As Catholics grapple with religious impact of civil restrictions imposed in the wake of the Coronavirus contagion, many are prone to invoke the paradigm of “God and Caesar” to delineate each side’s competence. When the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26) by asking whether it was lawful to pay Roman taxes — knowing that a “yes” would alienate him from many Jews while a “no” would give them grist to use against him with the Romans — Jesus was somewhat evasive, replying we should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” — without necessarily saying what belonged to whom.

Christians may reflexively treat the “God and Caesar” approach as their default way to understand questions of Church and state. They certainly have plenty of history to rely upon. Even theological liberals like John Courtney Murray found underlying inspiration in the model because, in defending the American model of Church/state “separation,” his thought ultimately relies on an assumption implicit in the “God and Caesar” paradigm, i.e., that the reach of Caesar’s realm is inherently limited. The state is not omnicompetent. The state should not get involved in religious issues because its competence does not extend there.

However, Catholic experience in the “culture wars,” particularly over the past two decades, as well as with some of the (over)reach of Coronavirus restrictions, suggests that not just the naïve optimism of Murray’s views but the “God and Caesar” model itself is under increasing stress.

Why? Because we Catholics are assuming two distinct realms with two distinct lords: God’s and Caesar’s. How they intersect and how they should interact may be subject to debate, but we treat both as distinct and real.

Our secular opponents increasingly don’t.

Even William O. Douglas once admitted that America is a nation “whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Whether, in the light of his jurisprudence, he really believed it or just treated it as a throwaway line is, of course, part of the problem. Whether or not Douglas really believed that, however, most Americans did. And that is why, as the late Rev. Richard Neuhaus noted, the First Amendment is not schizophrenically about “free exercise of religion” butting up against a “strict wall of separation between Church and state” (and waiting for some federal judge to referee). No, “no establishment of religion” is a tool to promote an end, the end of “free exercise of religion.” Society does not necessarily have to be anti-religious or even pretend that “neutrality” means pretending religion does not exist.

But that is the problem.

Catholics think of “God and Caesar.” Secularists do not, because God is officially unknown and in practice deemed non-existent. What that means is that, if “God” is unknown and unknowable, then the only “real” player is Caesar … and Caesar is the one who determines what belongs to him and what belongs to this “unknown God.”

Do you really think secular Caesar is going to share or voluntarily restrict his reach?

While John Courtney Murray opined about the “limited” state, whose reach was restricted, the fact is that since Murray wrote We Hold These Truths in 1960, the power of the state has been rather consistently on an expanding course. Let’s be honest: since 1960, where has the power of the state receded?

[We Catholics, too, have been complicit in the expansion of state power. While we occasionally pay lip service to “subsidiary,” the most cursory survey over the past half-century of public policy positions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (and the proportion of its budget deriving from government money) has promoted government expansion].

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The growth of Leviathan’s power over the past two centuries has steadily increased from two sources: the expansion of government and a trend in American law, promoted by Supreme Court decisions, claiming that democracy requires society to be agnostic with regard to religion and religious values. That mixed cocktail is a double whammy that is increasingly lethal to religious freedom.

Advocates of state overreach will not, of course, frame it in such clear terms. Commenting on Supreme Court oral arguments in a recent Church-State case (state regulation of employment in parochial schools), Linda Greenhouse bemoaned the supposed erosion of a consensus that “’we’re all in this society together.’” When I pointed out that her vision of “together” meant religious citizens stripping off their faith identity as the price of admission to what Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” a commentator rebuked me, opining that “churches … really don’t get a public anything. What they get is guaranteed protection of their existence and privacy.” How generous of him: that is an extremely attenuated notion of “free exercise.” Caesar will tell you how far “free exercise” goes, i.e., is free. Caesar will let us exist, as long as we stay in the sacristy, shut the blinds, and don’t make too much noise bell ringing. I don’t think so.

If the state must pretend that it does not know whether there is a god or not, then it can hardly be expected to reckon with that unknown god’s potential claims of allegiance over citizens. Judicial agnosticism essentially cancels the “God and Caesar” paradigm by treating the god as a partner that Caesar neither knows, has to, or should deal with. The upshot is that Caesar must distribute what is Caesar’s and what is God’s — and there is no appeal from his apportionment except back to Caesar.

Religion, stripped of any special status, shorn of its status as the inalienable first right enumerated in the First Amendment, becomes simply just another human activity like gardening. That’s how we arrive at the general test the U.S. federal courts use to determine whether or not a restriction on religious activity is unconstitutional: is it a “generally applicable” norm that does not single out any particular religion? If a “generally applicable” rule closes down churches alongside dine-in restaurants, gyms, and nursery centers and does not make discriminatory exceptions (e.g., Catholic churches must close but Episcopal churches don’t), then such a norm will pass legal muster.

It’s not a demanding test — as long as Caesar is not stupid enough to privilege one religious group — but it can be wholly arbitrary. At first, seed sales in Michigan were “unessential.” This week they’re a permitted activity — not only can you now buy grass at the pot dispensary but also grass seeds at your garden center — and, as long as Caesar does not discriminate (grass seed at Lowe’s but not Yard n’ Garden), the rationale for his distinctions are relatively shielded from review. The wisdom of Caesar’s decisions is judged by Caesar (or at least Caesar’s judges). There is no escape from the immanent.

And that is what the French philosopher Jacques Maritain meant when he spoke of the “Minotaur of the Immanent.” If Caesar does not know whether anything can be transcendent, he will divide everything not between “what is Caesar’s” and “what is God’s” but between “the immanent public” and “the immanent private” — and since only the public can determine what the common good demands, the boundaries of the “immanent private” are constantly under threat of shrinkage.

Recovering “God and Caesar” will take a sea change in the secular worldview that has taken root in America (particularly its elite institutions), a transformation whose advocates will fight tooth and nail, claiming the recovery of God’s claims will be “undemocratic,” lead to “theocracy,” and foster “illiberalism.” Frustrated thespians will dress up in their “Handmaiden’s” costumes to add a splash of color.

But the truth is that man’s liberty is never more threatened than by a society that hermetically seals itself in the immanent, whether it does so explicitly like the communists (enforced atheism) or implicitly like secularists (enforced secularism or laïcité as the price of participation in the “public square” of one’s own society). A man whose allegiances beyond this world depend on the approval (or at least tolerance) of Caesar is a man who is a slave of the state.