15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this and whose title?” 21 They answered, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed, and they left him and went away.Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSVue)
Last year, I visited a university to lecture on a pastoral approach to challenging Christian nationalism. During the morning session, we spent a few hours defining Christian nationalism and then spent the afternoon on action steps for a pastoral response. At the end of the morning session, we offered an open mic for questions. An elderly white man immediately took the microphone and I could tell that he was agitated. Sure enough, he vulnerably shared, “I had no idea what I signed up for when I came here today in this room full of strangers. I have concerns about how patriotic my congregation has become, but I’m still a conservative Republican, and I feel like this seminar is just trying to make us a bunch of liberal Democrats.” I gently responded that my goal was to invite Christians of all parties to become more like Jesus—not like Democrats. Still, the exchange shook me.
I felt shook because it reaffirmed how hard it is to contest partisan loyalties during this fraught moment of political polarization and extremism. In my calling for Christians to love their neighbors and care for the poor, this gentleman heard liberal talking points. This is why Christian nationalism, in its soft and hard versions, is a form of political idolatry: it exchanges loyalty to the life and teachings of Jesus for the worship of earthly power, culture wars, and politics by coercion. In short, it renders to Caesar worship that belongs to God.
Idolatry is not something that develops overnight. As the theologian Stephen Fowl argues, idolatry is most often a process, rarely a moment. Scholars of violent extremism observe similar observations: according to the PIRUS database (Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States), radicalization is a slow process that, on average, takes five or more years. I choose to see this as good news for pastors, organizers and theologians who want to disrupt biblical authoritarianism that leads to radicalization and violent extremism–we have about five years to get in the way.
One way to get in the way of radicalization and violent extremism is to teach what the Bible has to say about political idolatry. We struggle to notice our idols today because most of the modern West doesn’t openly worship at the feet of statues and offer sacrifice to deities in their temples. But idols can also take the form of competing allegiances to political objects of power that co-opt our theological imaginations. These objects can be a political ruler, militarism, and/or partisan loyalties that lead to fear and hate. These idols may be sneaky, and sometimes even seemingly innocuous, but their effects on human collectives are no less devastating. Once you see political idolatry, you can’t unsee it. Like Paul’s distress over Athens’s city of idols in Acts 17, we can responsibly paraphrase his dismay: “Americans, I see how extremely superstitious (deisidaimonia) you are in every way!” (Acts 17:22).
Political superstition, or deisidaimonia in Greek, runs deep in the veins of Christian nationalism. For Luke and Greco-Roman philosophers, deisidaimonia evoked faith by fear, a neurotic obsession with the divine, public stunts of pious ostentation, and defective knowledge of the divine. It’s tempting to think that modern societies have special immunity from superstition–but we don’t. If you don’t believe me, take a few minutes to watch images and videos of the January 6th Capitol insurrection. The Capitol insurrection is one of the greatest public stunts of religious ostentation in American history as self-proclaimed Christians prayed and sang to Jesus, held placards of white Jesus with a MAGA hat on, bore life-size crosses, prophesied, and performed exorcisms—all while violently laying siege to the center of American democracy.
Christian nationalism is a form of superstition. It is superstitious because, instead of appealing to the God of all nations, it appeals to a culturally fabricated God for cultural privilege, power, and benefits, while denying these same benefits to others (e.g., persons of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ persons, among others). What would the historical Jesus say about Christian nationalism today?
The “render to Caesar” passage in Matthew (22:21) offers us a glimpse into Jesus’s attitude toward state power. The influence of the saying in early Christianity is evident by its popularity (see Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21; Luke 20:25; Thomas, 100:2-4; and possibly Romans 13:7). But if the history of interpretation is any indication, interpreters cannot agree on what the saying means. On the one hand, the saying is admittedly ambiguous. On the other hand, our own biases can bend the saying to be pro-imperial, anti-imperial, or a rapprochement between the two, wherein Christians have dual loyalties to Christ and Caesar.
To interpret the “render to Caesar” riddle responsibly, we need to know a thing or two about Jews’ attitudes toward Roman taxation. Since the time when Rome pacified Israel in 63 BCE, Judea paid tribute to Rome, a symbolic gesture of its subordinate status. Naturally, the payment was offensive and burdensome to many, and so created a conundrum for Jews: one could pay the tribute while internally dragging their feet, or one could openly resist payment through violent revolution. We have examples of both strategies of imperial negotiation. The perennial danger for the dissent voice was to not irk Rome’s legions into violent repression. In 6–9 CE, for example, a dissident named Judas the Galilean led a movement to resist Roman tribute because only “God was their Lord” (Josephus, War 2.117-118; Acts 5:37). For Judas and his followers, paying the tribute was a competing allegiance to God—an act of political idolatry.
