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Holy Mess (5): Church & State

. 10 min read

Christ Church, Mountain Top
to Worship, Psalm 2
Daniel 3
Matthew 22.15-22
Naylor, the main character in both the movie and book Thank You for Smoking, is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco. (I have
neither read the book nor seen the movie.) There is a scene between Nick and his
son Joe as Joe is trying to learn what the father does. Dad, Nick, says that “I
am never wrong; if your job is to be right, then you are never wrong”, and they
set up a simple debate to demonstrate. Ice cream – chocolate or vanilla? Nick
says that this is an argument you can’t win. You love chocolate? It is the “be
all and end all” for you? Great. “I need more than chocolate, and for that matter
I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom and choice when it
comes to our ice cream and that, that is the definition of liberty.” “But you
didn’t prove that vanilla is the best. You didn’t convince me.” “But I proved
that you are wrong and if you are wrong, then I’m right. And I’m not after you,
I’m after them.”
is called “rejecting the premise of the question”, a technique that every
successful lobbyist, politician, and commentator masters. And a technique that
is pretty helpful to parents as well. In the adversarial situations of life,
the “gotcha” element is in the premise of a question.
      “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor
or not?” (Matthew 22.17). That’s a loaded question! Yes? Then you legalize the
occupation of our country. No? Then you identify yourself publically as a
rebel. It is a loaded question because of the premise, which is that this is
indeed an either-or situation. Either you support a totalitarian regime that is
occupying and oppressing your people OR you support resistance and rebellion.
      Jesus rejects the premise of the question.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (22.21). So the
question is no longer about paying taxes but about giving what is due. The
question is no longer either-or but now both-and. The question is no longer
about occupation but about obligation. “When they heard this, they were amazed;
and they left him and went away” (22.22).

the church and state conversation, there’s a ton of fear and anxiety. “They”,
that is, the secularists, “have taken prayer out of school. We are a Christian
nation. What will they take next?” “They”, that is, the Christians, “are trying
to dominate the rest of us with their singular view of reality.” These are
power conversations, power narratives – like whether or not to pay taxes to the
emperor – and it is time to reject the premise of the question. Why reject the
premise? First of all, because the conversation as currently constructed gets
us nowhere fast. Second, because the premise of the question is quite simply
      In addition to rejecting the premise, it
is time to pull an Abraham Lincoln. In one of his political campaigns in
Illinois, he and his opponent traveled together for a series of speeches.
They’d take turns going first or second, give their stump speeches, press the
flesh, eat meals, and head on to the next town. Lincoln memorized his
opponent’s speech and, when it was his turn to go first, he gave his opponent’s
speech, leaving him quite literally speech-less (Goodwin … page unknown). Doing
a little speech-stealing can take an argument to a new and unexpected level.
What would it do to the conversation in our culture for Christians to say to
secularists: “Did you know that the separation of church and state was Jesus’ idea?”
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
take a look at some of the premises that underlie the Christian-secularist
conversation and, by extension, the church and state debate today.
That the faith of our founding fathers is
important to the identity of our faith and nation.
Both Christians and
atheists can marshal a pile of quotes and anecdotes to suggest that our
founding fathers agree with them. To a limited degree, both are right and both
are wrong.
      Our nation was founded on largely
Christian ideals, though not all our founders were Christians, and not all the
ideals were Christian. For example, Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian but a
Deist. In a presidential campaign, Jefferson was labeled a “howling Atheist”
(Edwards). He liked the Bible but disagreed with large sections of it. So, he
literally cut and pasted together his own personal edition of the New
Testament. And, a second example: the idea that the “pursuit of happiness” is a
good thing and a divinely given right is not exactly biblical. Happiness isn’t
bad in itself, it’s just that the Scriptures call us to pursue holiness and
godliness with contentment, which is entirely different from pursuing
      Arguing over the faith of our founders takes
us nowhere. The founders are the founders for the whole nation, no matter our
religion or rejection of religion. And, for us to identify too easily and
uncritically with the values of our founders (who, by the way, did not allow
women to vote and counted slaves as 3/5 of a person) makes it impossible for us
to “give to God what is God’s”, including providing a prophetic voice that
speaks up for the values of God’s kingdom.
That the future of faith and secularism in
our nation is to be found in Europe.
Many of today’s Christians fear that
we in the USA are heading down a “slippery slope” toward “post-Christian”
secular Europe. Indeed, over and over people talk about a post-Christian West
in general and recent surveys of religious affiliation in the USA indicate that
the fastest growing group is the “nones”, that is, persons with no religious
affiliation at all.
      However, there are a couple huge reasons
why our story does not and cannot parallel Europe’s. First, in Europe there are
still establishment churches, churches that are funded by taxes. A big reason
that the church became irrelevant in Europe is because there was no separation
of church and state, so the church spoke for the state rather than raising its
voice on behalf of the kingdom of God. Yes, there is religious freedom in
Europe, ironically set alongside establishment religion. And non-establishment
churches, including The United Methodist Church, are reaching people that the
establishment churches cannot.
      The second reason why our story will not
parallel Europe’s is that secularism in Europe has a different historical root
(Sanneh, 9). Secularism in the USA actually has its roots in the mostly
Christian ideals of our founders, the gospel text of giving to Caesar and
giving to God, and the value of individual freedom of choice in regard to
faith. In western Europe, however, secularism developed from atheistic
philosophers of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In the east,
secularism developed from the atheism of Marxism. Despite the hard secularism
of Europe, the church of Jesus Christ there is finding her voice again and
making new disciples for Jesus.
      A third thing we must keep in mind is that
much of what we see as decreasing religious affiliation is a product of life
cycles of churches and movements. Grandma loved Jesus with all her heart. Her
kids go to church because that is just what you do. Her grandkids see mom and
dad “going through the motions” and stop coming but they still believe. (Mom
and dad are upset, because they don’t think of themselves as “going through the
motions”.) The great grandkids figure that believing in something you don’t
practice doesn’t make much sense so they not only don’t come to church, they
just don’t believe. Without a fresh witness and renewed mission in every
generation, this normal life cycle process moves forward and a once thriving
congregation or denomination suddenly finds itself closed.
      Instead of worrying about our future, we
need to reclaim our mission and love Jesus with all our heart, soul, mind, and
That the church needs the power, or at
least the tacit support or permission, of the state in order to flourish. That
the church seeks power.
While there are certainly Christians, on both the
cultural left and the cultural right, who do seek power on behalf of their
vision of the church, this premise is no more accurate than any other.
      Exhibit A: The establishment churches in
Europe, which are in steep decline.
      Exhibit B: The church in Africa in the
first three centuries. Tertullian, an ancient theologian of North Africa,
declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Martyrs, by
definition, have lost all political power, including life itself. They
understood that sometimes giving to God what is God’s means that we stand
powerless before the state. Remember the story we told with the children.
Daniel’s three friends refused to bow down to the king’s statue. “Our God is
able to deliver us, and he will deliver us. But if not, we will not serve your
gods and we will not worship the golden statue” (Daniel 3.17-18; there are
translation variants for v17). “But if not.” That is, they were willing to die
faithful. If we think we’ve got it bad, in terms of persecution or pressure as
Christians in the USA, really, we’ve got nothing. The letter to the Hebrews
states, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews
      Exhibit C: The church in Africa over the
last 100 years. Back in 1910, Muslims outnumbered Christians in Africa 4:1 and
John R. Mott, one of the great mission leaders of his generation, predicted
that Africa would be taken over by Islam (Sanneh, 14). Now, Christians
outnumber Muslims in Africa, even with the Arab nations in the north (CSGC) and
will soon be over 50% of the population of Africa (Sanneh, CSGC). The huge
acceleration of church growth has taken most folks by surprise. And, it
happened after the end of European colonialism, without the support of the
colonial governments, and often without the presence of western missionaries.
      Exhibit D: Jesus, always Jesus: “The kings
of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called
benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become
like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. … I am among you as one
who serves” (Luke 22.25-26).
That the church’s claim that Jesus is the
unique Savior supports an intolerant and exclusive practice.
fears that Christianity desires to convert everyone and make them all the same,
and there are certainly Christian persons who approach their mission in that
      However, consider the historical evidence,
particularly that of Bible translation. The Christian Scriptures are the most
widely translated book, and it is still
the Bible, no matter the language.
The Qur’an, however, is only the Qur’an
in Arabic, and your five-times-a-day prayers are to be made in Arabic, whether
or not you speak the language.
      In Africa, Islam has grown among peoples
whose native cultures were destroyed by colonialism, actually benefitting from
the process of globalization. Christianity, however, has grown among adherents
of traditional religions because Christian missionaries translated the
Scriptures into their languages, used their names for God, and allowed their
culture and traditions to be preserved instead of lost to globalization.
      Lamin Sanneh, a church historian and
theologian from Gambia, suggests that this translatable genius of the Christian
faith undermines one of secularism’s key arguments, that a “tolerant world”
must abandon “Christian exclusivism” (16, see 14-21, 36, 111). He takes it a
step further, noting ironically that “a blanket secular inclusivism turned out
to have exclusivist religious holes” (17).
That public and state-supported faith
symbols and practices support the spiritual formation of disciples of Jesus.

