What Christians Should Ask of Government: To Not Play God

For a government to “play God” is to pressure its citizens into idolatry

“Playing God is the greatest temptation that human beings face. In Genesis 3, the first sin involves wanting to be like God. So it’s not surprising that governments, made of human beings, face the same temptation.”


In the first half of this course, we thought about what government could ask of Christians. In the second half we are turning to what Christians should ask of government.

We’ll start by considering what the government should not do. That’s what today’s class is about. What “role” should we absolutely make sure the government doesn’t play?

And you can find the answer in the title of today’s class: government must not play God.

I. Playing God is the greatest temptation of government.

Playing God is the greatest temptation that human beings face. In Genesis 3, the first sin involves wanting to be like God. So it’s not surprising that governments, made of human beings, face the same temptation.

Psalm 2 affirms this. Turn to it—I’m going to read the first six verses:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

Just as individuals do, we see here that the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain. Kings set themselves against the Lord, thinking that they can establish themselves as sovereign apart from Him. You can see in verses 4-6 that their plans will be thwarted, and ultimately God will reign. It is futile to play God—but governments try to do it anyway.

For a government to “play God” is to pressure its citizens into idolatry. An example of this is in Daniel 3, where Nebuchadnezzar builds a gold statue, and at its dedication, commands the assembled people, to worship it.

Governments can pressure their citizens into idolatry in multiple ways:

  • The object of idolatry can be a particular leader or regime.
  • It can be a particular political party.
  • It can also, as we’ll explore in a moment, be a particular end (even a good end) that government is trying to achieve.

Throughout biblical history, we see the results of government giving in to or resisting the temptation to idolatry. In his book Between Babel and Beast, Peter J. Leithart says that governments fall into five categories.

First, Babel: Government can set itself up as an alternative to God. We see this in Genesis 11:4: “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’” They wanted to make a name for themselves, to displace the name of God—so they built a tower that would reach to the place of God. For a Babel, the government itself is the idol.

Second, Rod: Government can be commissioned by God to discipline God’s people. Assyria in Isaiah 10 is an example of this: the empire made war on Judah and conquered much of it, but Isaiah 10:5-6 makes it clear that God commissioned them to do this: they are referred to as the rod of God’s anger.

Third, Refuge: government can be commissioned by God to protect God’s people. Think of Egypt at the end of Genesis, in Joseph’s time: the government under this Pharaoh respected the God of the Israelites and the religious minority living among them.

Fourth, Messiah: government can even be commissioned by God to rescue God’s people. An example of this is Persia under Cyrus. In Isaiah 45:1, God refers to Cyrus as “his anointed.” He is chosen by God to incorporate Judah, not just protecting the Jews and delivering them from oppression, but providing the materials for the rebuilding of their temple.

Finally, governments can be Beasts, devouring the people of God and sacrificing them to whatever idol they worship. Think of Egypt in Exodus. In Exodus 5:2, Pharaoh says, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh reenacts Adam and Eve’s original sin, but more brazenly and audaciously: he’s conceived of his own identity so as to exclude the moral legitimacy of God’s claim upon him, refused to assent to God’s judgments, set himself as judge over God’s judgments, and rejected God’s people as God’s people. The consequences of this are a state that exploited, abused, and feasted on the flesh of God’s people.

So we want a government that is not a Babel and not beastly. But to the extent that we’ve checked that box, are there any other forms of idolatry we should guard against?

II. Today, that temptation manifests itself in the form of ideologies. 

In his book Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis makes a provocative claim: ideologies are a form of idolatry.

An ideology takes something good in the created order and sets it up as the ultimate aim in place of God, making creation revolve around and serve it. An ideology says that this thing is what has the capacity to save us, rather than God.

An ideology often contains in it some truth and some good—that’s what makes it seductive to many of us. In fact, an ideology does its most damage when it convinces us that serving it is serving God. Ideologies are essentially a “respectable” form of idolatry. Each of them tempts government toward something analogous to totalitarianism: the end is so important that government is willing to intrude into more and more spheres of life and authority in order to achieve it. Rather than seeking to do justice now, ideologies are goal-oriented. The promise of some future conception of “justice” as a goal thus allows us to rationalize any amount of injustice now.

So the risk that government will exceed the practical limits Jonathan defined for us two weeks ago is rooted in the idolatry that comes with ideology.

Let’s see what that looks like. Koyzis has some examples that will make every one of us uncomfortable as we think about our own political beliefs. For each of these, we’ll think about what they elevate, what they miss, and how we should be careful of them.

1. Liberalism

I don’t mean liberalism as the term is normally used in politics in America. I’m talking about a Western tradition that animates both our political left and right. Liberalism elevates the autonomy and freedom of the individual. Much of our human rights discourse comes from this tradition, and it has produced undeniably good things: the end of slavery, religious freedom, and freedom of speech, for example.

What liberalism misses, however, is any claim on individuals by community, tradition, or God’s authority that would limit that liberty. In liberalism’s narrative, we submit to authorities not because God has commanded us to, but because we’ve consented to be governed and entered into a social contract.

So how should we be careful of liberalism? If you’re on the political left, are you tempted to keep expanding the scope of individual liberties or rights, so that government has to enter more and more spheres of life in order to protect them? For example, suppose you decided that housing was a right. You might conclude that government must therefore levy significant taxes and use eminent domain to fund and build and maintain housing for every citizen, regardless of the costs that this imposes on others. That might not be just—but if you’re in the grip of the ideology of liberalism, you might be blind to that injustice.

On the other hand, if you’re on the political right, are you so wedded to the idea of individual liberty that you protect or apologize for people who use their liberties to harm or abuse others? Are you ever tempted to defend a person or entity by saying that they were “acting within their rights” rather than asking whether what they were doing was right?

As you can see, liberalism can actually lead to the ungodly expansion of the state OR to its ungodly negligence.

2. Conservatism

Conservatism is associated with the political right in America. Conservatism elevates a respect for tradition, history, and a humility about what human beings can accomplish. Conservatives are particularly aware of the fragility of human endeavor and of the tendency of human beings to fall into evil. In this sense, they capture a truth that’s recognizable to Christians: that we’re sinful, and that we should therefore be skeptical about our capacity to accomplish big, good things, especially with the state’s power of the sword. And for this reason, conservatives urge caution when change is proposed: there are ways things have always been done, and while they’re not perfect, no tradition is without some redeeming value that is worth conserving.

What conservatism misses is that tradition can work toward justice or toward injustice. The first question you have to ask a conservative is: what are you trying to conserve? And why? You’re not likely to get a consistent answer across geographies or (especially) across time periods. Go back 30 or 50 years—any number of “traditions” from that time that you want to conserve will be a mixed bag. Absent is a serious examination of whether a particular tradition is worth preserving according to God’s definition of justice.

So how should we be careful? Do you uncritically resist change, rather than asking whether the change moves us toward justice or away from it? Think about arguments for the maintenance of slavery, some of which played on a fear of the disruption to society and way of life that emancipation would cause. Or think about the recent relaxing of the embargo on Cuba. Some would argue that this was a move toward justice –that, because it has outlived the Cold War that led to its passage, the embargo wouldn’t be enacted under today’s circumstances. If that’s true, then the conservative impulse might make an error here: it will gravitate toward defending the status quo and be less likely to consider whether changed circumstances warrant changed policy.

Questions about mass incarceration are worth considering here as well. Are we sure that America’s imprisonment rate, one of the highest in the world, is necessary, or are we simply fearful of considering other solutions?

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