One of Jesus Christ’s memorable comebacks was to a mixed group of Herodians and Pharisees, who, with the intent to “entangle” or to “ensnare” (ASV), asked him a question.
They approached Christ, greased his ears with flattery, and then asked him if it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar.
Jesus called their bluff, and then asked to see a coin. The produced a denarius, a small silver coin. He then asked him who’s image was on coin.
They replied, Caesar’s.
Christ rebutted, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15-21).
Like the skulking Pharisees who “marveled and left him,” Christians should step back and ponder the relationship of Christ and Caesar, or church and state.
And Presidents’ Day is a perfect opportunity to do that.
Looking back on Christ’s response, it should be noted that like the Two Great Commandments, this answer is a two-part answer.
The first is rending unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
So what Caesar’s? And what does this really mean?
Caesar, of course, is a figurative expression (synecdoche) for the whole aspect of government and civic life and responsibilities. This is more than voting and paying taxes, as local leader religious leader Elder Neal A. Maxwell noted in his 1993 Provo Freedom Festival address. He explained, “Patriotism requires public perspiration as well as an educated public who can see ‘beyond the years.’”
His call, then, is to take “public spiritedness” to the next level. This would include contacting our elected officials—all of them and not just the federal ones—on matters that are dear to us. It would include attending party caucuses and voting in the primary elections. Money is helpful, and so is volunteering. That is the perspiration part.
Then there is the education aspect. Again, this is more than being a news junkie. It involves devotional reading of the founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and also state constitutions. The Federalist Papers are an invaluable asset in understanding the framer’s original intent and meaning of the Constitution.
Then there are the people—the Founding Fathers of the country. Studying the lives of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison breath a spark of life into the familiar monetary portraitures. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is a must-read for anyone wanting to improve themselves, with the letters of John and Abigail Adams are important windows into the domestic life of the heroes.
So much for Caesar. Now to Christ.
And understanding the relationship between Christ and Caesar is crucial for life in Utah. Unlike most states, the religious life of Utah overpowers the colossus of Caesar. Everything in Utah revolves around the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: history, values, informal/private sector power loci, liquor laws—everything.
This, of course, creates a problem for other religions. The Latter-day Saint Church has good relations with the Catholics in the state. But there is conflict with many local Protestant congregations.
And the divide is not just an internecine civil war among Christian denominations. There is the secular humanists and unattached freethinkers inserted into the mix. They think both sides of the religious debate are silly.
And there is a softer form of religion: spirituality. This is more vague, without ordinances and orders, and involves mostly an attitude and lifestyle choice.
But this rag-tag grouping, by virtue of not being members of the Church of Jesus Christ, can feel excluded, marginalized or even ostracized from the Latter-day Saint “inner circle.”
This in turn, can generate a cold-war type of backlash. Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained:
“No attacks on the Church will be more bitter or more persistent than those made in the Salt Lake Valley. No taunts will be more shrill than those of apostates and excommunicants. In that valley and in the state of Utah, Church members will be accused of the ‘crime’ of being a majority!” (Wherefore, Ye Must Press Forward, 80)
Then keep in mind that all of these conflicting factions are made up people who are citizens, and have the right as citizens to be involved in the public discourse and public office.
Then there is a fourth consideration: the First Amendment. Specifically, the Establishment Clause, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The idea behind the First Amendment was to prevent a state church (as in England), and using the IRS or exchequer to collect tithes (which happens in Denmark and Finland). Also, there was a prohibition on religious tests, as outlined in Article VI, paragraph 3.
But certainly it was not to empower government to silence or squelch public expressions of faith.
A side issue is the chilling effect has on religious discourse, which Elder Dallin H. Oaks has been discussing. This is an example of the Genetic Fallacy, where we discard an idea based solely on its source. Discarding an idea solely because it comes from the Bible is as mindless as discarding an idea because it came from a blonde woman.
And this gets back to Maxwell’s comment about the crime of being the majority. Robert Kirby has an essay on the Five Kinds of Non-Mormons. He mentions the odd irritation that some non-Mormons have about Utah—that a state founded and populated by Mormons should reflect Mormons values.
And Kirby hit the nail on the head.