Many Christians react as if secularization is taking something from us, whether
it is the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or prayer in schools. But no one can
stop anyone else from praying! We treat these matters as if they have a huge
impact on spiritual formation, but, quite simply, they don’t. So we spend all
our time arguing over symbols that have no impact. The Constitutional issues
aside, none of these public symbols are going to make me a better follower of
Jesus or help me teach my children to follow Jesus. Caesar’s kingdom and Jesus’
kingdom are not the same.
That religion is a private matter. This
is one of the core convictions of secularism. Religion is private, and not to
impact the state in any way, as the state is a public entity. Religious faith
is intensely personal, but it is not at all private. It is lived out in a
public arena, whether the arena of the martyrs or the arena of the work place,
school, and community. Too often, however, followers of Jesus have accepted
this premise. This is to miss the power of what Jesus said to the Herodians:
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Jesus’ remark did
not divide life into public and private; it divided the world into two
kingdoms, the kingdoms of this world (Caesar) and the kingdom of God. There was
never a question of which King was the most important and there was never a question
whether kingdom language is political, public language. While it is not easy in
complex issues to stand clearly for the kingdom of God, that is our call.
Give to Caesar:
      Vote. (Jerusalem for the first Palestinian
      Pray for our leaders. (Changes our hate
speech and mud-slinging.)
      Serve your community – library, school,
sports orgs, Scouts!
Give to God:
      Worship and pray.
      Witness – Daniel’s three friends
      Teach the next generation – without fear
(which only drives them away, see Looper)
      Prophetic voice, not simply as an “issue
voter” but in the great tradition of the prophets reject the premise and steal
the speech, totally changing the nature of our conversation and debate.
Sanneh. 2003. Whose Religion Is
Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns.
Kearns Goodwin. A Team of Rivals.
for the Study of Global Christianity, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. June
2013. Christianity in its Global Context,
Available online at
Looper. 20 Jan 2015. “Fear from the Pulpit”, Parse website from Leadership Journal. Available at
      by Spencer Lum, read 2015-0207

      by Owen Edwards, Jan 2012