On the last Friday of every month, the church I attend hosts a salon. Based on the informal gatherings of Enlightenment-era France, our salons meet at the home of one of our congregants to eat, drink, be merry, and talk about big ideas; for example, last year we hosted a series of salons on questions of science and faith such as evolution, the origins of the universe, that sort of thing.
At our last salon, over glasses of wine and from-scratch carrot cake, we combined those two most inappropriate of dinner table conversation topics for our discussion: “Does God care who wins the election?”[*]
As one of our participants helpfully brought up, this question conceals some problematic assumptions: first of all, that God exists in a conventional sense; second, that God has a personality and thoughts; and third, that He cares (or even can care) about what human beings do. These propositions are all up for debate, and I’m not even sure if I accept them. For the purposes of the question, however, I choose to accept them as a convenient entrée into the issue of how a Christian is to conceive his or her relationship to the world of politics.
This is a tricky issue for all people of faith, but especially for Americans and especially now as they head to the polls on November 6. To a frightening extent, “religious politics” in the U.S. has come to stand for all manner of homophobic, xenophobic, male chauvinistic, anti-science, anti-poor ugliness. The past few months alone have seen battles over health care mandates and religious freedom, birth control, abortion, and gay marriage, not to mention the continuous doubts cast upon Barack Obama’s religion (“He’s a Muslim!!!!!”).
Since John Locke wrote his classic essay “A Letter Concerning Toleration” in 1689, the separation of church and state has been one of the pillars of Western democracy. And when we look back at what the Religious Right has wrought in the recent past, and would it would like to wreak given half a chance, it’s easy to see why. Indeed, there’s a classic story that appears in all three synoptic Gospels that deals with precisely this issue:
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-21)
This passage seems to draw a pretty clear line between a Christian’s secular life and his or her religious life, and liberal Christians often quote it as a way of demonstrating Biblical support for the separation of church and state. That is to say, no, God does not care who wins the election, and we blur the line between the religious and the political at our own peril. This is a very Western, post-Enlightenment way of viewing the nexus between faith and public life: each has its compartment; each is important within its own compartment; but ne’er the twain shall meet.
As sensitive as I am to the dangers of right-wing evangelical politics, I’m inclined to read the passage somewhat differently. In the previous chapter of Matthew (and in the chapter that precedes this passage in Mark, and earlier in the very same chapter of Luke), the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus in a similar way by asking him by whose authority he works his miracles. Jesus deflects their question by asking them whether John’s baptism was of heavenly or of human origin. This question catches them between a rock and a hard place: if they claim that it was of heavenly origin, they reveal their hypocrisy. But if they claim that it was of human origin, then they risk the wrath of the crowds who love John (Matthew 21:23-27). It’s a trick question, and a brilliant move on Jesus’ part – he covers his own bases while putting the Pharisees in an uncomfortable position themselves.
I interpret the “render unto Caesar” line in the same spirit. Of course, in the political climate of first-century Judea, saying that God comes before Caesar is the kind of thing that gets one crucified. But do you really believe that Jesus Christ would have believed that anything doesn’t fall into the category “what is God’s”?
I don’t think this means that we need government to push religion down our throats. You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t say we need to overthrow Rome and replace it with a theocracy. That was part of what made him so unique and, to many, disappointing as a Messiah – he wasn’t leading the Jewish people into battle against Rome with sword aflame. (In a more mythical, metaphorical sense, maybe he was… but that’s another essay.)
Rather, I see in the “render unto Caesar” passage a cleverly politic way of saying, “Sure, you can do what Caesar asks of you,” while silently adding, “but never forget that God comes first.”
As Christians, we are called to follow in Jesus’ path of love. Now, the command to love our neighbors has the greatest immediate salience in our personal lives. (The German word for neighbor in the Biblical sense is helpful in this regard: Nächste literally means “the next one,” the next person you meet.) But we are not called just to love those in our immediate vicinity; we are called to love everyone.
And our government, the people we elect to it, and the policies it enacts have a very real impact on our lives and the lives of people throughout our country and our world. Surely God cares if the state in which we live is killing people in our name, with executions or with wars of global imperialism? Surely He cares if the people we elect, who rule only with our support and by our implicit consent, enact policies that victimize the poor and the marginalized? And surely He cares if one candidate’s policies do a better job, however imperfectly, of caring for “the least of these,” our brothers and sisters?
As tempting as it might be, we cannot compartmentalize faith and politics. A belief that we should love our neighbors has inherent political consequences. And progressive Christians have allowed their conservative counterparts to monopolize the politics of faith.
This is not to say that one candidate is “ordained by God” – we’ll not play that dangerous game. Nor is it to say that Christians should abrogate reason and simply go along with “whatever the Bible says” where politics is concerned. In order to enact our values, we have to be able to think through the consequences of our actions, and to understand how our choices and opinions bear up in the world of objective fact. And that requires the exercise of reason.
It is to say, however, that if we claim to live our values, Christian or otherwise, then the way we conduct ourselves politically matters.
Christians are called to love one another, to help the poor and the oppressed, to sow peace where there is strife, to respect all human beings. Come to that, we are all called to do that, Christians or otherwise. But if we give our assent to politicians and to parties who fail to live up those values, who base their political platforms on an implicit (and sometimes explicit) rejection of those values—or if we fail to engage at all, and through our apathy allow our leaders to subvert those values—then to the extent that He exists and takes any interest at all in what we do, then yes, I do think God cares.
–Tom Emanuel is the executive director of the South Dakota Peace & Justice Center
[*]A note to non-Christian readers: I write from the perspective of a Christian, and so when I talk about God, I use the language of Christianity. As one of the participants at our salon pointed out, there are many more ways of talking about “God” than just the Christian way. So I apologize for the narrowness of language, even as I recognize that the concepts are much broader than Christianity alone.