Friday, June 8, 2012

Render Unto Ceasar: Was Jesus a Secularist?

by Nomad

Jesus, the founder of the Christian Church, never precisely stated his opinions on mixing religion with government. However, one passage from the New Testament supports the theory that when it came to religious affairs and government, Jesus thought they were separate things altogether.

Christians are familiar- or they ought to be familiar- with this story from the life of Jesus, in which, he outsmarts a shifty lawyer. 
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.
“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
That’s probably a familiar passage even to people who are not all that devoted to the Christian faith. Besides showing that Jesus could argue as well as any lawyer of his time, or that his audience was not merely gullible village folk- it also demonstrates something else. Jesus himself believed that the realm of the government and the realm of religion were not to be intermixed. 

In his time, the powers of Caesar was not merely the head of government but, as a emperor of the known world, he was the government. His obscure whims required absolute obedience. 
Judea was little more than an occupied colony of Rome and dissent- even in its mildest form- was not tolerated. It was a case of "you are either with us or against us."

And it went further than that. Roman Emperor Augustus, the stepfather of Tiberius (whose profile most likely appeared on that denarius) had been posthumously proclaimed a god by the Roman Senate. (Tiberius was not so honored.) For a Roman, he was both government and to some extent, a cult to be worshiped. The Jews were unimpressed.

In this light, Jesus’ words take on a slightly different meaning. It was not religion encroaching upon the auspices of government but the imperial government attempting to supplant the Jewish religion. 
If Jesus had believed that religion and government should be united, he might easily have said something like, “There is only one kingdom- the Kingdom of God, The power of all governments come from God and He ordains that authority. Therefore, paying a tax is not prohibited to a righteous person. Every individual must answer to God’s authority. Even Caesar himself. If a human heart carries God’ love and mercy, then only good can come from that authority.” 
Okay, I ad-libbed quite a bit but such an answer would have probably cleared him of any charge of sedition just as easily as his "render unto.." reply. He safely could have said this, so why didn't he? 

The fact that he did not declare that view and instead divided religion and government is compelling evidence that the man upon whose name Christianity was based was in fact, a secularist.

St. Paul and Submission to Authority
Interestingly the former "Governments-are-God's power-manifest" position- the one that Jesus did not preach- was promoted by Saint Paul: the former  Romanized Jewish bounty hunter of Christians who had “jumped the fence” after having a auditory hallucination. As a disciple who had never actually met Jesus, Saul-turned Paul wrote to the Romans something quite different than what Jesus taught; Paul stated that governments must be obeyed since all earthly power comes from God. It is, therefore, a sacrilege to defy any government, no matter how unjust they may be.

Around the late winter or early spring of A. D. 57, in his Epistle to the Roman Christians, the Apostle Paul writes:
Let every person be submissive to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except [that which is given] by God and those who are appointed by God. Consequently the one who resists authority, opposes the institution of God, and those who do so will receive judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a fear to good work, but to evil [work] Do you want to not fear the authority? Do good and you will have praise from it.
Furthermore, the passage continues with:
Wherefore it is necessary to submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of conscience.
For this reason you pay taxes, for [those in authority] are God's servants who persist in this very thing. Give back to all people what is owed; taxes to whom taxes are due; revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due and honor to whom honor is due.
Obviously, this passage presents a host of problems for modern day evangelists, at least, those who contend that every passage of the Bible must be taken literally.
For example, if one holds to Paul’s edict, then objections to President Obama- or any president- are forms of disrespect to God’s servants. Moreover, Paul's command seriously undermines the democratic forms of governance, since what Paul is really saying is better known as "the divine right of kings." 

Pauline thought forms the basis for the Catholic papacy but it certainly runs counter to all liberal democracies. For example, the founding fathers of the United States rejected the Pauline view in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident,....That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
That kind of do-your-own thing philosophy would have made Saint Paul frown, I am sure. 

On the other hand, if one follows Jesus’ teaching on giving to Caesar, then there can be no question of separation of Church and State. He seems very clear about paying your civic obligations so any Tea Party member who demands tax cuts would seem to be walking on thin ice. 

Given the level of corruption of the Roman administration and the Jewish hostility to Roman rule, no Jew- not even Jesus- would have dared to tell his audience in Jerusalem that governments were ordained by God and to obey them or risk the wrath of God. 

