“Jesus never told Caesar what to do” is the confusing new battle cry of some leaders among the Religious Right.
While there’s plenty of things my former tribe have said and done over the years that have left me scratching my head, nothing is more confusing to me than their use of this claim:
Saying “Jesus never told Caesar what to do” is a way of stating the correct claim that Jesus never told the formal government how to operate.
That’s entirely true, but for a few reasons not germane to this post. This point on Jesus and Caesar does get used in Christian circles from time to time, but it’s typically an argument that’s used by my fellow Anabaptists as a partial reason for why some Christians don’t believe in voting or participation in government at all. It could also be used to support an argument if one wanted to claim that we should refrain from imposing Christian values or principles on government entirely, but those are the only two possible uses for this term I can come up with.
But for a Religious Right leader to use this argument to support their position that some biblical principles need not apply to government because “Jesus didn’t tell Caesar what to do?” The premise itself is a living contradiction to the entire purpose of the Religious Right.
Day in and day out, the religious right tells us that our nation needs to turn to God—not just individually, but corporately. We are told that we need “Godly leaders” who will stand on “God’s word.” When choosing between two candidates, we’re always told to vote for whoever is committed to running the country on “biblical principles”.
In fact, even the entire past presidential election was based on this: the Religious Right’s number one selling point for Trump was convincing people he’d appoint conservative Christian judges who would steer the nation’s laws in a more “biblical” direction.
And those laws that Christians on the right think are unbiblical? They’ll not only condemn them all day long, but the Religious Right as a movement was established for the purpose of changing laws they find unbiblical.
First it was abortion. Then it was same sex marriage. Who knows the next issue they’ll rally around, but the undeniable truth is this: everyone knows the Religious Right is a movement that exists to change or establish laws in accordance with (what they think are) biblical principles.
Folks like Franklin Graham even traveled the country encouraging Christians to run for any elected position they could find, so that Christians could influence government and laws on every level possible.
Let’s put it this way: their entire purpose for existing is to tell Caesar what to do.
So why would someone like Jerry Falwell even use this term?
The key is in context: they use the term when it would come at a cost to them.
They’re fine with telling Caesar what to do when it comes to their favorite issues—because in these cases, what they’re really doing is telling other people what they can or can’t do.
But when it comes to biblical principles about caring for the poor, the sick, and the hungry?
Well all of a sudden when we get to that principle, they realize the same hand that points a finger all day long… now has four pointing right back at them.
And in that case?
Well, all of a sudden “Jesus never told Caesar what to do.”
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.