As is well-known, in a debate over the payment of taxes, Jesus asserted that we are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
George Weigel called this “a revolutionary text” [“The Christian Citizen and Democracy” in Robert Royal, ed., Reinventing the American People: Unity and Diversity Today]. With them, Weigel writes, “Jesus gives Caesar his due.” Neither Jesus nor the early church envisioned societies without government.
Even more significantly, however, Jesus made it clear that Caesar was not God, even though the Roman imperial ideology claimed that Caesar was divine. Nearly all governments try to wrap themselves in the mantle of religious legitimation, and Jesus’ words challenge his followers in every time and place to see that no earthly power is ultimate. No earthly government is worthy of the kind of loyalty we owe only to the one true God.
Every earthly government is, like all things human, flawed. For that reason, there are times when we must raise our voices in prophetic protest against our nation. Our nation stumbles and falls short of its own promise and, even more, as Paul says in Romans, “sins and falls short of the glory of God.” It is a denial of both honesty and of genuine patriotism to be silent in the face of injustice.
No nation is perfect, not even our own. A recognition of imperfection need not blind us to the good. The best in the American tradition—“liberty and justice for all”—is worth celebrating, and the United States numbers among its citizens people of remarkable commitment to freedom and compassion.
But, a recognition of imperfection saves us from the dangerous illusion that everything is good. Our nation, like all others, is comprised of, and led by, human beings; and no human being, or human collective, is immune to error, arrogance, greed, and corruption. That’s why I resonate to the stanza in “America the Beautiful” that includes a prayer for national reformation:
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
I often recall the words of Lincoln, who said to a group of ministers that he did not worry whether God was on his side or not, “for I know that the Lord is always on the side of right.” It was, instead, Lincoln said, his “constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”