A Constitutional Quest
Myles C. Stenshoel
Since its inception the church has interacted with government and politics. The story of Jesus, from his birth in Bethlehem under imperial decree to his suffering and death under Pontius Pilate, presaged a continuing question for believers: How are Christians to relate to the governments under which they live and with which the church coexists? What does it mean to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's”? For two millennia and under profoundly differing political systems, the answers have varied widely, reflecting not only diverse theological perspectives of religious groups about the proper role of government but also various philosophical and practical understandings of governmental authorities about the role of religion in their public policy decisions.
American Christians, simultaneously members of the body of Christ and citizens in democratic political systems, illustrate the complexity. Citizens have the authority and responsibility to influence the creation and application of the legitimate civil laws that believers have been urged since apostolic times to obey. That they live in a democracy imposes on them a share of the biblical burden of the “emperor” to rule, and to do so in the context of myriad laws, rules, and regulations of national, state, and local governments—a burden complicated by constitutionally separated but constantly interacting legislative, executive, and judicial powers.
Thus an important task for United States citizens involves coping with complex relationships between civil government and religion: “church and state” issues. Significantly, today we are part of a population in which religions are increasingly diverse; all are now in some sense “minority” faiths. While abstractly most Americans, including Lutherans and other Christians, appear