Almost 2,000 years ago, when Jesus answered the Pharisees’ trick question about paying taxes with his classic retort “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21), his questioners, we are told, marveled and then withdrew. For a moment he had ended a debate.
But Jesus’ momentary victory did not settle the question of the relation of religion and politics, or of church and state. Instead it set in motion an argument that has continued across centuries, civilizations, and continents. The argument has had its dramatic and eventful moments. One thinks of Constantine’s declaring Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312, and of the same emperor’s settling church doctrine at Nicea in 325. Centuries later, the balance of power shifted when Pope Gregory VII brought the Emperor Henry IV to his knees in the snow at Canossa, Italy, in 1077. Later still, the balance shifted again as England’s King Henry VIII took the Church of England away from Pope Clement VII, shutting down the monasteries (1536) and setting England on what would become, under his daughter Elizabeth I, an Anglican trajectory.
In these and other controversies, secular and religious leaders attempted to settle the relationship between church and state, between God’s reign and human kingdoms. Sooner or later, each settlement came undone as power shifted and as history unfolded.
While leaders have struggled to get the relationship right, thousands of lives have been lost as armies sought to enforce one solution or another. It turned out that people could not agree for long on an answer to Jesus’ questions. What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God? The answers were not universally self-evident or permanent.
Yearly Battles over Separation
Two millennia later, we still wrestle with Jesus’ questions. Notwithstanding the attempts of America’s founders to separate church and state permanently, we continue to struggle. Thomas Jefferson thought he had built a “wall of separation” between church and state with our Constitution. James Madison, his fellow Virginian, was more correct when he spoke of a thin “line of separation” that he tried to protect with the First Amendment to the Constitution. Over time it has become apparent that the line can be incredibly thin, and that it moves.
America may not have emperors kneeling in the snow or kings shutting down monasteries. But it does have its yearly battles over crèches in public places or the Ten Commandments in courtrooms. We struggle over issues such as religious apparel in the workplace, tax exemptions, and whether government money can be used to support students who major in religion at secular institutions of higher education. A major debate began when President Bush began his faith-based initiative to move government money (i.e., taxes) to religiously based institutions that wished to provide much-needed social services.
Mixing Patriotism and Religion
Just how difficult it is to draw the line of separation is evident when we look at the mixture of patriotic and religious responses in the wake of 9/11. To seek to separate, to ask, as some did, whether President Bush should have spoken words of public policy from the National Cathedral, can be risky. Just how difficult it is to distinguish matters of church from those of state can be seen in a congregation’s debate over whether to keep its American flag in the worship space. More than one clergy leader has lost a job over trying to draw the line by moving the flag.
So long as humans exercise power, we will be struggling to get the relationship right between religion and politics, church and state. On one hand, it seems unfortunate that we cannot get this issue settled. On the other hand, the struggle forces us to think anew whether human purposes equate with God’s. Jesus’ message and the message of the Christian tradition tell us that those purposes are often not the same. Our best human intentions are always self-serving in some way and have consequences we cannot foresee. So we will draw and redraw the line of separation, always seeking God’s purposes, and always missing—at least in part. But each time we draw the line, we can glimpse the importance of the difference between God’s ways and our own, and of the necessity to keep pursuing Jesus’ questions.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.