'Give to Caesar'?: The dangerous political dualism of Jerry Falwell Jr

Now-notorious Trump ally and US evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr came under fire once again yesterday after defending his political theology, suggesting Christians should be more concerned with private charity than trying to exert a godly influence on the state.

He appeared to be asserting a dichotomy between private virtue and political morality – critics suggested he was invoking a wedge that would have been foreign to Christ. They posed an alternative view: that politics is not separate from, but is essential to, the Christian love of neighbour.

'Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome – he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help poor. That's our job,' Falwell tweeted yesterday.

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, January 31, 2016.Reuters

It comes as Falwell Jr, alongside the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, publicly defended President Trump from criticism over an alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. Perkins said Trump got a 'Mulligan...a "do-over"' from evangelicals in exchange for backing conservative Christian-friendly policies. At the National Review David French chastised Falwell Jr for the 'cheap grace' he was offering to Trump – absolving the president for political gain, despite no sign of penitence from Trump.

Falwell's tweet yesterday might be seen as an attempt at a political theology, defending his deferential support for the president. Love of neighbour – the poor and needy for example – is 'our job', Falwell Jr said, trading on the typical Republican/Democrat divide that opposes 'small government' and private charity to 'big government' that emphasises publicly-funded welfare.

He added in a reply to his tweet: 'What we did personally for the least of these will matter, not whether we voted for someone who claimed they would tax our neighbors to help the least of these. That's the whole point.'

Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig rejected the dichotomy in her response: 'Both matter. Both matter. Both matter. There is no easy out. You must be just in all your dealings, individual and political. 'The separation of the "spheres" of life into "personal" and "political", "public" and "private", is a modern invention. The reason Jesus doesn't cite specific political ethics is because there aren't separate ethics for politics. Because it's not a separate domain.'

Michael Wear, former faith adviser to Barack Obama, echoed similar sentiments. He drew on his book Reclaiming Hope, that makes an explicitly positive case for Christian involvement in politics – because of the obligation to love neighbour. 'Politics is one of the essential forums in which we can love our neighbour,' Wear tweeted.

In defence of the more traditionally Republican perspective, its worth noting that there's merit in the promotion of private virtue and responsibility, which itself can be stifled if morality is simply 'farmed off' to public bodies. Cultivating an individual conscience and an active ethical life is itself ultimately a public good, it makes a more just society. That need not be controversial: as Bruenig highlighted, 'both matter'.

However one might argue, contra Falwell, that a Christian politic especially aware of human depravity will want to safeguard a measure of justice through government, because the human heart is inherently corrupt and private charity cannot be relied upon. Just a glimpse of the vast social inequality that pervades even the supposedly enlightened West evidences that. Investing in public welfare thus provides a check of sorts against human greed, an elected, communal commitment to the love of neighbour.

Here in the UK, the rejection of this public/private dualism has also been well expressed by Andy Flannagan, director at Christians in Politics, in his book Those Who Show Up. He explains how the sometimes seemingly mundane mechanisms of local government have a profound impact of the lives of one's neighbour – so that investing in changing said systems is an extension of love.

'You simply cannot divorce the personal from the social, economic, cultural and political environments within which we live and move and have our being,' he writes.

A homeless man sleeps on a park bench in Logan Square in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Reuters

He gives the example of the needs of an elderly neighbour: the collection of bins, the provision of medical care, safety from scammers and violence, access to public transport, the preservation of a comfortable, happy home. In Flannagan's words: 'If you care about even one of these things, you care about politics. You care about politics because you care about people.'

Falwell Jr later seemed to row back his comments, tweeting that 'the other side of the coin is Jesus never told Caesar he shouldn't tax the rich to help the poor either. You can be a good Christian whether you vote conservative or liberal!'

Even this qualification though runs the risk of making political involvement indifferent to the welfare of neighbour – as though positions on public policy are just incidental to a personal commitment to goodwill.

It's important for Christians not to be corrupted by bitter partisanship and zero-sum politics that baptises one policy or another as the inherently 'Christian' one. But its also true that government policies do change people's lives for better or for worse, and Christians, like all citizens, have a chance to influence them.

Yesterday the US refugee resettlement agency World Relief gave a damning statement on the one-year anniversary of Trump's infamous 'travel ban'. It said Trump's order had denied refuge to tens of thousands fleeing conflict, including persecuted Christians and many of other faiths. Private generosity can only do so much in the face of a blanket immigration ban. Politics makes a difference in a way lone individuals can't.

None of this makes political decisions easier or necessarily less divisive. But it is a reminder not to lay public and private against each other, but to embrace both as part of human life, essential domains equally equipped to answer the radical, boundary-breaking Christian call to love.

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