Render Unto Caesar

In Religion on November 3, 2008 at 4:38 pm

“Evangelicals feel that God should be on the throne in our country. But our government is not a theocracy; it’s a democracy–and people of different faiths must work together, side-by-side, on the assembly line and in the board room. Our forefathers — in their wisdom — created the separation of church and state. I believe, as an evangelical, that the wisdom of the separation lies in the fact that if not separated, the potential to divide us as a nation is enormous. Our founding fathers knew that. In fact, that’s one reason our country was founded… for religious freedom… free of government control. Evangelicals want religious control of government, but as Christian politics have become more powerful, our nation has becomes more divided.”

From “An Election-Eve Call To Reconciliation” by Tim Harrison on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” website.

When I entered into a personal relationship with God 35 years ago, I did so in the evangelical camp and considered myself an evangelical for many years. In a way I still do, but I started to feel a dissonance between my views and those of prominent evangelicals starting in the ’80s when Reagan ran for office. it seemed that overnight evangelicals had become identified with “right-wing” and “conservative,” something I had never considered myself to be. Suddenly people like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed announced themselves as the evangelical movement’s spokespersons. I was appalled and bewildered. I was raised to think of church and state as being in two totally different spheres. When I became ‘born again,” I felt that my beliefs would color everything I do and think, but I never considered voting for someone purely because he or she is a right-wing conservative Christian–or might as well be, based on where he or she stood on the issues of abortion and gay rights.

I guess the problem for me is that I don’t think of evangelical Christians as synonymous with fundamentalism. I always saw evangelicalism as a not exactly liberal, but an open environment. I grew up as a Christian reading Christianity Today more than Charisma and the likes of C.S. Lewis and Franklin Schaeffer. Abortion and gay rights were not major issues at the time. And they certainly weren’t litmus tests for political candidates. I personally believe that God calls us to be witnesses to Him first and foremost–that to me is what evangelicalism means. The other things were side issues–important, but subject to our working out our faith in fear and trembling by walking in a personal relationship with God. In other words, how you felt and what you did about things like abortion, homosexuality, poverty, celibacy, and redemption were between you and God.

I don’t mean that God doesn’t care about these things, but that our mission in this world is to be inclusive, not exclusive. We are meant to draw all people in, not keep certain people out. Supporting people as they try to live their lives the best way they know how doesn’t mean that you condone what they do. It means loving, accepting and listening. It means following the model of Jesus. I believe that we can do more to attract others to Jesus Christ by how we treat them than by being right about abortion and gay marriage.

I also see political beliefs as different from religious beliefs. Our faith informs our politics, but shouldn’t supercede the system under which our government is structured. The government belongs to the people–all the people, not to Christians alone. Jesus made it very clear that Caesar’s concerns were different than God’s. The kingdom of God was not meant to be synonymous with our earthly kingdoms. If we tried to superimpose Christianity upon our government, we would only create tensions between us and all the other religions and belief systems in this country.

I agree with Tim Harrison that “absolutes are partly to blame for why we have big problems that we can’t seem to solve. Such a narrowly-drawn focus on “moral” issues has driven a wedge between Americans, and it is a wedge that the media loves to feed on. We dig our heels in deeper and deeper, all the while vilifying those who disagree with us. How could we ever expect to solve the huge issues facing our country after burning bridges over the “moral absolutes”?”

Moral absolutes belong in our conversations with seekers, in our prayers and in our confession. But they don’t belong in politics, except as personal guidelines. If I feel that I cannot in good conscience vote for a candidate who is pro-choice, then I am free to vote for someone who is. But I may be more concerned for instance with a candidate’s policies toward the poor. I may be forced to prioritize my absolutes. But I think that candidates should also be judged on those things that fall into Caesar’s camp: how effectively they discharge their political duties, how responsive they are to the needs of the majority and how well they abide by the public’s trust in them.


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