Voting Greens: Rendering unto Caesar what is God's?

What comes to mind where you're thinking of how to vote this Saturday? Hopefully you can get past the "what's in it for me?" syndrome. Perhaps your approach is to think about the ethical stances of different the parties, whether its on same sex marriage, treatment of asylum seekers or how we deal with the most vulnerable in our communities.

Can I suggest that the most important teaching of Jesus on this issue, what is called "political theology", leads us in a different direction. It is where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees about whether it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus' answer is both brilliant and crucial.

He points to a coin and asks, "Whose likeness is on the coin?' (literally 'icon' or 'image') - of course, it's Caesar's. He then says, 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's.'

This is crucial - Jesus establishes that there are some things that legitimately belong to Caesar and there are somethings that do not (even though all things, in one sense belong to God!). Taxes, for example legitimately belong to Caesar, i.e. the state. Which is why Christians can be quite straightforward about paying their taxes (note Romans 13:6).

So what doesn't belong to Caesar? A basic part of that answer is that the state must not use its coercive powers over the consciences of its citizens. Conscience is a core part of what is to be made in the 'icon' or image of God. It is to God, not the state that we will give account for our consciences (Rom 2: 15-16). Conscience does not belong to Caesar, and the state becomes abhorrent when it seeks to bring to bear its powers over the consciences of its people. In other words, a basic principle of political theology is the commitment to a pluralist state, where conscience is not coerced. 

Note, this doesn’t mean that the state can’t legitimately do things that citizens disagree with - citizens will always disagree with things! Rather, what this is saying is that the state can’t require people to personally act against their conscience on pain of penalty, such as prosecute people for holding views different from the state-sanctioned position on an issue, or withhold its resources unless that state-sanctioned position is officially adopted by a person.

One place - perhaps the primary place - where this is worked out in Australian law is the anti-discrimination legislation. Here, two Christian principles are held in tension with one another.

The first principle is that all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, marital status etc, - as divine image bearers - are equal before the law, and as such the law will not permit discrimination against such people on that basis. The second principle is that there are some situations of conscience - such as religious organisations desiring as a matter of conscience to only employ co-religionists, and therefore to discriminate against unbelievers in their employment practices - that ought to be permitted so as not to coerce conscience, and therefore exist as exemptions to the otherwise general anti-discrimination legislation. 

Of course, this is an uneasy tension, a difficult one to codify and grey in practice. But it is a real tension that must be preserved in some form in the kind of pluralist state that Jesus’ words require.

Which is why Christians can’t vote Greens.

Because the Greens policy is to cut the chord of this tension by abolishing all exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation (Equality for Everyone). At this point, their stance regarding the state is not pluralist but totalitarian, since it would bring the punitive power of the state to bear against those who seek to follow their conscience.

I realise that there are reasons why Christians may want to vote for the Greens on ethical grounds, for example, their asylum seeker policy; mind you, there are plenty of reasons that Christians may find the Greens policies ethically repulsive, for example in relation to abortion and euthanasia (Abortion Law Reform Bill). The fact is that all of the parties have decidedly mixed ethical stances.

However, I am suggesting that there is a more basic issue at stake here. Amongst the first political commitments of Christians, following Jesus' words, is to a pluralist state especially in relation to conscience, and in this, the Greens have departed from a position that can be supported by Christians.