If you render unto God what is God’s, what is left for Caesar?

William T. Cavanaugh; The Review of Politics 71 (2009), 607-619.

The following is used as research for a paper concerned with the Christian role in the Politics and the public square.

This piece is Cavanaugh’s response to a critique on his work, formed by Rowe (see previous blog post). Reading the two is largely encouraging, as it promotes a healthy debate, where people’s values can be called into question, and be put on the line, without being personally attacked, and instead, be approached with courteous reasoning. Both authors realise it is important to have contesting dialogue, in order to shape the others worldview, and to delve into a deeper understanding, that has underpinnings of true mutual respect.

Cavanaugh’s Audience
I must clarify my audience from the outset. I am a Christian theologian, and I write in the first instance for other Christians. My principal concern is to help Christians to be realistic about what the can expect from the powers and principalities of the present day, especially the nation-state and the market, and to urge Christians not to invest the entirety of their social and political presence in these institutions. My goal as a Christian theologian is to help the church be more faithful to God in Jesus Christ. In the present day, I think that faithfulness means taking a hard look at political and economic structures many Christians take for granted… I am not in the business of setting further models for a new global order. I tend to think such global models are inherently problematic.

A true pluralism…consists in each community being more, not less, faithful to its own traditions. p 607.

Binary Categories: religion/politics, spiritual/temporal
The state is a modern idea; as are the binary categories of religion/politics and spiritual/temporal. Neither Jesus nor the writers of Scriptue would have had any conception of the state as we know it, nor would they have dreamed that God;s concerns could be condoned off into a distinct spiritual or religious category of life.

I am not against the separation of church and state; I think it is an advance from the church’s point of view to rid it of access to coercive power. I am, however, opposed to the separation of religion from politics, if that means the privatisation and marginalisation of the church’s public witness. p 608.

Loyalty to nation and state replaced loyalty to the church in the early modern period.p 609. –> extensive work… by Robert Bellah and others on civil religion makes clear that, from a Christian point of view, the replacement of the church by the nation-state is not a phenomenon of the early modern-era alone. p 610.

Idolising the State
To maintain social coherence in a liberal social order, and to get people to be willing to kill and die for a bureaucratic service provider, the liberal nation-state must provide a sense of transcendent meaning, a civil religion of freedom or love of country.
The kind of utopian eschatology that Rowe suggests, following Fukuyama and others, in which liberalism is just about to vanquish war for good is an important element in this kind of civil religion.
From a Christian theological point of view, such civil religion is a temptation to idolatry. Liberal eschatology is a substitute for the real thing… if you’re going to have a utopian eschatology, you might as well have a real one, a Christian theological one, that is. The problem with the modern nation-state is that it often offers an ersatz version, theology without God. p612-13.

I am interested in a more radical pluralism… From a Christian point of view, I think that resisting modern idolatries requires something more robust than the confinement of the church to one more lobbying group within the nation-state. When facing economic crisis, for example, the church can act more creatively, in concert with other non-state actors, to support economic practices that escape the dominance of the state-supported corporate paradigm. p 615.

Even where I discuss the action of the hierarchy, such as in the denunciation of the Iraq War, I do not think the solution is simply for the pope and bishops to tell us what to do and for the laity to obey. I look instead to the laity, especially those in military, to say “This war is unjust and I am going to sit this one out”.

I am increasingly concerned as I see some vocal Catholic Bishops become involved in electoral politics in the United States, often giving de facto support to the Republican party based on some (usually empty) Republican promise to push the legislative agenda of the bishops. Not only is such involvement often counterproductive… but the bishops’ involvement is often based the mentality that sees state enforcement as the only solution to any given cultural problem. (Yen’s emphasis)

As my critique of the state should make plain, I am opposed to any nostalgia of Constantinianism. I believe that a Christian should feel politically homeless and refuse to regard the choice between voting for Democrats and voting for Republicans as the summit of our social witness. I favour instead the formation of real communities of witness.

The Temporal
I do not think it is sufficient to reduce the social gathering of the church to a spiritual gathering.

The spiritual/temporal binary as a spatial distinction is also problematic. Before modernity, the temporal was a time, not a space, the interval between the first and second comings of Christ, when coercive civil authority was temporarily necessary to stave off chaos. The temporal did not indicate some realm of merely mundane concerns, such as business and government, that were fundamentally separate from spiritual concerns, or the things that pertain to God.

What would Jesus have thought belongs to God? Pslam 24 begins, “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.” If this is so, what is left for Caesar? It is quite unlikely that Jesus had in mind the modern separation of spiritual and temporal, and a tidy division of labor between God and Caesar.

The modern nation-state is not Caesar, but the problem of idolatry has not disappeared. What should Christians render unto the civil powers of our day? Many kinds of ad hoc cooperation with civil government are possible and necessary. My work is meant as a reminder to Christians nonetheless, that before we are Americans, Britons, and so on, we are followers of Jesus Christ. p 619.


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