candidate Ross Perot, along with a moderate Republican, coupled with a charismatic “New Democrat” candidate all worked to reward President William Clinton with his first of two terms. As a pastor, however, I was most stunned when I arrived at our church’s Wednesday night prayer meeting the following day. The saints could hardly pray—certainly could not be joyful always. They were shocked, despondent, defeated, and fairly clueless. Following eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency—often considered a Golden age by some—and four years under President George H. W. Bush, our evangelical[2] church was crushed and rudderless.

For years, they had marched in pro-life events, sent postcards to representatives, worked phone banks, and distributed Voters Guides from various religious groups. And after 12 years of GOP rule, few of their values had been adopted, except in abstract ways, and the gains seemed flimsy. Within days, by executive orders policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were instituted and the lifting of abortion curbs were razed. In view of such shifting political sands, many Christians would ask: “Where did we go wrong?” “Is our country hopelessly doomed?” and “Can America survive a liberal?”

My questions, however, were more immediate. Seizing the moment for reflection, I needed to ask, “What has the church been doing that has led us to be so reactive to one election?” and “What have we done right or wrong?” and “How should we disciple to avoid the defeatism so palpable in that prayer room that night?”

In short, "How could we be more faithful?"

The problem, however, continues to arise. Many believers were thrilled—and many were crushed—when President Barak Obama was elected in 2008. Similarly, the election of President Donald Trump led to both exhilaration and a crisis of conscience for some Christians. Doubtless, the elections of 2020, 2024, and others will present Bible-believers with challenges. While the characters will be different, and while the issues evolve, still many evangelicals lack an enduring theoretical foundation to weather the storms of regular elections—much less crisis periods. Apparently, what was wanting in 1992 is still wanting—and at some time must be built.

That has led me to several decades of discussion, study, and biblical reflection on politics and government. I've even written two volumes on the subject (available here and here). To be sure, I am not part of a political expert-class, but I seek to draw from the mind of Another expert, who has far more insight than the combination of the best of our ancients and our contemporaries.

Why This Matters

Let me state my conclusion first: Should the Christian community advance in its biblical application in matters of state for 30-40 years, we would at best return to the political maturity of the common citizen in the 1750s.

Typical statements by James Madison, Patrick Henry, and other founding fathers of America reveal how stable and informed their political thinking was. Consider, for example, not only that Madison’s statement below was written for public consumption (in the popular press), but moreover its sensitivity toward the Christian teaching about human sinfulness.

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. (The Federalist (#51) Papers)

This kind and depth of thinking epitomized the fruition of previous centuries’ application of Scripture to the nature and role of government. It is an opportune moment to reinvent government to be sure. However, pensive citizens might prefer to re-model following the ethos of limited government as such earlier constitutionalists envisioned, rather than as the statists hope.

Two important points need to be acknowledged. First, the American constitution (1789) did not spring into existence like Athena, immediately from the forehead of Zeus. Neither was it an exact copy of other existing constitutions. There were few, if any, models for the colonists to follow. They started from scratch in the sense that they inherited little tradition and no sitting monarchy. The U. S. constitution, however, did have predecessors—biblical roots, if you will. As the constitutional fathers met in Philadelphia, they bore the sure impress of previous thinkers.

While the uniqueness of this constitution must be appreciated, a second point to grant is that the American founding fathers had hundreds of years of previous theology from which to draw. And draw on it they did; particularly the theology of the 200 years prior to 1789. The U. S. constitution has discernible traces of the ideas of Bucer, Calvin, Beza, Knox, Althusius and others highlighted in this volume. It is almost as if the teachings of those theologians had so saturated culture that even the common man understood and embraced that world view. Consequently, some go so far as to allude to Calvin as the ideological Father of the American Republic.[3]

What one sees in the U. S. constitution is the incarnation of Medieval and Reformation principles that were given free and unhindered implementation for the first time. This unique constitution both rests upon the shoulders of those who have gone before and continues to be beneficial. A Reformation theology of the state formed much of the intellectual matrix prior to the U. S. constitution; it shows. Should we hope to get back to that pinnacle, or progress beyond that point, we must grasp anew the underlying theology of the state.