The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us about Pilate sneaking the standards (emblems of Roman power) into the holy places and causing an uproar in the local community.The leaders went to the Roman administrator of the Judea and pleaded with him to respect their ancient customs, but he refused and even sent armed guards to mix with the crowd. 

At a prearranged signal, the guards were to commence to slaughter the crowds. However, the Jews did something quite unexpected and offered their throats to be cut because to die would have been more acceptable than to disobey the laws of their faith. (That kind of thing impresses tyrants and Pilate backed down.)

The idea that Jesus would have approved of mixing the sordid business of government and all its corruption and abuses of power with the divine purity of his ancient faith is quite unlikely. For a Jew, it would have been heresy to mix the civic with the sacred, the human temporal rule with the divine and eternal.

A Kingdom Not of This World
In another passage from the New Testament, we find further support of the secularism of the Christ. According to the testimony of the Apostle John, Pilate asked the incarcerated Jesus whether it is was true that he had claimed to be the king of the Jews.
"Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: But now my Kingdom is not from here.
There is another story that may shed some light on Jesus’ opinion of earthly power. It depends on your interpretation. 

After his baptism, Jesus isolated himself, fasting in the desert. According to the story from the Book of Matthew, he was visited three times by a pesky devil that tempted him.
..the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
While Christians can be proud that their founder passed this test, the fact that Jesus was offered all the kingdoms of the world- yet rejected them in favor of God’s kingdom- suggests that he held the civic authorities of the world in pretty low esteem. Had he desired to rule - even as a partner- those kingdoms on Earth, the story would make little sense and would never have been included.

Distinct From Each Other
Perhaps surprisingly, up until recently, most Biblical scholars would have agreed with the view that Jesus believed that religion and governments were distinct entities.

Elder Gilbert Beebe, a prominent Middletown, New York journalist, editor of the journal, Signs of the Times, and an Old School Baptist preacher back on 
We may well conclude, that if in that most trying hour, when His holy soul was pressed within Him, He had nothing to ask of the rulers of this world, there never could a period arrive when the powers of earthly princes should be required to defend Him or His cause.
To those who tempted Him with their questions concerning tribute money, He said, Render unto Caesar the things which belong to Caesar, and unto God the things which belong to God; thus clearly intimating that the governments were not only distinct from each other, but that the distinction should be perpetual; and that the requisitions of Caesar, or of the governments of the nations, had to do with men as citizens of the world, and that their obligation to earthly magistrates and rulers was not relaxed nor abolished by the administration of His laws. And again, that the things of God were not to be rendered to Caesar, but unto God...
Things of a civil nature, relating to the natural rights of men, were to be settled by God's own providential appointment, by human legislation; but the things aside from a respect for and obedience to earthly potentates, in natural matters, belonging to God, such as matters of faith, of conscience, of religion, were not things over which the kings of the earth had any supervision or power, and things in which His subjects were not at liberty under any circumstances, to submit to the dictation or legislation of any other than God Himself.
Beebe seemed quite clear how he interpreted Jesus’ response to Pilate:
The destiny of the kingdom of which we write, differs essentially from that of all other kingdoms. The best systems of human government are destined to crumble to the ground. In the providence of God, empires are founded, kingdoms and republics are raised up, they reach their climax, and then decline, and finally cease to be reckoned among the things that be; but the kingdom of Jesus is an everlasting kingdom, and a dominion that shall never end. It shall never be changed, superseded, or transferred to other hands.
Of course this is only one pastor's interpretation. However, this is the form of Christianity that our great-grandparents believed in and not the power-worshiping - essentially un-Christian- cult of the modern-day evangelists.

