There is a biblical story in which Jesus responds to a challenge about 'paying taxes', put to him by parties who wanted him to side with one of the political factions of the day, with the dictum 'Give to God the things due to God and to Caesar the things due to Caesar'.
His answer caused consternation then, and through most history since then. The passage has been used to legitimate the separation of church and state, and a kind of differentiation of responsibilities that usually, of late, leaves church and religious voices marginalised.
The Lutheran doctrine of the 'two kingdoms' was used by Hitler's Germany to silence the critical voice of churches who felt bound by this theology to leave the state to govern. Today, politicians who dislike criticism argue that churches and religions should stick to 'spiritual matters'.
Is such a position legitimated by this passage? I argue no.
We live in a time when religious voices have returned with greater strength to the arenas of civil discourse. Far from receding to the margins, groups once quiescent are lobbying and voicing critique alongside those like Catholics who have maintained a sustained voice. Questions are raised, for example, about gambling, and the dependence of 'Caesar' on the avails of gambling.
I am waiting for a sustained cry from the Christian community about the outrage of a nation more concerned about one teenage lawbreaker in a foreign jail than about its own incarceration of thousands of men, women and children in detention centres.
In a very real sense these critical voices are part of what religious groups are called upon to 'render to Caesar'. In holding 'Caesar' to a moral standard the Christian communities render to Caesar the things due to Caesar and seek to make the world a better place, usually.
Holding in accountability the many 'Caesars' of the world — governments, corporate executives, officials, and judges — is part of ensuring that civil society works.
But there is another side to this coin of accountability. One of the roles of 'Caesar' may be to hold the church accountable. One of the duties owed to 'Caesar' by the church is to be accountable for what it does to civil society, social cohesion and the wellbeing of the larger community to which the church is one contributor. The society and the church are interdependent.
Churches might reply that 'we are accountable only to God'. Indeed some bishops seem to behave like the last of the divine right monarchs. This is reminiscent of corporate executives claiming to be accountable only to stockholders, or to 'the market', seemingly placing the actions of the person and corporation beyond critique. It is an easy 'out' that does not bear close consideration.
The injunction to render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar requires the church to be accountable. There was much denial of accountability in the demands made by churches that they be exempt from anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of freedom of religion and belief.
Australia channels an enormous proportion of its tax dollars through faith-based organisations. It therefore has a deep interest in ensuring that the services these funds are supposed to provide to all Australians who need them, actually are made available to all Australians.
However, some of these faith based organisations seek and are given exemption from the law in order to discriminate in the provision of social, health and educational services to Australians.
Then there is the effect of church teaching on society.
Consider the example of interfaith relations. Catholics have a well established, theologically grounded policy in this area, and have worked to help Catholics develop positive orientations to those of other religious groups. Anglicans have not been proactive in the same way.
The result of this became evident in the report from the recent Scanlon Foundation-supported Monash University research into Australian Social Cohesion. In 2011, 22.8 per cent of Catholics versus 34.1 per cent of Anglicans reported holding negative attitudes toward Muslims. This compared to a national figure of 25.5 per cent.
Theologies and church teaching are not without effect. Negative teaching about groups in a society reduce social cohesion and effectively marginalise groups.
Some Christians seem quick to critique other religious groups for the social impact of their teachings. Are these groups likewise prepared to be held accountable by their own society for the impact of their teaching that marginalises, demonises or dehumanises others?
Giving to God what is due to God and to Caesar what is due to Caesar raises a complex network of accountabilities. It does not separate the church from society, nor does it give either the church or the state a zone of non-interference where either may do as it sees fit, free from accountability.
Gary Bouma is author of Being Faithful in Diversity: Religions and Social Policy in Multi-faith Societies. This article originally appeared at EurekaStreet.com.au