If those who believe in the Bible could mine its ore on the role and functions of government, then some excesses, errors, or mistakes might be avoided. Moreover, if Christians in future centuries and in other cultures find this useful, then a type of confirmation for these biblical interpretations will occur. Indeed, we hope Christians in our own era and country benefit from this, but more importantly, we hope that it will not be limited only to provincial concerns.

One is tempted to ask in Reaganesque fashion, “Are you better off now than you were 4(000) years ago?” Have modern governments really improved over ancient systems of government? Under modern governments, some citizens receive more benefits, and there have definitely been technological improvements in information systems. However, if all things are considered, can one conclude with certainty that citizens are more free, less hindered by the interests of politicians, more moral, and more able to pursue godly interests with stability than in the past? Or have some governments actually been de-evolutionary or regressive overall rather than progressive?

The answers contained in this discussion may surprise, particularly as some reconsider the appropriate size and scope of the state.

What I have sought to compile is a catechism of sorts; of course, not one that is intended to be recited or mimed in every detail. I intend this to be a display of the biblical patterns that are agreed upon by many professing Christians in different countries, different ages, and of different denominational affiliations. I fully realize how naive it sounds, but throughout this study I have sought to present truths and practices that any Christian may be able to affirm. I have sought consensus and have attempted to limit my conclusions to those matters that are most clear and documentable. It is my hope that Christians and leaders will read this and find in it an accurate summation of what the Bible maintains. If so, then perhaps future generations will not have to replow this same field, nor will they forget what has already been agreed upon. Of course, it is likely that future generations will improve upon the articulations contained herein as well.

No book can answer every political issue or resolve every hypothetical question that might be raised. However, evangelicals have long needed a orderly treatment of this topic. What I seek to present in Biblical Patterns and Government is what God has revealed on a select matter: The nature, design, and responsibilities of the state. In the main, this work does not address the individual matters of specific bills, but rather the general theories and macro-factors involved. 

This is decidedly not a full-blown political manifesto; it is a systematic discussion. Many matters of difficult and complex application remain for more skilled political scientists. While that may be frustrating for some, the Christian community is long overdue for some standard and systematic presentations of this subject matter. I hope this one is a beginning, at least in exhibiting patterns.

David Hall is the Senior Pastor of the historic Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Powder Springs, Georgia. He has authored and edited numerous works, including Calvin In The Public Square and On Reforming Worship.  

Related Links

"Character, or Competence?" by Justin Poythress

"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams

"Confessional Subscription and Political Discourse" by Carl Trueman

Secular Power, Authority, and Christian Obedience by James Boice

Twenty Messages to Consider Before Voting by David Hall


[1] Much of this volume is taken from my 1996 work, Savior or Servant (which was newly revised in 2020). In addition to that second edition’s release, the work was sub-divided into two volumes: this first volume and a second volume (Christian Thought and Government). While the whole isfuller, the work is more manageable in two volumes. The original edition contains an index and paginated charts.

[2] I use the term “evangelical” throughout to refer to a broad tradition of Christian belief and practice that is most simply described by three features: (1) one’s professed belief in the Bible as authoritative for life questions; (2) one’s repudiation of liberal solutions to such questions; and (3) one’s aversion to Roman Catholic or statechurch formulations of doctrine. While not as precise as David Bebbington’s conventional definition of an evangelical, and while not defined by sociological demographics, this community has known parameters and has consistently identified itself with conservative politicians since Viet Nam. The early decades of the Twenty First Century also saw many adherents reexamining their willingness to self-identify as evangelical—often due to embarrassment of associating with the political views of spokesman for this movement.

[3] For more discussion on this, see my 2003 The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Rowman & Littlefield).