What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
Jewish leaders conspired to kill Jesus Christ. It was thought by many Sadducees—the aristocratic class controlling the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest political body—that this act would squash the uprising and neutralize the threat to their power. They thought wrong.
You see, Peter had found his voice; having denied the living Christ, he finally mustered the courage to boldly proclaim Christ crucified. The message was carried on, much to the dismay of the ruling elite in Jerusalem.
“What shall we do to these men?” they asked themselves, scheming how to react anew to this persistent perturbance. “Let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name.” And that’s what they did.
But Peter and his apostolic associates continued in their work, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ to carry his gospel to the four corners of the Earth. The teaching continued, as did the miracles. And in response, the high priest and his fellow Sadducees on the council “were filled with indignation,” fueling their animosity enough to actually seize and incarcerate the religious renegades.
Later brought before the council, Peter was questioned as to why he had defied their threats. “Did we not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in [Christ’s] name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
Peter’s response provides the theological foundation upon which Christians have defied unjust decrees in succeeding centuries: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Jesus Christ himself avoided the murderous mandate of a corrupt government when, following God’s counsel, his family fled to Egypt to escape the democide King Herod ordered upon male infants two years of age and younger. Later in life, he all but ignored the ruling regime as he went about his Father’s business.
It makes sense why; Christ himself explained in explicit detail that loyalties cannot be split. “No man can serve two masters,” he said in his Sermon on the Mount, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” Especially when competing powers pit themselves against one another—God and the state—it becomes clear that, as Peter indicated, it is better to disregard the political pressures of one’s peers in favor of following the divine course.
“But shouldn’t we submit to the state?” Latter-day Saints ask along with their confused counterparts from two millennia ago. “Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no?” Again, Christ’s counsel cut to the heart of the issue: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” This leaves to the reader the operative question of what belongs to the proverbial Caesars in our day—which of their claims and mandates deserve our loyalty, and when.
Governments throughout history have had an abysmal and tragic track record. The list is as depressing as it is endless—states of all sizes have imprisoned political dissenters, exterminated undesirables, suppressed conscience, confiscated property, devaluated currency, and otherwise been the instigators of injustice and immorality. Operating on the theoretical basis of protecting rights, governments have repeatedly proven themselves to be the chief violators of individual rights—the disease masquerading as the cure.
Even in the so-called “land of the free,” the government plunders property, police kill innocent people, bureaucrats force people out of business, legislators break apart families by incarcerating the breadwinners over non-violent offenses against the state’s vision of society, and faceless foreigners are consistently killed, written off as collateral damage in a siege of never-ending international conflict, now orchestrated by unseen demons from the sky. These brief examples don’t do justice to the magnitude of the problem, and the degree to which the U.S. Constitution has utterly failed to restrain government power.
And yet Latter-day Saints are sometimes encouraged to serve both God and state. Take, for example, a recent Ensign article titled “Religion and Government.” Readers are told that religion is “most successful and most effective” when it “protect[s] and encourage[s]” the government. “A complete divorce” of religion and government, on the other hand, “is healthy for neither.” Properly implemented, the article’s author asserts, religion “encourages good citizenship and adherence to the law of the land.”
What if the “law of the land” compels a Christian photographer or baker to participate in and support a homosexual marriage service?
What if the law requires a Christian to be conscripted into killing innocent people half a world away in an unjust military intervention?
What if the law requires a horribly sick, bed-ridden mother of young children to steer clear of a natural plant that can bring her relief where pharmaceuticals couldn’t, and restore quality of life to her entire family?
What if the law criminalizes speech or condones slavery?
What if the law legalizes the theft of property, outlaws prayer, sanctions the murder of unborn children, or censors evidence of government corruption?
What if the law has been substituted for the laws of wickedness, allowing Gadiantons to gain control?
Shall we submit in each case, and in so doing be considered a good religionist—a model Latter-day Saint?
There have been, and will continue to be, times in which men’s loyalty is split between masters: God and the state. Unqualified subservience to the latter—whether out of fear, duty, or ignorance—is to place the former in secondary status. It is tantamount to disagreeing with Peter, saying instead that “We ought to obey men rather than God.”
Just as rendering unto Caesar requires understanding what he’s actually due, learning which laws actually deserve our loyalty requires an analysis deeper than the several seconds it would be afforded in Sunday School. Inquiring minds can start here.
Religion needs government like a battered wife needs her abusive husband. Maybe a divorce is not the “healthy” option, but it’s best to stay as far away as possible until there is any valid reason to associate with it.