“Church and State”

Mt. 22

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

One topic to provoke argument among Americans is the relationship of religion and government. Our tradition in this country is supposedly to keep them separate. In reality, though, religious groups and secular authorities often bump up against each other! And when they do, even Christians disagree among themselves about which side should win.

The problem isn’t a new one. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked to weigh in on the question of the separation of temple and state.

At that time, in the first century A.D., Israel was occupied by Roman armies. As a result, Hebrew religious and political life was controlled by the troops of the Roman Emperor and his political stooges.

Many Jews deeply resented this intrusion. They wanted to avoid collaborating in any way with Rome. For them, radically separating religion and politics would signal their rebellion against Roman oppression.

And yet, they found it hard to avoid showing some allegiance to Caesar. The very coins they used to buy their food had the image of the Emperor stamped on them! If the Jews wanted to participate in the economic life of their country, they were forced to pay a kind of tribute to Rome.

Now using a coin with someone’s face on it doesn’t mean that you are in some way committed to that person. In reality, only the most scrupulously religious Jews seemed to be bothered by Roman money.

But Jesus used the example to make a larger point. He was asked by some religious leaders who were jealous of his popularity, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Jesus replied, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius—which is like our penny.

Jesus then asked the leaders, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The traditional King James translation of this text is more familiar: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” This translation pointedly suggests that there are two separate realms: sacred and secular. And because the realms of God and of Caesar are different, the power of each must be acknowledged.

Sometimes, however, the two allegiances conflict. In Christ’s own life, he found that his particular teaching about the sacred was perceived as a threat to the state. Eventually, it proved so alarming that the Romans put him to death.

Thus, while the matters of God and the matters of the emperor might seem to operate on separate planes, they often wind up clashing.

Even so, I think there is still a case to be made for keeping religion and government as separate as possible. Since religious groups themselves disagree profoundly on such issues, any intervention the government makes is likely to prove controversial.

On the other hand, there are some occasions when religious people can support laws that regulate us.

Here are two examples, one that favors religious freedom, the other that limits rights. The first example is taxation. Churches in the United States are largely exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. This gives them freedom to practice their religion without the Internal Revenue Service interfering in their finances.

But with this freedom comes responsibility. Churches should be scrupulously honest about their finances in order to merit their tax exemption—and they should use any resources they have for the good of larger society as well as for their own members.

So, for example, the Twelve Step groups that meet in Incarnation are open to all regardless of their religious beliefs. The food we collect in the Parish House is distributed to seniors who need it, whatever their faith.

And we should be grateful for this freedom from government intervention, it’s not granted to churches in many other countries. In England, for example, while religious groups enjoy some exemptions from taxes, they must now regularly prove to the authorities that they are fulfilling “a charitable purpose;” otherwise, they will be taxed like profit-making enterprises.

Our camp and conference facility in Connecticut, Incarnation Center, offers space to local organizations and makes donations to local fire departments as well as offering daycare for the children of neighboring working families—all in order to show our gratitude for the tax exempt status that we depend on in order to survive. Even atheists might see the value to society of churches remaining tax exempt.

The second example, however, shows one area in which the government rightly intervenes in church life: our ministries to children. In New York State, for example, clergy are obliged to report to the police any evidence of child abuse.

This duty is so strict that this is the one sin that is not subject to legal protection even if it is admitted within the context of sacramental confession. If a child molester confesses an act of abuse to me, I can give him absolution—but I also must report his actions to the police.

Especially given past problems of clergy misbehavior of which we are all aware, I believe this is a proper intervention of the state in church life. Both church and state are better off because of it.

But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Christ’s saying is that our duty to God colors how we see our duties to the state. In the current political climate, for example, this perspective may lead us to allow that some expansions of government authority may actually serve the higher purpose of God’s Kingdom.

During the 19th Century, for instance, Christians in Britain were outspoken proponents of government intervention to stop the slave trade. Slavery might never have been abolished if state hadn’t listened to church. On the other hand, Christians will be supremely aware that the government can’t solve all problems.

I realize that this view sounds like a compromise. Activists on both left and right will be unsatisfied. Sometimes a politically powerful church seems desirable—as when poor people are especially oppressed. But sometimes the church becomes too powerful—popes in the Middle Ages were corrupted by their right to crown kings.

So, the truth lies uncomfortably in the middle. We all have to make decisions as individuals about what policies we should support. We have to decide what we render to Caesar and what we render to God.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


Leave a Reply