Before we get too far down the secularist road together, I think I should take the time to clarify the BIG IDEA that I hope will drive this blog for some time. It comes from what is probably one of the better known stories of the New Testament gospels. It seems there were some folks in the religious establishment that didn’t like Jesus very much, and they were always trying to get him to say something that might cause him to lose followers – or maybe even his head. One day they decided it would be a pretty nifty ploy to ask him what he thought about the very unpopular Roman tax Judeans were required to pay. If Jesus supported the tax, he’d have an angry mob to contend with, and would for sure lose most of his followers. If, on the other hand, he replied that those of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be required to pay it – his enemies would certainly be able to bring a case against him with the Roman authorities.
Mark 12:13-17 American Standard Version of the Bible tells it this way:
And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk. And when they were come, they say unto him, Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why make ye trial of me? bring me a denarius, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus said unto them, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled greatly at him
Now there have been a lot of attempts to make this say something it doesn’t, but I think it’s clear to even the casual reader that Jesus wasn’t interested in making any political statements. If your government requires you to do something, you should do it. If your god requires you to do something, you should do that as well. I suppose there might be times when these requirements might be at odds with one another – and I’ll be talking about those kind of situations at length – but it seems that Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem with paying taxes. (Funny that American conservatives – many of whom are fundamentalist believers – do.)
However, I think there’s more at work here than just a simple discourse about taxation – and this is where my BIG IDEA comes in. Jesus himself seems to be saying here that religion and civic duty are two different realms, and in a sense require different kinds of commitments. It is possible to be a good Christian and a good citizen at the same time – even if your government is not God-centered. We separate church and state so that everyone can enjoy the rights and liberties in common that are given us by our democratic from of government, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of whatever religion we choose.
It is my hope that Americans would begin to see this separation not as simply institutional, but at the personal level as well, to embrace the dichotomy, as it were. Unlike many secularist organizations, I ask no one to abandon their faith for the sake of democracy. I simply ask that they use their faith to guide them in their quest for God – but use the powers of reason, observation, and intelligence when they make decisions about our government. I believe a person can be a Christian and still vote for candidates that do not share their religious beliefs – but they vote for those candidates because they are capable of making decisions that are good for all Americans.
Perhaps George Holyoake, the British lecturer who coined the term ‘secularism’, said it best:
“Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”
Global climate change. Terrorism. Inequality. Poverty. These are problems that can perhaps be better solved by scientists, economists, and diplomats than by searching two-thousand-year-old texts. If I may re-phrase the words of Jesus – Americans should begin to give to their country the very best of their intelligence, reason, and rational thought, and continue to love their God with all of their hearts. If we can do this, the rest of the world will marvel greatly.