Reuniting church and state


'Church and State' by Chris JohnstonThere is a biblical story in which Jesus responds to a challenge about 'paying taxes', put to him by parties who wanted him to side with one of the political factions of the day, with the dictum 'Give to God the things due to God and to Caesar the things due to Caesar'.

His answer caused consternation then, and through most history since then. The passage has been used to legitimate the separation of church and state, and a kind of differentiation of responsibilities that usually, of late, leaves church and religious voices marginalised.

The Lutheran doctrine of the 'two kingdoms' was used by Hitler's Germany to silence the critical voice of churches who felt bound by this theology to leave the state to govern. Today, politicians who dislike criticism argue that churches and religions should stick to 'spiritual matters'.

Is such a position legitimated by this passage? I argue no.

We live in a time when religious voices have returned with greater strength to the arenas of civil discourse. Far from receding to the margins, groups once quiescent are lobbying and voicing critique alongside those like Catholics who have maintained a sustained voice. Questions are raised, for example, about gambling, and the dependence of 'Caesar' on the avails of gambling.

I am waiting for a sustained cry from the Christian community about the outrage of a nation more concerned about one teenage lawbreaker in a foreign jail than about its own incarceration of thousands of men, women and children in detention centres.

In a very real sense these critical voices are part of what religious groups are called upon to 'render to Caesar'. In holding 'Caesar' to a moral standard the Christian communities render to Caesar the things due to Caesar and seek to make the world a better place, usually.

Holding in accountability the many 'Caesars' of the world — governments, corporate executives, officials, and judges — is part of ensuring that civil society works.

But there is another side to this coin of accountability. One of the roles of 'Caesar' may be to hold the church accountable. One of the duties owed to 'Caesar' by the church is to be accountable for what it does to civil society, social cohesion and the wellbeing of the larger community to which the church is one contributor. The society and the church are interdependent.

Churches might reply that 'we are accountable only to God'. Indeed some bishops seem to behave like the last of the divine right monarchs. This is reminiscent of corporate executives claiming to be accountable only to stockholders, or to 'the market', seemingly placing the actions of the person and corporation beyond critique. It is an easy 'out' that does not bear close consideration.

The injunction to render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar requires the church to be accountable. There was much denial of accountability in the demands made by churches that they be exempt from anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of freedom of religion and belief.

Australia channels an enormous proportion of its tax dollars through faith-based organisations. It therefore has a deep interest in ensuring that the services these funds are supposed to provide to all Australians who need them, actually are made available to all Australians.

However, some of these faith based organisations seek and are given exemption from the law in order to discriminate in the provision of social, health and educational services to Australians.

Then there is the effect of church teaching on society.

Consider the example of interfaith relations. Catholics have a well established, theologically grounded policy in this area, and have worked to help Catholics develop positive orientations to those of other religious groups. Anglicans have not been proactive in the same way.

The result of this became evident in the report from the recent Scanlon Foundation-supported Monash University research into Australian Social Cohesion. In 2011, 22.8 per cent of Catholics versus 34.1 per cent of Anglicans reported holding negative attitudes toward Muslims. This compared to a national figure of 25.5 per cent.

Theologies and church teaching are not without effect. Negative teaching about groups in a society reduce social cohesion and effectively marginalise groups.

Some Christians seem quick to critique other religious groups for the social impact of their teachings. Are these groups likewise prepared to be held accountable by their own society for the impact of their teaching that marginalises, demonises or dehumanises others?

Giving to God what is due to God and to Caesar what is due to Caesar raises a complex network of accountabilities. It does not separate the church from society, nor does it give either the church or the state a zone of non-interference where either may do as it sees fit, free from accountability.


Gary BoumaGary Bouma is author of Being Faithful in Diversity: Religions and Social Policy in Multi-faith Societies.

Topic tags: Gary Bouma, Church and state, gambling, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Australians have a very poor grasp of the real issues of church and state through history. In Byzantium the church, led by the Patriarch, held a position superior to that of the Emperor and anyway, the actual head of the Empire was Jesus Christ. We do not live in a theocracy and if we did the Australians most likely to dispute the claims of that state would be those religious people excluded or discriminated against by the majority rule.

If you lived in Copenhagen at the time of Soren Kierkegaard (early 19th century) you were only a Dane if you were a member of the Danish Lutheran Church, where you had been baptised. Now that’s what I call a serious church-state issue. A nation is necessarily made up of people, a large proportion of whom are religious and attend their own temple. The religion of that state cannot but influence the thinking and decision-making of that state. This is why church-state disputes in Australia so often founder or disappear, because underlying views that bind us together are based in Christianity, even if the argument is run by people who haven’t entered a temple for years and couldn’t tell you the meaning of the expression ‘Render unto Caesar’ or where it came from. A good example of a binding view is the social and legal rejection of ‘an eye for an eye’.

