Acton Commentary

Render unto Caesar: Revisiting Partisan Christianity


Last November, a group of clergy and religious leaders formed the Clergy Leadership Network , a nonprofit group explicitly aimed at thwarting the policies of the Bush administration. While the CLN’s nonprofit status prevents it from being formally tied to the Democratic Party, it seeks to be a counterforce to the “religious right.” The new group claims to be the voice of the silent majority of moderate Christians, according to Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, executive director of CLN. “The religious voice has been too much turned over to conservative voices and we feel that most of America lies somewhere in the center,” she said. “The radical right has taken over the religious microphone.”

The network alleges that this dominance of the media by the “radical right” explains the so-called “religious gap.” An oft-cited poll by the Pew Research Center (appearing at the same time that CLN was announcing its formation) shows that regular attendees of church services tend to vote Republican over Democrat at a nearly 2-to-1 clip. While the CLN’s leadership attributes this gap to the dominance of religious conservative leaders in the public eye, the results of the poll immediately call into question the claims that the organization is speaking for an ignored majority of the religious landscape.

Such a gap in party inclination among people of faith does raise questions about the Republican Party’s dominance. It also raises questions about the extent to which Christians ought to be loyal to particular political parties. Very clearly, there are certain litmus issues for many religious folk, such as abortion and “gay marriage,” which make the Republican party the only conscionable option. Something similar is true for Christians who see the Democrats’ explicit concern for the poor and working people as a compelling reason to vote along party lines. With all this in mind, Christians need to recognize that neither party - Democrat or Republican — is an explicitly Christian organization, no matter how much accord with Christian principles they may show on particular issues.

Christians of all political inclinations should be able to agree with the CLN’s conclusions about the importance of faith in public life. As the group says: “religious faith provides the lens through which public life is viewed and consequently engaged. Faith will not allow us to be bystanders.” The difficulty arises when God’s will is simply and easily equated with the platform of a particular party. The express partisanship of the Clergy Leadership Network undermines the inherent complexities involved in Christian political affiliation.

Whatever their particular political leanings, Christians must beware not to become beholden to an ideology which supersedes the ultimate claims of Christian loyalty. This wariness is exemplified in the apostolic confession, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29 NIV). When the claims of secular authority, as they so often do, seek to become the ultimate objects of human activity, Christians are called to consistently reorient themselves to God, the object of their ultimate allegiance.

The church is witness to this higher reality. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg writes, “This means ipso facto, by the very existence of the church and in the living of its liturgical life, a challenging of the claims of every political and judicial order, whether monarchical, oligarchical, or democratic, to embody the form of social life that is ultimately in keeping with human destiny.” To this end, individual Christians, and to an even greater extent Christian institutions, should not identify so closely with any secular agenda that they lose their autonomy and abdicate their prophetic responsibility. An extreme and frightening example of such abdication is the German state church’s complicity in Hitler’s grab for power in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Just as a Christian’s pledge of allegiance to any particular nation-state must be “under God,” so too our political allegiances must be subservient to our allegiance to God. This is what Jesus demands of us when he says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).