God, Caesar, and Dividing the Renderings Today

What if the people running institutions that presuppose a Supreme Being don’t presuppose Him?

The November issue of Commentary, a monthly magazine of conservative Jewish thought, features a great essay, “Psalms They Have, But They Know Not.” Rabbi Meir Soloveichik ponders American Biblical ignorance, especially among its “educated,” and its implications. The immediate impetus for his article was an incident last summer on the popular game show Jeopardy! The clue was “though I walk through the valley of death,” and the contestants were to identify its source. “Psalms” sufficed; nobody even asked for Psalm 23. The otherwise well-versed brainiacs, whose tempo on the program can be quite intense, all stood there mute, baffled by whence the verse came.

For Soloveichik it was telling that “The Lord is my shepherd” stumped people who might otherwise rattle off that adding cobalt thiocyanate to a solution in which cocaine is present will turn it blue. Of course! It tells us how far removed those to whom we might otherwise turn for “leadership” are from America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I bring up Soloveichik’s insight [a link to the article is here] not just because I share it but because I think it is quite applicable to last Sunday’s Gospel. We Christians talk about “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Many believers treat the phrase as a synonym for “separation of Church and state.”

My question is: does Caesar’s side do the same?

If Ken Jennings were to offer a Double Jeopardy clue citing the “rendering” verse, would we have a repeat of last summer? Why do I raise the question? Not because I don’t want dead air time on television. No. It’s because it might warn us about something deeper.

If our “educated” classes are ignorant of “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” should we perhaps not worry that these Little Caesars wouldn’t agree with that message?

By dividing the things of God and the things of Caesar, Jesus afforded a certain autonomy to created things. He recognized a legitimate sphere for the state and the temporal. In the context of His times, that was radical. At the same time, Jesus did not put God and Caesar on the same level. He did not make them co-equal partners divvying up “things.” There is nothing belonging to Caesar that was not first and remains God’s. Even Caesar is subject to God.

And that is something I am not sure today’s Caesars would acknowledge, must less accept. And, if they don’t, there’s real trouble there.

Jesus conceded some things were first Caesar’s, even if He didn’t specify what. Caesar’s was clearly the Roman tax coin, which had the Emperor’s image on it.

But man has God’s image on him. He’s made in the divine image and likeness (Gen 1:26-28). God has first dibs on him. But do today’s Caesars admit that?

In a world of “separation of church and state,” one that extols “liberal democracy” and often pretends that “freedom” presupposes the exorcism of religion from the public square, does the state claim, at least implicitly, its practical omnicompetence over the Church? Does the state acknowledge any God to whom it might have to “render” anything?

Does Caesar think he has to talk to anybody but himself? Does Caesar admit that God has claims? Or does he really think that those claims are those of believers whom they project onto God? Because it’s one thing to attempt to box with God with your otherwise too short arms. It’s another to “prefer” some citizens’ desiderata because they attribute them to God.

The cavalier application of state police power on display during the COVID shutdown augurs ill for the idea that Caesar might think he is measured by God. True “liberal democrats” would ask whether the state can even acknowledge there is a God with whom Caesar must reckon. And, if Caesar can feign ignorance in that regard, doesn’t God become just another “interest” whose claims within a competing constellation of interests Caesar must divvy up? Abortion clinics, liquor stores, and Nevada casinos were “essential services.” Church and synagogue worship, not so much.

We Christians act at our own peril if we assume that our country’s “educated” know much about Jesus’ teaching on rendering, much less would follow it. And, if that’s the case, why are we acting as if they do, as if they share our vision?

There’s a reason the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus repeatedly underscored that the first right enumerated in the Constitution is religion. “We are a religious people, and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” wrote no less a liberal than Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. But what if the people running such institutions that presuppose a Supreme Being don’t presuppose Him? What if they’ve never strolled “the valley of the shadow of death,” much less hoped for Someone with a comforting rod and staff to accompany them on the journey?

John Adams famously observed 225 years ago that “[o]ur Constitution was made for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Maybe. But if our Constitution is designed for people that share something we might call the Judeo-Christian vision broadly understood—and they don’t—what happens? What happens when our system of governance lacks a critical mass of people who share the vision of values that underlies it?

Do we believe that Adams was right? Or do we think it was just nice political rhetoric, and the Constitution can accommodate people of any or no axiological commitments? And what does that imply for those of us “moral and religious people” that would be governed under that Constitution by those who don’t share its “religious and moral” values?

I’ve written on both these subjects, here and here. The COVID shutdown was a preview of what a religiously agnostic and unrestrained Caesar might claim governance demands, resistance to which risks being labeled “insurrection.”

The Pharisees and Herodians instigated the “rendering” debate not because they wanted to settle qualms of taxpaying conscience but because they wanted to trap Jesus. Perhaps we Christians and Jews today need to reignite that debate, lest we be the ones snared by a Caesar who doesn’t recognize anybody he needs to share with.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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