I've written before about the total depravity of mankind, and so the question naturally arises: if humans are inherently and thoroughly depraved, why is there good in the world? That's a good question, and the answer is the existence of what is called "common grace".
"Grace", in a theological sense, refers to a favor or blessing that God bestows on us and that we do not deserve and have not earned. Most often, Christians talk about "saving grace" -- that is, the grace that God shows us through Jesus Christ that allows us to be forgiven for our evil acts. We do not earn forgiveness by doing good things to "balance" out our evil; rather, God forgives us freely by his grace. Saving grace is available to all mankind, but some people do not accept it, and thus do not reap the benefits of God's benevolence.
However, there is another type of grace that God gives to all humanity called "common grace", and this grace is the root cause of the goodness that we can see in ourselves and in the world around us. Common grace is manifested in many ways; some are very simple and direct, while others are more subtle. The most obvious example of common grace is creation itself; if you acknowledge the existence of God, then no matter how you believe he brought the universe into being, the fact that he did so at all is a result of his common grace. Likewise, the physical laws of nature that govern our universe are both an effect of common grace (because of creation), and the proximate cause of many forms of common grace that we experience. The earth provides us all, believer and unbeliever alike, with food, clothing, shelter, and everything else that makes life possible. As with saving grace, some people may choose to reject common grace (e.g., by taking their own life). Most people, however, accept God's common grace without a conscious thought of its origin or an acknowledgement of its existence.
God created the church (and local churches individually) as his instrument for spreading saving grace to humanity. God uses churches to reach people with his saving grace. In a similar manner, God instituted governments to administer much of his common grace. Some governments are corrupt and ineffectual (as are some churches), but those that function properly bring the benefits of God's common grace to their people: peace, safety, prosperity, productivity, liberty.
Romans 13:1-7A ruler or government fulfills God's purpose when it punishes those who do evil and commends those who do good. Although every government I can think of extends itself beyond this simple mandate, these dual responsibilities should form the foundation for a just and proper nation. Consider also that the first few verses give governments considerable discretion in administrative matters; Paul was writing to Christians living under a rather oppressive Roman empire, and we should step very carefully when we consider overthrowing an authority that God has set up. (Nevertheless, taken in context I believe it's clear that when a government ceases to implement God's common grace it loses its legitimacy, but that's a discussion for another day.)
1. Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
On the 4th of July, the day we celebrate the founding of these United States of America, it's important to be thankful for the grace that God has shown us by allowing us to live in the freest and most prosperous nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Not one of us has earned this privilege, and most of us inherited it through the circumstances of our birth. It is by God's grace that we live freely, speak freely, worship (or not) freely, assemble together freely, hold property securely, and pursue happiness with fewer restaints and more opportunity than any people ever have before us.
In Luke 12:48 Jesus says, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." We in America have been given a great deal; we have not earned it, but it was given to us freely by God because of his grace. God expects us to use our freedom and power wisely, justly, and generously as an instrument of his common grace.