About Corazon

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Did Jesus Endorse a Separation of Church and State?

And if so, How Far Did
He Want it to Go?

So I realize that this post is likely to ruffle a few feathers. After all, many people have very passionate feelings about the man from Nazareth known to billions of followers as Jesus the Christ. With this in mind, I will try to treat the topic with as much care as I can.

The very question posed in this post probably seems strange. After all, Jesus and his teachings, at least for the devout Christian, seem to transcend trivial political issues like church/state separation. Why would the Savior of mankind care about political ideology, governmental structure, etc. when he himself was called "King of kings and Lord of lords"? Shouldn't that suffice? Why would Jesus waste his time addressing the relatively mundane details surrounding issues like prayer in school, the oaths of the Pledge of Allegiance, the role (if any) that organized religion should play in the halls of government, etc., etc. etc.? Perhaps Gov.Mike Huckabee said it best when asked what Jesus would do as a modern politician:

And perhaps he is right. Surely Jesus would spend his time dealing with more important matters, right?

Not so fast.

While it is true that Jesus' primary goal was to bring people to him as the Savior of mankind, it would be both foolish and inaccurate to state that he cared nothing of the affairs of this world. And even though he made it clear that his "kingdom was not of this world," Jesus was, on occasion, quite vocal and passionate about the affairs this world.

Render to Caesar

During his ministry, Jesus was, from time to time, confronted by some of the more prominent members of Jewish society in an effort to confront him or catch him in a lie of sorts, all in an effort to discredit the man whom they esteemed as an enemy to their agenda. On one occasion, two different groups (the Pharisees and Herodians) confronted Jesus in an effort to "entangle him in his talk." Both the Parisees and Herodians hated Jesus (for different reasons) and believed that entangling him in his words, especially on hot-button political matters, might discredit him in the eyes of his followers. We read of what happened in Matthew 22:
15. Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.

16. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.

17. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?

18. But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?

19. Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.

20. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?

21. They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.

22. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
There's a great deal to dissect in these eight verses. First off, the Pharisees and Herodians attempt to trap Jesus by appealing to his teachings regarding the supremacy of god. In Roman society, Caesar was esteemed to be a deity and those who rejected such teachings were often met with ridicule and scorn. Taxes were the predominant way in which homage to Caesar was acknowledged and as a result, any attempt to avoid them was met with severe consequences. So, in the minds of the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus was trapped. If he answered that man should not pay tribute to Caesar he would be seen as an enemy of the state. But if he agreed with paying tribute, he would come off looking like a hypocrite, since Jesus had emphasized the supremacy of the kingdom of god to that of man.

So what was Jesus to do? Blast their argument to oblivion of course! Matthew tells us that Jesus "perceived their wickedness" and got right to the heart of the matter. By using a mere penny (most certainly a denarius in Roman coinage) Jesus completely and totally surprised (or as Matthew states "marveled") his audience by uttering the now famous phrase, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." This simple phrase completely baffled the Pharisees to such a degree that they simply walked away with their tail between their legs. Jesus came away the clear victor.

Church/State Separation as a Christian Concept

So why where the Pharisees and Herodians so baffled by Jesus' seemingly simple remark? After all, this wouldn't sound that profound of a rebuttal to politicians or theologians today. Well, let's keep in mind that we are speaking of the ANCIENT world; a world that had long fused the political and theological worlds together by establishing kingships, Caesars and other "divine" rulers. The notion of an independent church, separate and sovereign from the secular world, was more than just a novel concept. It was revolutionary. As a result, we can logically and rationally proclaim that a separation between church and state is very much a CHRISTIAN concept. As my blog buddy Brian Tubbs points out by quoting Dinesh D'Souza's bestselling book, What's So Great About Christianity:
D'Souza argues that the "separation of religion and government" was a "Christian idea" and that Jesus was the "first one who thought of it." D'Souza points to Jesus' confrontation with the Herodians and Pharisees in Matthew 22 as the birth of the concept.

D'Souza explains that, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the "gods a man should worship were the gods of the state." Accordingly, "patriotism demanded that a good Athenian make sacrifices to the Athenian gods and a good Roman pay homage to the gods of Rome."

