Most researchers studying the intersecting and influence of Christianity and politics on one another frequently quote Matthew 22, in which Jesus, in response to the Pharisees’ question about the legality of paying taxes to Caesar, says, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Some Christians cite these words as a warning, even a command that the church should stay out of politics. They contend that the purpose of the state is to govern this world, to tend to our material and physical needs, and the purpose of the church and religion is to tend to our spiritual needs and to prepare us for the world to come.
On the other hand, many Christians interpret these words rather differently. They contend that this trick question from the Pharisees, a question intended to trap Jesus, results in a trick answer, with its meaning hidden in plain sight. These individuals suggest that everything in the world belongs to God, who created everything, even Caesar. So in the end, even Caesar belongs to and is accountable to God.
The first commandment in Exodus 20:3 proclaims, ‘You shall have no other gods before me,” a priority that the U.S. government officially recognizes; every time Americans say the Pledge of Allegiance, they declare they are “one nation under God.” Religious advocates argue that any attempt to compartmentalize life, to say this belongs to the state and this belongs to God, violates the first commandment. They maintain that since God is Lord of all life, the church should therefore be concerned about and involved in all of life, including politics.
However, real dangers exist in both of these interpretations if taken to the extreme. Believers insist that life cannot be separated neatly into the physical and the spiritual. For instance, many doctors insist that a patient’s attitude toward his or her cure is as important as the remedy prescribed for the cure, and they endorse a holistic approach to health care. Just as water is no longer water when separated into hydrogen and oxygen, Christians contend that humans lose their essence of being when separated into the physical and the spiritual. Because they believe in the resurrection of the body as well as the immortality of the soul, Christians maintain that the body and soul cannot be separated; they are one.
In contrast, Karl Marx described religion as the “opiate of the people,” partly because the only religion he was familiar with refused to get involved with the physical needs of the people. As an example, in 1917, when the citizens of Petrograd were starving and rioting in the streets, the Russian Orthodox Church was meeting in that same city debating the length and color of their liturgical vestments.
Many Christian leaders insist that the church must care about people’s physical needs as well as their spiritual well-being, and if caring for others involves politics, then so be it. They contend that it is impossible to love one’s neighbor in the abstract. When people of faith remain silent and do nothing in the face of evil and injustice, they in effect condone that wrong. This reasoning was behind the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when clergy and congregations defied the government and offered aid to Ecuadorian refugees.
However, danger exists in the other point of view as well. When religious groups think they know best, when they set themselves up as the only interpreter of God’s will, when the church tries to get directly involved in legislation and governing by endorsing candidates and party platforms, disaster often follows, such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the burning of heretics and witches at the stake. More recently, religious intolerance violently divided countries like Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and Iraq. On another level, the intrusion of religious beliefs into the political process on such issues as abortion and gay marriage has polarized U.S. politics.
In 1887, the British statesman Lord Acton wrote that power tended to corrupt and absolute power corrupted absolutely. History has shown that this statement is as true for the church as it is for individuals. This reality is one of the reasons that Thomas Jefferson promoted the doctrine of separation of church and state, and it remains a compelling reason that Americans still strive to protect and promote this doctrine. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are two of the factors that motivated many immigrants, past and present, to come to the United States.
Moderate Christian activists suggest that the middle ground between these two extremes is revealed in the Bible. They contend that, without ever seeking the power to govern, the Hebrew prophets spoke what they considered to be the truth again and again to those in power. For example, Amos spoke up for the poor and oppressed and against the indifference of the political and religious powers of his day when he thundered in Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This quotation, frequently used by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his speeches, is inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. It is not at all coincidental that many Christians— ministers and laity alike—were in the forefront of the civil rights movement.
In all of Jesus’ teachings, he never endorsed a particular political system, economic program, or any detailed plan of social reform. Instead, he gave broad guiding principles rather than specific instructions. British scholar and Christian author C. S. Lewis once observed that while Jesus told people to feed the hungry, he did not provide a cooking lesson. Feeding the hungry is not optional, but how to do so rests with the ingenuity of each generation and culture. That ingenuity, say Christian moderates, rests with the collective will of the people, not the imposed will of one religious group over others.
Consequently, some Christian scholars suggest that, on the issue of war and peace, the church should be asking, among other things, whether or not the violence is justified and the only viable solution, and whether or not we have exhausted all avenues of diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise. In the midst of the debate on immigration, they maintain that church leaders should refrain from endorsing a particular piece of legislation, but they clearly and forcefully state repeatedly that every person should be treated as one of God’s creatures. On the question of gay marriage, they suggest that religious people should consider not only its morality but also what constitutes fairness and justice.
The still-continuing debate about how the United States should treat prisoners of war affords another example of potential Christian involvement in seeking to influence national policy. The Bush administration consistently refused to voluntarily adhere to the Geneva Convention and to speak to its transferring prisoners of war to sympathetic countries that routinely use torture as an interrogation technique. Christian scholars lamented that, in contrast to the spontaneous, nearly unanimous outrage in 2006 at the possibility that some U.S. port facilities might be owned and operated by an Arab company, there was a surprisingly apathetic response to the revelations about torture.
The challenge for Christians, then, lies in their recognition of a society’s social problems not just as reality, but in determining how they can, on the one hand, be true to their beliefs and take steps to make a difference, yet still respect the rights of the non-Christian community, who may well have another perspective on righting societal wrongs.
- Wallis, Jim. 2005. God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. San Francisco: Harper.
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