What should be the relationship of church and state? The founder of the church, Jesus Christ, proclaimed that we should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s. The reason we could do both was because His “kingdom was not of this world.” We could be good citizens of the Roman Empire and good citizens of God’s kingdom at the same time. Many Jews in Jesus’ day wanted to rebel against Roman authority, but Jesus told his followers to pay their taxes to Rome.
Christ’s followers in the first few centuries of the church also got this perspective correctly. The Roman Empire demanded that everybody worship Caesar as God, or at least burn incense to him as a sign of loyalty to the state. Because the early Christians refused to do this, they were burned at the stake or thrown to the lions. Those on the left wanted to overthrow the state, and those on the right wanted Christians to worship the state, but Christ and his early church had the right perspective.
In Britain 300 years ago there were two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories. The Whigs emphasized personal freedom and the rights of man. The Tories emphasized tradition and divine right monarchy. Radical Whigs on the far left were mostly deists pushing to overturn the monarchy. At the other extreme were radical Tories, who demanded that everybody submit without question to the king, as a sign of their loyalty to the state. My doctoral dissertation was on this struggle between the two extremes, and of those who tried to get church and state in the right perspective. It was John Locke who had that correct perspective, reminding us of the need for personal liberty, freedom of conscience and religious toleration, yet also that we should fulfill our duty to the state, who held power by “the consent of the governed.” Locke encouraged an end to the reign of the tyrant James II, replacing it with that of William and Mary, who agreed to freedom of conscience in religious toleration and to a more limited government in the English Bill of Rights.
Our founding fathers also experienced this tension. On the left was Thomas Paine, a radical deist calling for radical change. On the right were the Tories demanding tradition and insisting that we should not rebel against the king and the established church. The founders proceeded cautiously, entreating the king to respect individual freedom, and rebelling only when it became obvious that there was no other way to end tyranny. They also insured that there would be no established church or official prayers.
Today America is again torn by the extremes of radical change and disbelief on the one hand and a closely entangled church-state relationship on the other. While one side wants rebellion (figuratively speaking) and a rejection of all things sacred, it sometimes seems the other wants to wed church and state again in a new Roman Empire or Tory divine-right monarchy. We should follow Christ, and “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s.” We should not allow Caesar to dominate the church, nor allow the church to dominate the state. We should respect personal freedoms, and serve the kingdom of God. While the Romans and the Tories wanted the church to submit to an emperor or king, let us follow the teachings of Christ and the founding fathers by maintaining a separation of church and state.