Participating in the Census

from Mar 16, 2010 Category: Articles

Should Christians participate in the Census? If so, should we answer all the questions or, as according to the Constitution, just tell the number of people in our household?


Several years ago I wrote a short piece encouraging Christians, when faced with an intrusive state, to not so much push back, as remain firm. One could argue that just as Paul insisted that he receive his rights as a citizen of Rome, that we ought to insist on our rights. One could, on the other hand, argue that when Jesus calls us to go the second mile, this is precisely the kind of thing He had in mind, that even if the state has no Constitutional warrant to ask us anything beyond the number of people in our home, we ought to humbly and meekly comply.

We are further confused on the matter because we are so used to conflating the wisdom of our forefathers with biblical truth. Consider this notion of “rights.” We are glad that our fathers affirmed that our rights come to us from God. Trouble is, one would be hard pressed to come up with a biblical proof-text for freedom of speech, or freedom from unlawful search and seizure. Indeed one would be hard pressed to find in God’s Word that we have any rights at all.

What you might find instead are biblical concepts on the limits of government. We find God, for instance, warning the children of Israel through Samuel that the “king like all the other nations” will tax them rapaciously, at a 10% rate. We see Paul explaining that the state has been given the power of the sword, that they exist to punish evildoers, not to collect data for demographers. And, interestingly, we see David fall into some serious hot water for performing a census.

Romans 13 tells us that we are to submit to those who are in authority over us. Those in authority over us claim that the Constitution is the highest law of the land. They then proceed to ignore its most straightforward requirements, treating it as what it is, a dead letter. Which leaves us with this question- are we to submit to the state that falsely claims to be under the Constitution, or are we to submit to the Constitution itself (or more accurately, our own interpretation of the Constitution)? How we answer that question will likely answer how we answer the question of the census.

My conviction, informed by the collective wisdom of almost every Reformed Bible commentator, is that Romans 13 calls us to submit not just to government as it ought to be, but as it is. That means governments whose authority is on shaky grounds, as well as governments whose activity is on shaky grounds, if they are the ones in power, are to be submitted to, unless or until they command us to do what God clearly forbids, or forbid us to do what God clearly commands. The census is a nuisance. It is not authorized by the Constitution. It is one more fruit of the state’s self-aggrandizement, one more affectation to demonstrate that it is God. And I will be filling mine out. I’ve read the whole Bible and no where does God tell us, “Whatever else you do, be sure not to tell the state how many toilets you have.”

What then of Paul’s insistence that he be given a trial? When we are in trouble, when the state is actively abusing us, rather than merely annoying us, and where it yet touts its own procedures, of course we may and should avail ourselves of those procedures. When, however, we are being merely annoyed, wisdom encourages us to go the second mile, to live as much as is possible in peace and quietness with all men. If you want to pick a fight with the state, don’t do it over insignificant data. Don’t do it over how many federal reserve notes they take from us. Do it over something significant. Fussing over such things to a state that sanctions and protects nearly 4000 murders each day seems to demonstrate a rather odd set or priorities. If we would take all the energy we spend on this issue and instead pray for liberty and justice for all, then we might one day again live in the land of the free.