This sermon is part of the sermon series "Project Hazmat: Handling Today's Tough Topics". See series.
The story behind the sermon (by Dan Meyer)
The personal backdrop
The sermon "God and Caesar" reflects my longstanding curiosity about the proper relationship between piety and politics. This interest, I suppose, is a function of extended exposure to the topic. I grew up in a political family, the son of a state senator and nephew of a U.S. senator. I hold a political science degree from Yale and led its student government. Today I pastor a large non-denominational church in one of the most conservative and politically active counties in Illinois.
Over the years, I've spent enough time close to the work of the state and the work of the church to know that neither is entirely pure nor profane. Pursuing the cause of righteousness anywhere is the messy work of imperfect people. The state and the church have important roles to play in the advancement of God's plan.
Nonetheless, it has amazed me how quickly many people I listen to and preach to tend to reduce these complex spheres and the people who inhabit them into mere caricatures. The solutions prescribed for our challenges often seem to me similarly naéve or narrow. My personal study of Scripture and history pushes me to view the relationship between church and state as fraught with creative tensions and the need for frequent course corrections. But I increasingly see the people of my own church—and perhaps the wider Christian community—tempted to follow a variety of voices who view the relationship between God and Caesar as much simpler.
The public battle
On one side are those who seem convinced that the cause of righteousness can't be advanced without a much closer alignment between the law of God and the laws of Caesar. While few go so far as to demand an institutional fusion of church and state, many seem to feel that the "restoration" of our country requires a much more aggressive intertwining of God and government. These folks often express grief that the utopian and uniform "Christian America" of yesteryear has been lost. They urge us to "take America back," as if the renewal of the moral clarity and spiritual vitality we genuinely need can be won by vote or almost violent activism.
Alongside that first set of voices, the people in my congregation are hearing those who say that our commonwealth can be advanced best by ridding ourselves of human government. These voices view government as the great Satan and politicians as his demons, worthy of being cast out. With the exception of the sainted founders of our nation, government gets very little credit for anything good about America. "Public servants are nothing but useless and corrupt." "We'd all be better off if we could eliminate the state altogether or shrink it down to tiniest possible size." The major theme here is that except in cases where rare godly leaders have been in office (e.g. Lincoln), human government is the enemy of divine government.
On the other side, some in my congregation feel threatened by people who insist that it is "those crazies" who believe in divine government that need to be limited and the authority of the secular state which ought to be lifted. These voices often express outrage over what religious people are being allowed a say in the public square when it so obvious to them that the Constitution placed a wall separating the church from the state. "If those zealots have to practice their religion, let it be in the private space of their own minds, homes, or churches." Even some who espouse Christian faith seem to have accepted the idea that faith should be a personal matter, not public. They're confident American culture will continue to thrive even if it cuts itself off from the religious cult (Christianity) that appears to have played such a significant part in its development.
The aim of this sermon
Hoping to help my congregation make sense of all this in the light of the Scriptures, I have preached many messages over the years on what the Bible teaches about the relationship between piety and politics. This particular sermon arose in the midst of the 2012 Presidential election cycle. Many people within our church were expressing grave concern about what they perceived to be the over-reaching of government—particularly with regard to the planned provisions of the Affordable Healthcare Act. They were upset over what many saw as an accelerating trend toward the erosion of religious liberty. Passions ran so hot on these points that many people were giving in to generalized hostility toward public officials and incivility toward those who differed with them.
I preached this message in an effort to display the balance of grace and truth needed by Christians as they approach issues in the public square. By examining Christ's teaching in Matthew's gospel and Paul's instructions in Romans 13, I sought to:
Describe the specific acts of respect, prayer, and credit that Christians are called to "render unto Caesar" as foundations for their involvement in matters of politics.
Clarify what the Bible, history, and the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution tell us about the proper role and relationship of church and state.
Define circumstances where Christians may legitimately hold government accountable for violating the religious liberty by which believers "render unto God" his due.
"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Matt. 22:21). I want to think about this commandment of Jesus in light of our concern for living in a proper relationship with the God of all nations and the government of our nation. I want to think about it from both sides of that statement. What does it mean to give both God and government their due?
Jesus' assertion here is that we actually owe something to government. What and how much we owe are regularly debated, in households, in churches, in forums. Christians differ on the role of government, the extent of government, the target of the government's taxation, the appropriate reach of government into issues like healthcare or marital rights or other spheres of our daily lives. If you're a student of the Bible, if you're a person who has looked at history carefully, if you understand the way of Jesus, then you know there are some propositions, regardless of our party and politics, upon which we are compelled to agree.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar's
First, the Bible teaches that we are to give government our respect. This is difficult at times—if it were not difficult, it wouldn't need to be a commandment. Government would be so much more worthy of respect, some of us feel, if we were in charge. It would be better if we were king or queen or if our people were in power.
