Evangelical Christianity has become identified with efforts to upend democratic practices and institutions.
Recent Supreme Court rulings, long sought by a sub-set of Christians, threaten to undo decades of progress extending equal rights to anyone other than white, Christian males.
These developments, which alienate many – both Christian and non-Christian – force us to consider anew what it means to be Christian and a citizen.
This is not a new issue. Jesus is confronted by it when asked if one should pay taxes to the emperor (Mark 12:14-17; see also Matt. 22:15-22 and Lk. 20:20-26).
Jesus’ opaque answer, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that God’s,” astounds his audience, but hardly helps us discern what we owe a very different state today than the one in which he lived.
To be honest, the church has struggled throughout its history without coming to any settled conclusion about what we owe the state.
As I reflect for myself on this topic, I begin biographically.
As a child, I was taught that duties to country were the same as duties to God. If the country drafts you, you go to war without question.
I came of age, however, during Vietnam and Watergate. In the face of those events, citizenship could never mean for me blind loyalty to the state.
How then do I reconcile my loyalty to Christ with my obligations as a citizen?
I begin with the conviction that any distinctively Christian ethic must take its bearings first from the life and teachings of Jesus, which centers around the rule or kingdom of God.
In sifting through the Gospels, we see that where God rules, God’s people seek justice for the weakest in society.
We see that where God rules, God’s people welcome and include those whom powerful elites reject.
We see that where God rules, God’s people hold accountable self-righteous leaders who serve only themselves and their sycophants.
We see that where God rules, God’s people are committed to discerning the truth about themselves, others and events.
We see that where God rules, God’s people work for peace, finding ways for all parts of creation to fit harmoniously.
These convictions then guide how I exercise my role as citizen today.
For example, I support candidates and policies that, however imperfectly, give preference to the disadvantaged, that seek to include rather than divide, that hold people accountable for doing what their office demands, and that seek to build rather than destroy.
But I also must recognize that if I am going to exercise my citizenship faithfully in ways that promote peace, I must do so in a nation that is pluralistic and fragmented.
My strategy is to speak confessionally, focus on details and, above all, remember not to confuse politics with the rule of God.
To speak confessionally means that I explain my views and how I arrived at them, while inviting response.
I hope others will reciprocate and let me respond to them in turn. While my ultimate goal may be to persuade, the proximate goal is to learn and understand.
That may happen, especially if we focus on details. Doing so moves the conversation from abstractions at 30,000 feet to ground level.
For example, instead of talking about climate change, we can talk about the human and financial costs of increasingly violent storms. In keeping to details like this, we may find unexpected common ground in trying to solve problems.
I take hope from the experience of Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin who served on a diverse panel setting national policy on medical experimentation (See their book, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning.).
Over the course of their work, panelists discovered that they could agree on policy when they kept to the details. When they felt the need to justify their views religiously, philosophically or politically, conflict broke out.
The lesson is that people holding different convictions can find ways to become allies in solving a problem.
Finally, and most importantly, I need to remember — and be reminded — that Jesus said that God’s rule was “at hand,” not established. At best, we can expect glimpses, imperfect approximations of that peaceable rule.
For me, then, attempting to be both a Christian and a citizen means taking my bearings first from what we discern of God’s rule in the gospels.
It means speaking confessionally in a pluralistic society.
It means focusing on details, not theory, to build alliances as we work together to solve problems.
It means remembering that that the rule of God is always but coming — thus, no political system, party, policy or person either embodies the rule of God or deserves the loyalty due only to God.
Would Jesus like this answer to the question of what we owe the emperor today? I don’t know and may be better off not knowing. I do know, however, that we could do (and too often do) a lot worse.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week focused on faith and citizenship.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.