Well, along come the Christians, who refuse to worship the Roman gods. This was unacceptable to Roman authorities (at least prior to Constantine)...

In Matthew 22, Jesus clearly teaches that Caesar is entitled to certain "things" (and he implies taxes as being among those "things"), but draws a line of distinction. Caesar is NOT entitled to everything, only
some things.

Likewise, Jesus implies a limit in the other direction. While God is sovereign and all-powerful, Jesus nevertheless explains (later to Pilate): "My kingdom is not of this world."

According to D'Souza, "God has chosen to exercise a limited domain over earthly rule, not because He is limited, but because He has turned over part of His kingdom to humans for earthly supervision."
Jesus of Nazareth was clearly in favor of a separation between church and state not because he wanted a secular society but because he wanted a moral one, and the best way to ensure that was to take religion out of the hands of the politicians. Jesus and his apostles had seen first hand what religious politicians (Pharisees, Herodians, etc.) had done to religion and Jesus clearly wanted no part of it. Rarely if ever did Jesus "trash talk" anyone but he certainly did with these types. As he stated in Matthew 12:34:
O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
And throughout his ministry, Jesus would continue his insistence on church/state separation:
"My kingdom is not of this world." (John 18:36)

"You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world." (John 8:23)

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve god an mammon." (Matthew 6:24.)

"The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me." (Luke 22:25–26, 29)

"He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" (Luke 18: 9-14)
And Jesus didn't stop there. Even when tempted of the devil and the masses to be made a king (a physical, worldly king since he was presumably already "King of kings") over all the land, Jesus flat-out refused:
"And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve." (Luke 4: 5-8)

"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" (Luke 12:13–14)

"Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone." (John 6: 13-15)
But with all of his apparent disinterest (or insistence in a separation between church and state) in secular matters, Jesus was quick and fierce in his defense of religious sovereignty. In the only account of his resorting to violence, Jesus was more than willing to "throw down" with those who made a mockery of the temple:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" (John 2:13–16)
For Jesus, the pollution of worldly distractions had defiled the Lord's temple; an offense that was far worse than the introduction of religion into government. Simply put, the temple of the Lord was to be free of secular distractions, political rhetoric and worldly wealth. It was a house of sacrifice and prayer. Politicians and greedy capitalists be damned! =)

In light of such evidence, it is abundantly clear that a separation of church and state was, and still is, a CHRISTIAN concept. The very founder of the faith saw tremendous advantages to both church and state when both are put in check and denied the right to overpower the other. Under such a system, religion and government would mutually flourish not as opposing forces but as equal partners in creating a free and moral world. One could not exist without the other, and one could not exercise dominion over the other.

Our Founding Fathers (both the ultra-pious and "infidel" types) had a perfect understanding of this concept. They saw that the establishment of a joint church/state government had brought nothing but misery to the world, and they were hell bent on ensuring that it wouldn't happen in the "land of the free":
"I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta [Constitution] of our country." (George Washington, 1789, Papers, Presidential Series, 4:274).

"The Christian god is a three headed monster, cruel, vengeful, and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites

I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature. Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." (Thomas Jefferson, February 10, 1814).

"What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not."

"Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." (James Madison, "A Memorial and Remonstrance", 1785).
These quotes, and the thousands of others like them, do not illustrate an abhorrence of religion on the part of the founders, but instead illustrate the incredible depth of understanding they possessed with regards to Jesus' true teachings. In other words, the founders were able to cut through the B.S. and get at the core of the matter. A separation of church and state was THE FUNDAMENTAL COMPONENT to ensuring a free republic. Losing sight of this all-important concept was to lose sight of freedom itself, to lose sight of Jesus himself.

And, thank God, the founders didn't lose sight of either.


bpabbott said...

Arguably Jesus' torture and crucifixion was a direct result of politicians pandering to the desires of the current religious elite.

If we are to believe Jesus dies for our sins, I'd think the sin of violating an individual's Rights of Conscience (i.e. religious liberty) would make the top 10.

Brad Hart said...

I couldn't agree more, Ben! That's a good angle that I never before considered.