It is between these Jewish dispositions of loyalty, deference, or violent retaliation against Rome that the Pharisees and accommodationist Herodians wish to entrap Jesus. Recognizing their intent, Jesus asks to see the coin used for the tax. The fact Jesus wasn’t carrying one may reflect his own sensitivities to the first and second commandments (Exod 20:4–5). One ancient author even reports that the sectarian Jewish group called the Essenes refused to carry, behold, or fashion an image (Hipp. Haer. 9.21). The Roman denarius shown to Jesus, after all, had an image of the emperor with divinizing features—hence, Jesus’ question: “Whose head is this and whose title?” (Matt 22:20). Hundreds of these denarii have survived from the ancient world. If the denarius is from the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14–37CE), it was stamped with the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus, [himself] Augustus” (TI[BERIVS] CAESAR DIVI AUG[VSTI] F[ILIUS] AUGVSTVS). On the reverse side of the coin was a seated woman who personified Pax (Rome’s “peace” through coercion and domination). Surrounding the woman is the inscription, PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, or “High Priest.” Taken together, these images and inscriptions evoke an idolatrous image of the emperor’s superhuman status.
So far so good. It isn’t until Jesus responds to the image of Caesar that we run into interpretive problems. The trap is set—if Jesus says don’t pay the tax, he will be painted into a corner as an insurrectionist. If he says do pay the tax, he will be painted into a corner as an accommodationist or, worse yet, an idolater. In a world where dissidence could evoke retaliation, the Matthean Jesus responds with intentional ambiguity of expression: “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Already in the exchange, Jesus minimizes Caesar’s image and power by effectively asking, “Who is this?” The blunt question implicitly secularizes and subordinates Caesar, a point animated by the tension between “the things of Caesar” and “the things of God.” Any serious Jew in the first century would have known where their loyalties resided since they would have believed that everything belonged to God, including earthly rulers. Jesus’s answer, then, offered them a handrail for living faithfully with one foot in the kingdom of God and one foot in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus was saying, sure, pay back the denarius to the mortal Caesar, but ultimately your whole life belongs to God (and so does Caesar’s). For Christians today, the riddle invites a posture of suspicion toward ruling powers rather than deferent trust. For Matthew’s Jesus, “You can’t serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24). Herein lies the problem with Christian nationalism in the United States: its loyalty to the things of Caesar too often supersedes the things of God.
The alluring power of the things of Caesar remains an ongoing threat to democracy and the church’s public witness in the U.S. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 85% of adherents of Christian nationalism agree with the statement, “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.” An interesting contemporary example for how Christian nationalism exercises such dominion can be found in recent “In God We Trust” bills. In 1956 the U.S. national motto was changed from E. Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) to “In God We Trust.” The new law, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, mandated that all U.S. currency bear the new religious motto. At the time, the move differentiated Americans’ purported religious piety from Russia’s communist atheism, despite the motto’s ambiguous object—indeed, trust in whose God? Litigation against the motto’s potential infringement on the first amendment ultimately failed, opening the door for Christian nationalists to claim the ambiguous motto as their own in a bid to make America a Christian nation.
More recently, the right-wing coalition “Project Blitz” has sought to “blitz” the country with “In God We Trust” bills to placard the motto on license plates, state capitols, and public school classrooms. Last year, Texas joined a dozen other states that now require the national motto to be displayed in public schools. In July of 2021, city council members in Chesapeake, VA passed a proposal to emblazon every city-owned car and truck with the motto at a cost of $87,000 to taxpayers. These seemingly innocuous moves are seen by political operatives on the religious right as an incremental strategy to pass bigger legislation on issues that privilege conservative white Christian values. Here’s the perennial danger of the things of Caesar in a modern democracy: it can be leveraged for the common good, or it can be leveraged to pacify difference and lord power over others. In this fraught moment of “authoritarian reactionary Christian politics,” we need public spaces to amplify the dangers that political idolatry presents to democracy and the church’s public witness.
Superstition begets superstition, but so does resistance. After our lunch break during my lecture, I was surprised to see that the Republican gentleman who asked me the question from the microphone stayed for the afternoon session. I could see that people at his table were having civil but energetic conversations with him, building trust. After my afternoon talk, we immediately found each other in the middle of the lecture hall. He said, “I hope you weren’t offended by my comment. I had no idea what I was coming to today. I’m tired of singing patriotic songs in my church instead of worship songs. I think I’ve been wrong—I didn’t realize what Christian nationalism is and how big it has become in my political party.” Then he said this: “I don’t know, I think maybe the Holy Spirit is just working on me today. I’ve got a lot to think about.”