Placing the Puzzle Pieces Together
Writer Francis Fukuyama, author of "The End of History," reasoned that  secularism is a prime factor in permitting a nation to develop into a democracy. Without maintaining a wall between the Church and the State, the growth of a democracy is permanently stunted.
Like nationalism, there is no inherent conflict between religion and liberal democracy except at the point where religion ceases to be tolerant or egalitarian.... A great majority of today's democracies have Christian religious heritages... In some ways, then religion would appear to be not an obstacle but a spur to democracy.
However, there's an important caveat to that statement.
But religion per se did not create societies: Christianity in a certain sense had to abolish itself through secularization of it goals before liberalism could emerge.
He also credits a rejection of the Pauline demand for submission, namely in the form of the Protestant revolt.
The generally-accepted agent for this secularization in the West was Protestantism. By making religion a private matter between the Christian and his God, Protestantism eliminated the need for a separate class of priest, and religious intervention into politics more generally.
He points out that the key is secularization, whatever the religion. In the case of Christianity, that means the rejection the ideas of Paul in favor of the ideas of Jesus. 
Historically speaking, the development of secularism- as a principle in governance- is the chief reason for the modern age, the growth of science, the  proliferation of democracies as well as the end of the Dark Ages. In a word, everything we call the "modern age."
That America should have led the way in the secularization of the world should be a source of pride for all of its citizens. Instead, at its birthplace, secularism is under attack. 

The Phony Scholarship of David Barton
All of this discussion of religion - while interesting in its way- would normally be relegated to Bible school or theological discussion group were it not for the fact that the concept of separation of Church and State, secularism, has lately been under threat by the Far Right of the Republican Party and a collection of  Christian Right-wing groups. 

Assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State Rob Boston explains:
Despite its proven track record of success, separation of church and state is increasingly becoming just another target for the Religious Right's smear campaign strategists. In the past few years, an entire cottage industry has sprung up in Religious Right circles that seeks to "prove" that mainstream history is all wrong. The United States was really founded to be a fundamentalist Christian nation. Separation of church and state was never intended; it was, these far-right activists allege, foisted on the country by the Supreme Court in recent times.

The Religious Right's leading practitioner of this type of historical revisionism is David Barton, who runs an outfit called WallBuilders out of Aledo, Texas.

Barton makes a lucrative living traveling the right wing's lecture circuit where he offers up a cut-and-paste version of U.S. history liberally sprinkled with gross distortions and, in some cases, outright factual errors. Crowds of fundamentalist Christians from coast to coast can't get enough of it.
David Barton
Of course, the former co-chair of the Republican Party of TexasDavid Barton has friends in high places. As part of the Republican courtship of the evagelists Barton was hired by the RNC as a political consultant and by November 2004, for U.S. presidential election, 2004, had traveled the country and spoken "at about 300 RNC-sponsored lunches for local evangelical pastors.

Barton's brand of revisionist history has come under intense criticism and his penchant for using unverified or out of context quotes from the founding fathers are used to support his idea that Constitution calls for the United States to be a Christian nation.

There’s one major problem with Barton’s claim.

If the founding fathers had had any great desire to incorporate religion into the structure of the new government, there is little evidence of it. All elements of theocracy were noticeably absent in the Constitution and any intelligent impartial observer would take that to mean there was no taste for a Church of America- similar to the Church of England. 

And, given the predominance of Christians at that time, it would have been easy enough for them to have done so, had they been inclined. There also could have easily been created an official position to oversee the religious affairs and this is the strongest argument of all that the founding fathers had no interest in commingling religion and government.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the American Experiment was to be based firmly in the Age of Reason and Rationality, not of Churches and Kings. Thomas Paine, whose writings were crucial to the decision to throw off the British yoke, wrote extensively about his distaste - not for the philosophy of Jesus - for the mythology of Christianity. (Teddy Roosevelt called incorrectly called Paine, “a filthy atheist,” which proves Theodore had never actually read Paine's writing.)

Around the same time, in 1797, as Paine was scribbling his Age of Reason in a French prison, the US Senate was unanimously ratifying the Tripoli Treaty. It stated:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
Surely if any religion were to form the foundation for the government, it would have been Christianity and yet, as this document makes clear, there was not one vote against the treaty. Not one. 

President and architect of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson was certainly a man of an enlightened age in most respects, wrote a famous letter to Danbury Baptists in 1802 which underlined the notion that government and religion should be put in opposite corners. In it he states:
(R)eligion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions...
For his part, President James Madison wrote:
"practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States."
Barton is free to say whatever he wishes but his opinions are not facts and are not supported by rational thought nor the historical record. If he wishes, he is also free to ignore the evidence that Jesus himself did not think highly of combining his divinely-inspired faith with the rapacity and cruelty of empire. 

So long as he makes no attempt to foist his beliefs on anybody else, Barton is free to believe whatever he wants because in a secular society like the United States of America, it is his right.