Religious Liberty Comes From God, Not the Government

The liturgical readings for today can be found here.

Today’s gospel reading contains Jesus’ most quoted line concerning church-state relations:

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).

Theologians and political theorists have analyzed the meaning of that phrase for centuries, and far be it from me to attempt any sort of scholarly analysis of it. Way above my pay grade.

Yet, here in the United States, in an era when a conservative interpretation of religious liberty is at odds with legal initiatives for LGBTQ equality, that sentence rings loud. A simplistic reading indicates that we should adhere to the government in legal/political matters and adhere to our church in religious matters. But where is the demarcation line between “legal/political” and “religious”?  And who decides that?  

At the risk of seeming to criticize Jesus, the “either/or” quality of the statement may respond to some deeper theological purpose on the Savior’s mind, but it doesn’t provide a clear answer to our current religious liberty conundrum. The current situation requires not an “either/or” bit of advice, but a “both/and” recommendation. 

In July, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld religious institutions’ right to decide which of its employees are “ministers,” enabling institutions to be exempt from employment discrimination laws for “ministerial” employees. (See Our Lady of Guadalupe/St. James School decision.) I agree that faith groups, not the government, should decide, based on their theologies, who is and who is not a minister in their communities. Yet, practice has shown that some religious groups label someone a minister simply to avoid discrimination laws. The employee may be performing secular duties such as accounting, maintenance, or administrative work, not spiritual, sacramental, or theological duties, and still be labeled a minister.

I think another scripture verse provides a better lens than Matthew 22:21 through which to view religious liberty questions. Luke 1: 68-79 is a passage known as the Canticle of Zachariah, or sometimes by its shorter Latin title Benedictus. Zachariah praises God after the birth of his son, John the Baptist, who will be the forerunner of the Messiah, for God’s constancy in providing salvation for the Jewish people and for all humanity. For me the key line for religious liberty occurs at verses 73-75:

“This was the oath God swore to Abraham
To set us free from our enemies,
Free to worship God without fear
Holy and righteous in God’s sight all the days of our life.”

This passage gives us a fuller meaning of religious liberty than “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Religious liberty is not just a choice between government rule and church rule, Caesar or God.  It is a covenant between God and humanity which offers a promise from God, but also places a responsibility on humanity. God swore an oath so that humanity would be “free to worship God without fear.” People should be allowed to worship God as they see fit, without fearing interference from the state or from any other force.

But these people who will worship without fear must also be “holy and righteous in God’s sight all the days of our life.” The people doing the worshiping must also be holy and righteous. They are not free to game the system to work to their institutional advantage or to disregard other people’s humanity. 

Yet, for the past few years, Catholic dioceses and other institutions have been busily rewriting employment contracts to define whole sets of employees as “ministers” even when there has previously never been an understanding of them as ministerial agents.  Their actions appear to be motivated by gaining the legal protections such a definition could provide, not on the basis of an understanding of ministry.

Similarly, Catholic leaders continue to fire LGBTQ people from church employment, even when church officials, administrators, and colleagues have previously had long relationships and respect for these individuals. In so many cases, church officials only fired people when an LGBTQ identity or relationship became public. This kind of betrayal shows a deep disrespect for the employees’ humanity, as well as cowardice on the part of administrators for not supporting publicly the beliefs and relationships they had honored privately. 

When I was in Catholic grade school, the good Sisters taught us that no one ever has freedom without responsibility. Religious liberty is a two-way street. If Catholic Church leaders want religious liberty, they must also act responsibly, holy, and righteous. As people of faith, we believe this liberty is protected by God, not by the government. But, as people of faith, we also must remember we have a responsibility to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God and with the people that God has placed in our communities and institutions. 

Want to learn more about how the U.S. Supreme Court has already impacted church workers’ rights this year, and what is coming up in regard to questions of non-discrimination and religious liberty in the current term? Register for New Ways Ministry’s upcoming discussion with Dr. Leslie Griffin, a constitutional law professor and former theology faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, on November 1, 2020 at 4:00 – 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. For more information or to register, click here.




Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 18, 2020




3 replies
  1. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    Well written, well said, Francis DeBernardo. The part about responsibility going hand in hand with freedom seems lost these days.

  2. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    For the sake of discussion and given the pluralistic society in which we live in this gigantic varied country. I favor the “Render to Caesar etc.” way of life. The US is a lot like the Roman empire in the day. There has to be one rule to keep everyone focused, but there can be a little give within the net that holds everything together or not. The same is true about the Catholic Church. The current challenge is it the managers who say who is Catholic or is it one holy and little “c”atholic community? Is the discussion “right to life” or “right to choice? I know of no one who likes abortion, but many who want to manage their life based on what their fact are. Should the citizen or the state decide when a situation arises?

    Zachariah, it seems to me, is focusing on setting up a religious state. As a Catholic Christian I feel I am called to a more rigorous way of life, but I also have to manage to be a ciitzen of the US. Where is the line between my living my civic life and imposing what I think is morally correct on others? I should follow my rules for me, but I think I need to be very restrained about saying what others must do. They have their own conscience and as long as they stand back from enforcing their belief on me isn’t the rightness of my action really up to God who will judge each of us?


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