We often struggle with respecting whatever administration is in charge. But that's what the Scriptures teach us, nonetheless. These words were not written by somebody whose people were in power. They were not written by somebody who was greatly benefiting from the government. In fact, this was written by somebody who was being persecuted by the people in authority. Listen to what the apostle Paul writes in Romans 13:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority [Caesar, in Paul's case] is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (Rom. 13:1-7).
In other words, there are people who by God's word are most likely to live with a bias toward respecting the authorities of the land. They will not be amongst those who disregard authority but will be ones who respect authority and won't lightly turn against them.
Alongside this call to respect, God also commands us to give government our prayers. This is a recurrent theme in the Scriptures. Paul says, "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim. 2:2-3). This applies even when somebody in power seems to be our enemy. There comes a time in the life of any follower of Jesus when somebody in power seems to be a heinous enemy of what we consider good. Yet Jesus commands us, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:44). In other words, you're defined as children of your Father in heaven by praying for people with whom you disagree.
This is a call to much more than a begrudging acknowledgment of government in our prayers. It is to something much more than praying about our government through clenched teeth. We are to have compassion for those in government. Our hearts should reflect the heart of Jesus, who prayed for those in power when hanging on the Cross, upon which he was pinned by his government, religious and civil, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they're doing."
There is reason for sympathy toward the Caesars of our time. It's popular to think back to the founding leaders of this country, to reflect on the purity of their hearts, the clarity of their mind, and extol, "Oh, if only we had leaders like those again!" We forget how much simpler life was in the United States when this whole adventure began. We were essentially one race, dominated by one religion. Today our leaders face a dramatically more complicated nation—pluralistic, diverse, dynamic, influenced by circumstances beyond our shores in ways that would have been incomprehensible to our founding leaders.
Those who serve us in government are struggling earnestly with these issues. My dad is a state senator. I've watched him all my life, spending long, late hours laboring over documents, working on solutions, trying to find a better way. I know there are scoundrels out there too, but as I've spent time with people in government, I honestly believe that many of these people are trying to do their best, even when we don't agree with them. Their health and their families are under unbelievable duress. As followers of God—the one who took amazing pains to identify with our needs, to put himself in our shoes, to incarnate himself in our reality—let's put ourselves in the shoes of those who govern and to pray for God's grace and wisdom to be poured out upon them. If we give in to the fashion of demonizing people in government, only demons will run for office.
Finally, give government some credit. It's popular not just to berate individual politicians, but to bash the entire institution of government. We have watched bureaucracies balloon out of control. We have seen waste become wanton. We have witnessed ill-advised conflicts, heinous cronyism. I'm tired of living in a state where we can't keep our governors out of jail. We have seen government gridlock in a way that tests our hope for the future.
But for all of its ills, the form and exercise of government in the United States still does more to support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than any other on earth. We still enjoy a rule of law. We still enjoy a level of education and mobility and opportunity that is the envy of the world, even if we have to fight hard to keep it. We are one of the only civilizations in the history of planet earth whose government has never yielded to military control and has always observed an orderly succession of power. That is miraculously unusual in the span of human history. The system of government to which God led our founders provides a system of checks and balances which allow for remarkable self correction over time. It's like the weather here in Chicago. If you don't like the weather, wait a few hours. It will change. If you don't like what's going on in government, wait a few years. It can change.
While cherishing free enterprise, the marketplace alone has not produced the common wealth we Americans enjoy. And if gratitude is a virtue that Christians are meant to possess, then you and I should give our government credit for some of the good that it has advanced. These are the things we are to give to Caesar.
Give to God what is God's
It is also essential that we give to God what is his. In fact, understanding the proper place of God in relationship to human government is one of the most important ingredients in the relative success of the American experiment thus far. I was a new believer when I entered Yale University. I was a political science major. I read deeply in the documents of our founding and much of our history along the way, and I was impressed at the genius of the relationship between God and government defined in this nation's life. The majority of our nation's founders were very clear on two truths concerning the proper relationship between government and God.
First, they understood that government should not blend with religion. The founders of our nation came from countries where Christianity, and a particular denomination, had been established as the official state religion. Governmental leadership and church leadership were blended into one. People who had an office in the church also had an office in the state house, in the palace. This sounded like a magnificent idea at first. It really seemed to be the right thing: Caesar and God were getting married. How wonderful! But a lot of what God brought to the marriage got moved into the basement or out of the house all together. The political agenda began to overcome the spiritual one, in these governments. Religion was increasingly being used to manipulate people toward particular political ends, or politics was being used to coerce people into certain religious observances or alignments, and often payments. It was a very bad marriage, and the children born to that marriage resolved never to do that again. Were there things that your parents did that caused you to say, "Never again; we're going to do that differently in this household"?
So our founders enshrined that conviction in the establishment clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution. I'm sorry if this feels like a civics lesson, but you'll see why this is important in just a moment. The establishment clause to the First Amendment of our Constitution reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." There should not be a formal blend of the church and the state. It goes on to say "… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The establishment clause says government should never blend with religion, but the following clause outlines the balancing conviction: government should never ban religion.
