What We Owe Caesar

In a conversation about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who made news for going to jail rather than issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a friend asked me, “What do we owe Caesar?” I gave a hasty answer, but the question has stuck in my head. Here’s an effort to answer more thoroughly.

We owe Caesar respect. This is biblical as stated in 1 Peter 2:17. In this description and the one in Romans 13, we have governmental leaders praised as those who punish evil and praise what is good. The implication is that respect, honor and subjection are in service of order, lawfulness and justice. 

We therefore owe Caesar obedience, to a point. Because we do not owe any man power over our consciences, there is a limit to what we may be compelled to do. Peter and John specified limits on obedience to even legitimate authority in Act 4, placing the rule of God above the rule of those he places in authority. But God’s servants did not claim the right to steal or destroy based on their submission to Christ.

We owe Caesar taxes. This was part of Jesus’ two-fold message in Mark 12:17—it is right to pay taxes, but the sovereignty of God is over all things. He does not say what a fair tax is, nor does he question whether those taxes are being used for wicked purposes. I assume Roman taxes were used as least partly for things we would not call righteous.

The larger question is, “Who is Caesar in 21st-century America?” Of course, the people rule in some very real ways, though often indirectly. You could say our elected officials, who represent us day to day, stand in the role of Caesar as they make laws, define public good and levy taxes. I’d even give a nod to law itself as having a Caesarean role in our lives. Law has some claim on representing the definition of good and evil as determined indirectly by the people who vote.

Where in this scheme can we fit what is arguably judicial overreach? The Kim Davis case raises some questions not yet answered in the aftermath of the Obergefell case, in which the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the entire nation. This overturning of state law from coast to coast was not a legislative action, as least not officially, but it is misunderstood as having the status of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a law enacted by a legislature. Justice Kennedy acknowledged this shortcoming when he said that the court needed to act because those wishing to marry outside the recognized definition of marriage had exhausted legislative remedies. Understand that to mean that they could not win elections quickly enough or in enough places to get what they thought to be their inherent rights, so the court needed to accomplish what neither the U.S. Congress nor more than a dozen state legislatures would do. If the people are Caesar, and if elected representatives and even legislation have some claim to the title—the Obergefell decision can claim no such legitimacy.

So back to Kim Davis. The governor of Kentucky does not consider her claim of religious freedom legitimate, and several smart Christian people have said that she should either obey the law or resign. Maybe so, but some questions seem pertinent before we throw her to the tender mercies of the “Love Wins” mob.

Was President Obama equally wrong and should Attorney General Eric Holder have been arrested for declaring that the Justice Department would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011 because the president believed it to be discriminatory? DOMA was a law, by the way, not the interpretation of a law. Is Kim Davis more of a scofflaw than Eric Holder because she’s a county official or because she is conservative?

Did Gavin Newsome, the mayor of San Francisco, go to jail for ordering clerks to ignore California law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Should he have?

I confess; I disagree with the Obama-Holder position on DOMA. I considered it nonfeasance. I also believe Gavin Newsome committed a malfeasance when he disdained his state’s law. I’m more sympathetic with Kim Davis’ stand. I recognize the hypocrisy of this sentiment.

So let’s start the discussion over. Who makes law, the courts or the elected legislature? Is nonfeasance, even malfeasance, a crime, without regard to the actor? Is the conscience of a conservative as sacrosanct as that of a liberal? Once we agree on the rules, we can have a little talk about these things.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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