The Christian Amendment

Donald E. Brown July/August 2008
Run up the flag and tune up the band! The problems of our nation are about to be solved. Three Congressmen have intro_duced a bill into the ninetieth Congress that will, if adopted, commit this nation to "de_voutly" recognize "the au_thority and the law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are be_stowed the blessings of Almighty God"! According to them, this Christian Amendment will (1) reduce the menace of a virile and militant Com_munism to naught; (2) shore up the sagging mo_rality of society as evi_denced in sexual immo_rality, unchastity, dishonesty in both private and public life; and (3) restore this nation to its place of moral leadership in the world.

All worthy objectives, I concede, but will the so-called Christian Amendment—offered perpetually to the Congress—really achieve them? I think not. Its backers reveal an extraordinarily naive and simplistic view of society, and a gross misunderstanding of the nature of man. Morality and law are not the same. If declaring a nation to be Christian could solve the evils and problems of society, Europe would be enjoying a spiritual utopia today, for the experiment was tried there. The church was established by law and sup_ported by the machinery and authority of the state. To all the previous problems, establishment added only another—how to disestablish the church! Alliance be_tween church and state has increased, rather than solved, the mutual problems.

Actually, the issue posed by the Christian Amend_ment is much more serious than a misleading view of society and of the nature of man. The real issue is the loss of faith in, and gross misunderstanding of, the democratic form of government and the meaning of religious liberty. The same issue is involved in the persistent efforts to obtain public funds for parochial chools—whether by direct appropriation or by indirect benefits, subsidies, and services. Let us not be misled. The attempt to secure public funds for parochial schools and the push for the so-called Christian Amendment alike are the frontal attacks on the constitutional provision for separation of church and state.

During the Civil War the United States had to face up to the meaning of its heritage of freedom. Lincoln rightly interpreted the Civil War as the crucial test of the democratic ideal. In the Gettysburg Address he stated that the struggle between the States was being waged to determine whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could exist in this world. That struggle is still going on, and in the great gains being made in the field of civil rights, we are witnessing the mopping-up opera_tions of a battle begun more than a century ago.

Today, however, liberty is endangered by other forces and interests. This nation was conceived also in religious liberty. It was founded on separation of church and state, on the conviction that it was neither wise nor proper for the Congress to legislate for God. That principle is under attack—not by atheistic Com_munists, or by noncommittal and cynical secularists, but by some within the Christian community, Protes_tant and Catholic alike. Religious liberty is under at_tack not from its avowed enemies but from its friends. That which was so dearly purchased, and so proudly held, is in danger of being thrown away—unless we understand both our democratic form of government and the meaning of religious liberty.

Jesus talked a great deal about the relation of a Christian to God, the relation of a Christian to his fellow man, and the relation of a Christian to his Christ, but He said very little about the relationship of a Christian to the state. Religious liberty, as we understand it, was unknown in New Testament times, although the Romans granted a certain freedom of worship to their subjects, including the Jews. So long as a subject people's religion did not endanger the stability of the state or disturb the people, the Roman government kept hands off. The tolerance was mutual with the Jews. So long as the government, or Caesar, did not interfere with their religious duties and loyalties, they could live under Rome. But let Caesar claim for himself the glory and authority belonging to God, and the Jew resisted to the death.

Such was the background of the question asked of Jesus, "Is it lawful to give tribute [pay taxes] to Caesar?" (See Matt. 22:15-22.) However, as Matthew observes, the question was not asked to seek light and truth upon a sometimes difficult and always perplexing relationship. It was asked to trap Jesus, to trick Him into saying something that could be used against Him. The question illustrates how the truth could and can be used, not to enlighten but to ensnare. If Jesus answered, "Do not pay the tax!" His enemies could charge treason. If He said, "Pay the tax!" then they could say, "This man acknowledges another as King of Israel. This is blasphemy." But Jesus answered, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (verse 21).

Few sayings of Jesus have been more tragically misunderstood. Jesus did not say, as some have claimed, that there is a sharp line of division between secular and sacred. He did not say, "This part of a man's life belongs to Caesar. God has nothing to do with that. God has to do only with 'spiritual' things." "Dummelow, for instance, says that Christ here sympathized with imperialism, with a 'great and beneficent empire,' so that 'submission and loyalty to civil power is a duty binding on the conscience.'"1 Not so. Every work of His hands, every word of His mouth pointed to the sovereign fact of God and to the sovereignty of God over all His works. True, Caesar must have his due, but always within the framework of obedience to God. Caesar, or government, has a just claim on part of a man's life. Jesus readily acknowledged that. But one wishes for elaboration of the rest of His answer, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

What "things"? Some things do belong to Caesar, and Caesar must have his due—that much and no more, for beyond that is idolatry. But Caesar's tendency is to claim more of man's life than is his due, not less. The history of totalitarian states, both ancient and modern, shows that Caesar's appetite for loyalty, homage, praise, and obedience is insatiable. Frederick William I of Prussia expressed it perfectly when he said, "Salvation is of God. Everything else is my affair." It is not likely that He who said "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness" would agree with that.

