Translating Trump Supporters

By David Galston | 10.24.19

The Twitter feed I received read, “Prominent Christian activist” says that Evangelicals have a “moral obligation” to vote for Trump. Christian activists used to be people like Tommy Douglas or Martin Luther King, Jr., and their activism concerned social justice. This “activist” is Ralph Reed, someone who I don’t think deserves such a compliment. And his “moral obligation” idea comes from, it appears, the verse in Mark 12: 17, “Render unto Caesar/Trump the things that belong to Caesar/Trump, and to God what belongs to God.” Reed believes that one of the things that belong to both Trump and God is your vote.

The reference to “render unto Caesar” raises a lot of questions and, for critical thinkers, there are three particularly. Did Jesus really say, “render unto Caesar”? Was this saying meant to support Caesar? And does the saying imply that “Christians” today (there being no Christians in Jesus’ lifetime) have a moral obligation to support a politician?

Did Jesus really say this? The Jesus Seminar voted red on this saying, indicating a strong consensus that Jesus said this or said something like this. The saying is aphoristic in style; it is deliberately ambiguous. Do we pay Caesar or not? There is no direct answer. Like an authentic Jesus parable, it is hard to know exactly what is meant. Plus, the saying is found in the Gospel of Thomas (a non-canonical gospel), which attests to its earlier circulation in oral tradition. The aphorism relates Caesar and God, but ambiguously raises the question about what each of these two deserves.

Traditionally translated as “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and unto God what belongs to God,” there is no specific Greek word for “belong” in the saying. The structure is genitive (ta kaisaros and tou theou), so the translation can vary depending on how best to render the sense of what is “of” Caesar and what is “of” God. My preference is to say, “Pay Caesar what is Caesar’s due, and pay God what is God’s due.” This raises the question, and the ambiguity about, what do these two figures deserve? What is their due (their belongings, their properties)?

The saying implies that we, the hearer, have something for Caesar and we have something for God. Are these the same or different things? If we are religious and think of God as a supernatural reality, and if we are sympathetic to Reed, then we might answer the question this way: give our votes to Caesar and prayers to God. Equally, we might think that votes and prayers are the same thing: what you pray for is also what you vote for. Still, despite Reed’s heroic effort to make Republican votes and Christian prayers go together, the ambiguity of the saying remains. It’s not clear if God and Caesar are pals.

Rather, the saying makes or should make us ask this: what does Caesar really deserve (what is really Caesar’s due) and what does God really deserve? If the saying is a Jesus saying, it is spoken to peasants in ancient Galilee. That someone in the crowd had a spare coin to offer Jesus is already outrageous. Among the poorest of the poor, no one had spare change to use so casually for show and tell. This part of the story is probably the gospel writer Mark’s construction. Secondly, the question about paying tax is asked in the singular (Do we pay the tax?), and the answer is given in the plural (Pay the things [the dues, the belongings] of Caesar to Caesar, and of God to God). This also suggests the setting is composed. Still, aside from the uncertain historical setting, the questions remain. What does Caesar really deserve and what does God really deserve?

I am quite certain the answer is that Caesar deserves a revolution, which is exactly what Caesar got in the year 70 CE and again in the year 132 CE. The Jewish people did indeed revolt against Rome after the lifetime of Jesus. If Caesar deserves a revolution, what about God? What does God deserve? If people like Ralph Reed read the Bible, they would know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. did, that God deserves justice. According to Amos 5:21-23, God is not interested in worship and prayers. God even hates worship and prayers. God deserves justice. That does not tell any Christian, or anyone of another religion, who to vote for. That’s not the role of religion. But it should make us think about where to cast our vote. Religion does not tell us how to think, but at its best, it should make us think.

Christian activism, if it were true to the Gospels, to the memory of the prophets, and to the historical Jesus, would advocate non-violent resistance against perpetrators of injustice and cooperation with agencies of justice. These would be acts that render unto Caesar what Caesar deserves and, biblically speaking, unto God what God deserves.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.