Bench Memos

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Render Unto Caesar


…is the title of a book just published by Doubleday. Yes, it is (as the title suggests) another book on the topic doing business these days as “religion and the public sqaure.” But, no, it is not just another good book. It is instead the best of its genre, a very important book indeed, and, if we are lucky, a lot of people will read it this Fall in time to influence the outcome on Election Day.

This book is non-partisan in just the right sense of that term. The author is not interested in advancing one party’s agenda over the other’s; where those chips fall is strictly a by-product of the truths he articulates about the Gospel, about the political common good (including within it an overriding commitment to respecting human rights and dignity), and about the challenges Americans face today. And it precisely those truths he cleaves to, not to this or that party.

Render Unto Caesar is not just another good book about a familiar topic for these three reasons.

One reason is that the author’s treatment of the usual topics covered in this sort of book — the most pungent Gospel passages, the founders on God and the polity, the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the modern Court, John Courtney Murray — is succinct and shrewd, better than those by most scholar specialists who make a living in these neighborhoods.

The second reason is this: Render Unto Caesar is a story related from the inside out. It is not only a tale told by a genuine believer about the American way of politics (a fact which burnishes reason number one, above) but, more importantly and simply, more a story about the arc of belief in politics, about how believers in the Gospels cannot be themselves save by entering the public realm AS themselves.

From the author’s Introduction: “[F]or Catholics, the common good can never mean muting themselves in public debate on foundational issues of human dignity. Christian faith is always personal but never private. That is why any notion of tolerance that tries to reduce faith to private idiosyncrasy, or a set of opinions we can indulge at home but need to be quiet about in public, will always fail.”

In other words: Christians are impelled — propelled, pushed, even shoved — by Christian conviction into matters public. That is what being a Christian means; it is what Christians necessarily do. To tell Christians to “privatize” their faith is to tell them, in spiritual terms, to mutilate themeselves. Render Unto Caesar is a tour-de-force of Christian witness, of integral Catholic faith. Its author stands in a line extending back to Thomas More, as much (or more) than he does in a line of those who study American politics.

The third reason this book is different is that its author is the Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput. He is a dedicated, clear-headed, conscientious pastor of souls. I think that is why he wrote this book.


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