Our self-aware Prime Minister does acknowledge the value of her Baptist upbringing, which actually tells me more about why she is Prime Minister than her celebrated atheism. During the pulling down of Peter Hollingworth many good Australians intoned ‘Church and state, we can’t have that!’, unaware that one of New Zealand’s greatest Governors had been an Anglican bishop. Behind this attack was not some high-minded concern about church and state but a buried anti-clericalism and anti-religious sentiment that is an animating force, when prodded, of these good people. But anti-Pharisaism is not the same thing, at all, as the meaning of ‘Render unto Caesar’.

Desiderius Erasmus | 24 October 2011

Thanks for your article. I agree the church and state must be in dialogue and critique each other. I think and believe this because I interpret the passage from Matthews Gospel from the perspective that 'every thing is God's'; as the creator, redeemer and sustainer. Nothing can escape the recreative and Just nature of God including the political process. Christians are subsequently called to be involved as the stewards of all that God has given us.
ben Webb | 24 October 2011

If Gary Bouma thinks the shrillness of the evangelical Christians who are directing government policy today are worthy of a privileged place within the community, directing the values, morals and behaviour of every Australian, then he is welcome to live in their ghastly world, but I have had enough of the lies deceit and, frankly, outmoded thinking of the Australian Christian Lobby and their various friends, like Rudd, Gillard and Abbott.

You really do not need to be a Christian to object to the over-supplied gambling industry, or to be appalled at the weakness of state governments in mining the fools and saps who gamble.

But wait! Roman Catholics love gambling, why no comment from Bouma on that?

Unless we want to live in a theocracy, there is no room, none at all, for any government funding or support for religions.

We do not need to have two nations within the geographical borders of Australia, one the nation-state of Australia, the other a fictional nation-state for Jesus.

The rising tide of religiosity in Australia is not coming from Bouma's old style outdated Anglican church but from a virulent form of evangelical Christianity happy to burn witches and decidedly anti-science and anti 21st century.
Janice Wallace | 24 October 2011

The Divine Law given to us by God and found in the repository of the one, true Catholic church, founded by our Lord, Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter is above all man-made laws and man-made religions. No civic law should be made that goes against the Laws of God, such as abortion, contrception, IVF, euthanasia, the breaking down of traditional marriage, immodesty and pornography.

"That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error. Based, as it is, on the principle that the State must not recognize any religious cult, it is in the first place guilty of a great injustice to God; for the Creator of man is also the Founder of human societies, and preserves their existence as He preserves our own. We owe Him, therefore, not only a private cult, but a public and social worship to honor Him. Besides, this thesis is an obvious negation of the supernatural order.

It limits the action of the State to the pursuit of public prosperity during this life only, which is but the proximate object of political societies; and it occupies itself in no fashion (on the plea that this is foreign to it) with their ultimate object which is man's eternal happiness after this short life shall have run its course.

But as the present order of things is temporary and subordinated to the conquest of man's supreme and absolute welfare, it follows that the civil power must not only place no obstacle in the way of this conquest, but must aid us in effecting it." (Pope Saint Pius X, Vehementer Nos, February 11, 1906.)

Trent | 24 October 2011

Good stuff, Gary - but the point is not separation of church and state. This really does matter, as anyone who suffered at the hands of the established Church of England knows ... Perhaps Anglican ignorance of our intolerant, non-inclusive past lies behind the sad measure of anti-Muslim feeling?

Separation of church and society is quite a different thing - and your article makes a very helpful contribution here. Holding Christian leaders accountable to society is quite different to silencing their voices.

Re 'faith-based' welfare, however, I think the Australian 'state' has gone too far in insisting on trying to separate 'faith' from 'welfare' - this encourages hypocritical accounting (and publicity). Why can't we do as the yanks do in this area?
Charles Sherlock | 24 October 2011

Desiderius -

Jesus Christ as head of the Empire - oh puleez!

Did the churches fail to criticize Hitler and the Nazis, or did they to one degree or another approve of the Nazis, and even cooperate with them? Particularly in the case of the Catholic Croats who sided with and fought for the Nazis - in horrifyingly brutal ways.

This reference provides a different perspective on the churches attitude towards the Nazis.

Of course everyone's action are inevitably compromised in a wall to wall totalitarian state, wherein the consequences for any kind of active dissent were torture and death.