Jesus did not delineate a program of relationships between Caesar and God or church and state. He did not lay down a step-by-step guide, a clear-cut "how to do it," but He did lay down what must be done. "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

What belongs to God? Everything belongs to God—even Caesars and commissars, prime ministers and presidents. All hold their power under God whether acknowledged by law or not. If there is any guidance in these words it is simply that Caesar must make no claim on a man's life, or on his mind, which will keep him from freely rendering unto God the things that are God's.

Here is the seed of a doctrine of religious liberty. Although growth was slow and ultimate fruition is yet to come in much of the world, by the 1700s our Founding Fathers were firmly convinced that religious freedom is the mother of all freedom. They had seen the devastation wrought by wars of religion in the Old World where the state freely legislated for God. In fact, it was to escape the inequities and injustices of an unholy alliance between church and state that many fled to the shores of America. When they began to consider the shape and form of a more perfect union, they explicitly and carefully laid down the principle "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion." To claim, as some now say, that from the first our nation was a Christian nation, is to miss the point. It was never intended that this nation should "devoutly recognize the authority and law of Jesus Christ." It was, however, intended that men should be absolutely free to pursue the truth according to the lights of their own conscience. It was intended that the powers of government should never be used to enforce, or persuade, or coerce, or define a response of faith from any citizen.

In 1614, Leonard Busher, an English Baptist, published a pamphlet pleading that king and Parliament revoke "and repeal those anti-Christian, Romish and cruel laws that force all in our land, both prince and people, to receive that religion wherein the king or queen were born or that which is established by the law of man." 2 The Founding Fathers of these United States had heard those heartfelt pleas and were de_termined that such a plea would never be necessary in this nation. Further, religious lib_erty with separation of church and state is a safeguard against a false and easy sense of security. The prophets were well aware of the dangers of ritualism in religion. They did everything they could to eliminate misleading ritual from the worship of God. Ritual has its values but it also has its dangers. Slogans, prayers, Bible reading in schools, and rituals can easily convey the idea that the per_formance of certain required religious acts actually makes a nation religious. God re_quires more than this. He requires the obedi_ence of a willing heart and the sacrifices of a broken and contrite spirit. These cannot be legislated; they can be only the offering of free men, gladly and joyfully responding to the free gift of God.

Peace demonstrators taunt Illinois National Guardsmen outside the Conrad Hilton, the Democratic Convention headquarters hotel, August 29, 1968. Earlier, police and the demonstrators
engaged in a violent clash in which hundreds
were injured. (AP Photo/stf)

Religious liberty maintains a healthy skep_ticism regarding the infallibility of men and institutions. So does democracy—for the gen_ius of the democratic form of government is that it is responsive to the changing needs and desires of the governed. This means that all governmental solutions to human problems are tentative, and therefore subject to change. The same is true of institutions of religion. Thomas Hooker, back in the 1600s, made it clear that there must always be an element of humility and tentativeness among those who take their Christian faith seriously. "We doubt not," he wrote, "what we practice, but it's beyond all doubt that all men are liars, and we are in the number of these poor feeble men; either we do or may err, though we do not know it; what we have learned we do profess, and profess still to live that we may learn." Religious liberty keeps the doors open to new truth about the nature of man and his life with his neighbor.

The old principles that inspired the consti_tutional safeguard of separation of church and state are valid still. As Jack Mendelssohn put it some years ago, "Let us render unto God the things that are God's. But let us not try to use Him as a masthead for our Constitu_tion, a banner for our patriotism, or a pillar of fire for our foreign policy. American democracy is worthy of a more profound re_spect for the universe and for the human race than that."

Donald E. Brown, was pastor at the First Baptist Church, Green Bay, Wisconsin.
This article originally appeared in Liberty, vol. 63, no. 3, pp. 20-22. May/June 1968.

1 The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1951), vol. 7, p. 518.
2 Henry Cook, What Baptists Stand For (London: The Carey Kingsgate Press, fourth ed., 1961), pp. 204, 205.

Article Author: Donald E. Brown