Just as the establishment clause has been disfigured and reinterpreted, so has this second clause. People believe that the free exercise of religion means the freedom to do what you want in the privacy of your home or your church. But, as Princeton University historian Robbie George reminds us, religious liberty as the founders conceived it was not merely the freedom to worship or the freedom to say prayers in private or at the dinner table or at one's bedside. Religious freedom included the freedom to take our faith out into the public square and to proclaim the great moral principles that we believe are essential to justice and the common good of the whole of society. It has been indisputably documented that many of the founders believed the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition were indispensible to the health and survival of the American experiment. In fact, any republic that was going to give this much freedom to people needed to have moral underpinnings in order to survive.
John Adams, our second President and signer of the Declaration of Independence, declared, "We have no government armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion." Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other kind of people. If we lose our morals, our religious base, our source of understanding virtue and personal responsibility, we're sunk as a nation. It will become chaos. It will unravel if we lose that vision, that foundational set of values.
Jedidiah Morse, an early statesman and educator, wrote these words: "To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican form of government and all blessing which flows from them, must fall with them."
Our leaders felt passionately about the importance of religious expression because it would underline and embed into the heart and character and conscience of people those deep truths about the nature of life which would lead us to live well with one another. But as passionately as these leaders felt about their faith, they were very careful to claim no special privileges for Christianity. Freedom of religion, as the founders understood it, had to include the freedom to pursue a faith other than what Bible describes, or to disbelieve in a Supreme Deity altogether. The big idea defined in the Constitution is that this was a country where people were free to pursue whatever religion they chose, or no religious at all, without fear of political reprisal. America would be an amazing open marketplace where the best ideas, whether religious or not, could be heard and could compete for the allegiance of the citizenry in open discussion. It would be a nation where freedom of religious conscience would be unusually respected.
Today, we are in jeopardy of giving too much to Caesar and not enough to God. Government is now incorrectly interpreting the establishment clause of our constitution—it's not simply preventing institutional blending. When the establishment clause is now being interpreted as banning religious language or expression from public places, people of faith need to speak out. When moral precepts as foundational and universally recognized as the Ten Commandments are being banned from public, Caesar's taking too much. When customs as benign as acknowledging the grace by which we all live are now being stricken from school graduations, because some individual citizen finds those words offensive, it is time for the religious majority to politely say, "Feel free not to pray when we're praying. But please do not contravene our religious liberty." When government is now attempting to force religious institutions to pay for health services or validate lifestyles that violate their moral conscience, people of faith need to object.
In his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas describes what one German sociologist called "a spiral of silence." As the cultural movements within Germany developed incrementally toward the outrages of the Third Reich, it became harder and harder to speak out against them. Had the majority of people who had misgivings about the course of their nation stood up early and said, "Stop! What's going on here isn't right. We need to rethink what we're doing and where we're heading," the horror of Germany's moral collapse may have been avoided. But most people, including the Christian community, remained silent, and the spiral got deeper and it got tighter, until it was no longer possible to speak out without being silenced by the government.
Now is our time to speak. Let's not demonize our leaders. We're not living in a fascist regime. If there's a change of leadership at the next election, we won't be living in one then, either. It hasn't happened yet. There's no Hitler on our immediate horizon. But we are on a serious slide as a nation. Our understanding of the value of life, the covenants that we make in marriage, our religious liberties, and the ultimate values that drive our spending and our thinking—all of these ways of being with one another in the world are in peril. As Christians we need to stand up.
First, we need to look at the way we are living ourselves. We need to align with the way of Jesus, so that we will have an alternative, winsome witness that influences other people.
Second, we need to use our vote to advance the values and the policies we believe in. I'm not telling you how to vote. I don't think any party has a corner on the righteousness of God. But when 50 percent of Christians don't go to the polls, there's an issue. We're not using an influence God has given us. Let's use our influence.
Third, we need to study the issues and know the facts. We can no longer merely repeat what we've heard some pundit say. We've got to do our homework. We have to go to websites. We have to research the issues, know what we're talking about. And if we don't know what we're talking about, we should probably shut up, because we're just embarrassing the cause and confusing the discussion.
Fourth, we need to speak the truth in love. And if we can't speak in love we're probably not speaking the truth. We need to reflect the servant heart of Jesus in all that we do, and not confuse that with weakness. Jesus shows us it is the greatest form of power and influence. Remember that the most significant battle of our time is not between Republicans and Democrats. That's a tiny battle. The most significant battle of our time is between those who would erase God's name and voice from the public square and the conscience of man and woman, and those who know that such an act is contrary to our Constitution and against the desires of God and contrary to the welfare of all people, even atheists.
Let's be sure to give government its due. But let us also hold fast and labor together for those virtues and freedoms that are the precious gift of our God to all people.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.