John | 24 October 2011

Dear John, the past is another country. When I explain that the Byzantines saw Jesus Christ as head of the Empire, that’s because they lived in a theocratic world in which Jesus Christ was the ruler of the universe. In such a position, it is not surprising he was also head of the Empire. A good place to start is Averil Cameron’s excellent recent book, ‘The Byzantines’. It is quite mistaken to jump to the conclusion that I therefore actually support Byzantium’s hierarchical picture of the heavenly and temporal realms. There are theocentric states in the modern world that could serve as examples of what I am talking about, too. History also helps with your question. Did the churches fail to criticize Hitler and the Nazis, or did they to one degree or another approve of the Nazis, and even cooperate with them? Well, if you read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany, the answer is not only did Christians actively act against Hitler, they paid the price for taking on Imperial Caesar. Bonhoeffer himself ‘died by the sword’, as the saying goes. The past is another country. When confronted with a genocidal megalomaniac, most people under threat, Jews and Christians included, will act to protect their own. Selective reference to the Catholic Croats who sided with and fought for the Nazis does not in any way represent the general response of Christians to the horrifying brutality of the Nazis. Walk carefully, speak thoughtfully. Another good place to start in this area are the Diaries of Etty Hillesum, where the reader learns that individuals in some circumstances can do more than whole churches.
Desiderius Erasmus | 24 October 2011

Excellent article. It happens to hit the spot regarding a personal dilemma I am in at present, though that's hardly to Gary's credit. The comments on the whole point up how necessary clear thinking is about this.
Jim Jones | 24 October 2011

Gary Bouma talks about the great benefits of religions (meaning only Christianity) and the state working together for the benefit of all. This Age story is precisely why there is no room for tolerating religion delieverd by religionists in public schools:
Harry Wilson | 24 October 2011

Thanks - good article. I wonder if there was a real sting in the tail of Jesus remarkable reply which goes unnoticed. Is it possible that when Jesus asks about the 'image' on the coin, he is making a broad hint or play on words with deep implications, that we all have the image of God on us as of the creation story - even Caesar, therefore even Caesar belongs to God as he (the state) has God's image on him / it? Over the years I have lost my Septuagint, but if the Greek holds up, the implications are rather interesting !!
Brian :Polkinghorne | 24 October 2011

The headline says 'Reuniting church and state' whereas the article is really about re-engaging church and state. The former is what Trent is talking about, and most people, including most religious people, would oppose that. The latter is simply recognising the right and responsibility of any group to enter into constructive and accountable discourse on the role of the state in ordering society and the way we live with each other, and that is something with which I suggest few would disagree. But if religious groups want to be taken seriously in this sort of discourse, then they have to stop citing divine revelation and dogma as the opinion they express and the arguments that they put. For example, whatever the merits or otherwise of gay marriage, citing scripture to non-believers is not constructive discourse.
Ginger Meggs | 25 October 2011

Thank you for this piece. I would make this observation on the Lutheran Church's relations with the Nazi regime. While the Lutherans of the Confessing Church, Niemoller, Barth, Sasse, Bonhoeffer et alii would have nothing to do with Nazism this was certainly not the case with the official Lutheran Church. Indeed, the body required its clerical members to take a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler. "I swear that I will be faithful and obedient to Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich.... so help me God". The Lutheran Bishop of Thuringia offered his own version: "...all the Pastors of the Thuringian Evangelical Church... have with joyful hearts taken an oath of loyalty to Fuhrer and Reich...One God - one obedience in the faith. Hail, my Fuhrer!" Elements of the Catholic Church in France were not backward in supporting the disgraceful collaborationist, anti-Semitic Goverment of Petain's Vichy. There were a few courageous prelates (such as Pierre Gerlier of Lyon, Saliege of Toulouse, Theas of Montauban) but the record of the Church in many countries throughout the Nazi/Fascist era is not one that demands respect.
John Nicholson | 25 October 2011

"The Lutheran doctrine of the 'two kingdoms' was used by Hitler's Germany to silence the critical voice of churches who felt bound by this theology to leave the state to govern. Today, politicians who dislike criticism argue that churches and religions should stick to 'spiritual matters'." I don't think it was only the Lutherans who looked the other way about the treatment of Jews, though.
Penelope | 26 October 2011

We are called to be the leaven in the mix, the salt in the brew. We are called to transform not replace the world. We lose our effectiveness when we get too close to power. We can be seduced and bought by it. Witness the mainstream Anglican and Roman Catholic churches over the centuries. The lesson to be learned is that Christians are marginal people called to serve the marginal. That is what our Saviour did.
graham patison | 27 October 2011

Thanks Gary - and also Charles Sherlock for the distinction between state and society. I once spoke at an atheists conference on keeping God out of government (one of two Christians on a panel). We both said we couldn't see much evidence of God's work inside government. The discussion was difficult because of the totally different perspectives.
Leigh Mackay | 28 October 2011

Thanks Gary.

We're having enough trouble with our States as they are, what with the myth of the "Rational Market". Until and unless the Churches make clear that God is an artefact of pre-Enlightenment superstition, it might be better if we keep Church and State separate; let's not compound the trouble we're in.
David Arthur | 29 October 2011

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