On the morning Missouri's new governor, Matt Blunt, took office a few weeks ago, he attended a prayer service in Jefferson City.
The Rev. John Marshall, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Blunt's hometown, used the occasion to tell Blunt: "You are governor because God ordained it."
I thought about that a lot. And then I thought about it some more. I finally decided it bothered me enough to call Marshall and ask him what he meant. He was gracious and open about his thoughts, and our conversation helped me a little. But the statement still strikes me as one that needs so much explanation and nuance in these contentious times that it would have been better had Marshall not said it at all in those circumstances.
Marshall said he drew his ideas about God ordaining Blunt's governorship from the 13th chapter of the book of Romans, which focuses on how followers of Jesus are to relate to whatever civil government has authority over them. Here's Marshall's interpretation of what the Apostle Paul was trying to say in that chapter:
"There is some way in which human choices and God's sovereignty intermingle until the final choice (about who is to govern) is according to his (God's) will."
Does that mean, I asked him, that people who voted for Claire McCaskill, the Democratic candidate whom Blunt beat, did so against God's will?
No, he said. In fact, he added: "If Claire McCaskill had won, I'd have said the same thing (about God ordaining it)." And, Marshall said, he never would have said before the election that God preferred Blunt over McCaskill or vice versa.
Hmmm. Then how are we to understand the mysterious ways that Marshall says God ordains who is to win and govern us?
Marshall's answer: "God is way beyond our ability to comprehend here. The Lord is beyond us."
Well, yes, I believe that. But that also leads me to believe that to make the bold statement that Blunt is governor "because God ordained it" seems to undermine the idea that God is incomprehensible. It makes it appear as if whoever says such a thing has a clear and accurate reading of God's mind and will -- perhaps not only in this matter but in most others as well.
Without a lot of qualifiers, a claim that you know what God has ordained in politics makes me almost irreparably nervous (and maybe, if I really believe you, a little jealous of your pipeline to God).
Scholars have debated the 13th chapter of Romans for a long time. In fact, some of them believe that someone other than Paul wrote at least the first seven verses of the chapter.
But getting into a protracted argument about the authorship of parts of Romans will just distract us from trying to understand what seems to be the chapter's message, which is that followers of Christ are to submit to the civil authority precisely because God has arranged for such civil authority to exist.
The more pertinent question for Americans is whether a Christian understanding of the authority of civil government should be decisive for a country in which that very government is charged with protecting religious freedom for everyone -- Christian or not.
That is, if Christians feel called to view the government as ordained and established by God, they certainly are entitled to believe that. (The truth, of course, is that there is debate within Christianity over this, no matter what it says in Romans 13 or in 1 Peter 2:13-17, another passage about submitting to civil authorities. Christians -- like adherents of most faiths -- argue about almost everything.)
But in a country of many religions, Christian beliefs are not mandatory for people outside that faith. To give John Marshall his due, he pronounced that Matt Blunt is governor because God ordained it in the context of a prayer service at a Baptist church, so one might argue that he was speaking to Christians about his understanding of Christian beliefs. Fair enough.
But on the day of a governor's inauguration, the secular press inevitably will -- and should (and, in this case, did) -- report on events the new governor attends. And given the presidential election we've just been through, with its sharp focus on religion, there are more helpful things to say than that God has ordained Blunt's election.
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services..