Saturday, November 01, 2008

God and Politics: Oh My !!!

Matthew 22:15-22

Cheryl and I recently attended the Troy Community Coalition’s annual Celebrity Dinner , and were seated next one of Troy’s City Council members. When one of our table companions realized that there was a politician and a preacher at the table, he said: “I guess we can’t talk about religion or politics tonight.”

As you know religion and politics are forbidden topics in polite company, but I love to talk about both of them. I don’t have a choice about the one – I’m a preacher after all – but I’ve been interested in politics for as long as I can remember. My childhood dream wasn’t to grow up a be a preacher, it was to grow up and be a politician. As you can see, I didn’t fulfill my dream of being a Congressman, but I still love politics.

Unless you’ve already voted, I expect that most of us will be going to the polls on Tuesday. The issues before us are many. There are ballot measures, local and state races, and of course there’s that historic presidential election. I must confess, that part of me wants to tell you how you should vote on Tuesday. But, don’t worry, I’m not going to do that, and it’s not just because the IRS might take away our tax exempt status. Still, even if it’s not the place of the church to tell you how to vote, shouldn’t our faith have some role in how we vote?


History suggests that it’s not a good idea to mix religion and politics. It’s bad for religion and it’s bad for politics. That’s why our nation’s founders were smart to put some boundaries between the two. First, they rejected religious tests for public office. And when they drew up the Bill of Rights, the very first amendment protected our right to freely exercise our religious faith. To make sure that this happened, they also rejected state establishment of religion. Over the years these boundaries have been tested, as candidates and political parties, on the one hand, and religious leaders and groups, on the other, have pushed the envelope. For the most part these efforts at merging church and state have failed, and even when they succeeded, they usually ended badly – damaging both church and state. I believe that faith has a place in the public square; the question is: what is the nature of that place?

As biblical people, we look to Scripture for guidance. But, when it comes to religion and politics, Scripture doesn’t always give clear and consistent answers. Part of the problem is that the contexts are very different. The Old Testament speaks of theocracy and monarchy, while Jesus and the early Christians always seemed to be getting in trouble with the law. Although Paul fared better than most, even his Roman citizenship didn’t keep him alive in the end.

Although we have to be careful in how we interpret and apply the biblical text to our own situation, both Jesus and Paul had interesting things to say about religion and politics. Most of us are probably familiar with Paul’s advice in Romans 13. He told his followers to obey the law and keep their heads down. Submit to the authorities, he wrote, because they come from God, and so if you resist them, you’re resisting God (Rom. 13:1ff). That sounds good in theory, but remember that Paul wasn’t talking about a democracy, he was talking about a totalitarian state. Besides, if you apply Romans 13 literally to American history, we could still be a British colony.


Jesus may have said that his kingdom is not of this world, but he also made some interesting political statements. In fact, he even had something to say about taxes, a topic that is central to the current presidential race. But when it comes to taxes, I don’t know that Jesus had to say is going to be very popular.

In our text this morning, some community leaders, both religious and political, come to Jesus and ask him if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. This was a tricky question to answer, because if Jesus said yes, he’d look like a Roman stooge. But, if he said no, he could be charged with treason. So, like a good politician, Jesus asked for a coin, pointed to it, and asked: “Whose image is on it?” They said, Caesar’s, and he answered: Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.

That may sound simple enough – Pay your taxes and pay your tithes! But was he saying something more? As we ponder this question, we may begin to see some important implications for how church and state should relate to each other. In many ways it would seem that he is keeping them separate. History has shown that Christians have often tried to merge the two, with disastrous consequences. Martin Luther and Henry VIII tried to resolve the tension between church and state, by putting the church under the state. Catholics of that era, liked it the other way around, but even they found it difficult to resist the power of the government. Martin Luther King, on the other hand, saw things a bit differently. He believed that people of faith were called to speak truth to power. Stirred by his faith he became a leader in the Civil Rights movement, and because of his leadership, which was rooted in his faith, he helped change America for the better.


I want to go back to what Jesus said to the religious and political leaders who came to test him. Remember what he said abut the coin – whose image is on it? The answer is Caesar’s. As we get ready to cast our votes on Tuesday, perhaps Jesus would invite us to pull out a dollar bill to see whose image is on it. I think you’ll find that George Washington’s face is on that bill.

Although the question is left unstated, when Jesus said that we should give to God, that which is God’s, he was asking about where the image of God could be found. I think it would be appropriate for us to remember on Tuesday, that humanity bears God’s image. Therefore, even though we may owe taxes to Caesar, we owe our lives to God. When it comes to ultimate loyalty, Caesar doesn’t rate, and as we’ve been learning in our study of Acts, when human authority conflicts with God’s, we must obey God.

Of course, it’s not always easy to know where to draw the line. We may not all agree as to when and where God and Caesar are in conflict. Because we live in a pluralistic society, we can’t impose our religiously inspired views on everybody else – but our thoughts and actions should be guided by our faith.

How then should we approach this election as followers of Jesus? It is my belief that we must start by recognizing that if our first loyalty is to God, then we must first of all be loyal to those who bear God’s image. That means that our first loyalty is to humanity, and only then to family, tribe, and nation. I’m proud to be an American; I’m even wearing a patriotic tie this morning. But, my first loyalty isn’t to the nation, but to all of God’s creation. If this is true, then what should we do on Tuesday? Here is my answer, though I must borrow from Paul and say: I don’t have a firm word from God, but here is my opinion!

1) Go vote on November 4th. Neither Jesus nor Paul had a choice in their governing authorities, but we do! I know that not everybody agrees with me on this, but it’s my personal belief (and again, I don’t have any word from God on this), that if you don’t vote – don’t complain!

2) Vote Your conscience, informed by your faith. Again, I know that we don’t all agree on how we should vote on the candidates or the issues. Although I’ve made my choice, I can’t tell you how you should vote. Neither can I, nor should I, bar someone from serving in this church or taking communion because they vote differently from me. Therefore, this is my suggestion – as you decide how to vote, remember the second great commandment: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Then, as you vote, consider your neighbor’s welfare, and also remember that Jesus had a very broad definition of the neighbor. You might even go further, and remember that Jesus said: Love your enemies and do good to those who despise you. As we’re pondering the meaning of these statements, we should ask: how do these statements of Jesus speak to the issues of today, whether they be stem cells, war, health care, jobs, bail outs, immigration, and taxes, just to name a few? I don’t know how Jesus would vote, but as I vote, I can take into consideration his teachings and the way he lived.

3) Put loyalty to God above loyalty to the nation. God isn't an American, and so even if God does bless our nation, then shouldn’t we be good stewards of those blessings and use them to benefit all of God’s creation.

4) Recognize the prophetic nature of the Christian faith. When the church gets too cozy with the governing authorities – whether they’re Republican or Democrat, Conservative or liberal – we lose our ability to speak prophetically. In ancient Israel, there were two kinds of prophets. Those that worked for the government and those that didn’t. Usually it was the independent prophet who spoke for God.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote on Tuesday. I’m not even going to tell you, at least not from the pulpit, how I’m going to vote on Tuesday. But when I go to the polls, I will go as a Christian living in an increasingly pluralistic America. I will try to vote my conscience, hopefully guided by the commandment to love my neighbor. And, I will also remember the distinction that Jesus made between God and Caesar.

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
November 2, 2008

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