Redefining “Rendering Unto Caesar”: The Coalition of God and Mammon

 “Yes, Jesus loved children, but he also respected law. He said, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”—Pastor Robert Jeffries, explaining why Jesus would want to build a fence on the Southern border.

“Helping the poor and aiding the homeless and the helpless is indeed the duty of the church. But the duty of the government is to protect us—not provide for us. . . . Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. –Mike Huckabee’s Facebook post on border security

 

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Matthew 22:21. The phrase “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”—which Jesus initially used to distance himself rhetorically from the tax protesters of his day—is now the go-to prooftext for those who want to establish a Christian nation that is more or less devoid of Christian compassion.

The new definition of 'rendering unto Caesar' exempts government from  compassion while, at the same time, insisting on a Christian identity for the nation.
Michael Austin
The argument goes something like this: Jesus taught a lot of stuff about taking care of the poor and letting the children come unto him, but he was taking about the duties of the Church. He never meant that the government should do things like that. And he certainly didn’t mean that the government should collect taxes to help people. Because render unto Caesa
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The new definition of rendering unto Caesar exempts government from having compassion at the same time that it insists on a Christian identity for the nation. Jesus, the story goes, doesn’t want government to have anything to do with taking care of the poor, or healing the sick, or providing refuge to children. That’s for Christians to do on their own time.

This rigid separation between God and Caesar is absolute where social issues are concerned. It does not, however, extend to things like posting the Ten Commandments in public places or saying state-sponsored prayers or requiring schools to teach about dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. Both Jeffries and Huckabee are clear that America is a “Christian Nation,” after all. Caesar must render unto us.

This excruciatingly selective parsing of what it means to be a Christian nation is a relatively new thing in American political discourse. For much of our history, evangelical Christians were quite comfortable acting through the government to do things like help the poor and comfort the afflicted. The reforms of the Progressive Era were largely driven by America’s religious culture.

But then the coalitions shifted.

Governing a large nation has always required very different interests to bond together in coalitions that can attract enough votes to elect leaders and pass laws. In parliamentary systems, where governments are formed after elections, these coalitions tend to be visible and clearly demarcated.

In the American system, however, the coalitions are hidden inside of the two major parties. Labor unions and environmentalists—interest groups with very different agendas—must co-exist as Democrats. Since the 1970s or so, Christian conservatives—who do not have the numbers to win elections on their own—have entered into a coalition with business conservatives and right-libertarians that has been remarkably effective at winning elections.

The problem with invisible coalitions is that people start to see them as coherent ideologies—that, somehow, being a Christian values voter requires one to believe in low taxes, punitive immigration policies, and governments so small they can be drowned in a bathtub. Once we turn a coalition into an ideology, powerful cognitive forces will try to convince us to swallow the whole thing as part of our core identity.

And that’s how rendering unto Caesar can make one think it is perfectly natural to try to serve God and Mammon.