Fealty and Rendering To Caesar: Why White Catholics Should #TakeAKnee

This is the post excerpt.


Catholics are generally familiar with the concept of “rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. When Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians in the Gospel of Matthew (22:21) to “render unto the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” he sets the framework for how we should think about religion and the state even today.  Caesar does have rights.  We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience.  But that obedience is limited by what belongs to God.  Caesar is not God.  Only God is God, and the state is subordinate and accountable to God for its treatment of human persons, all of whom were created by God.

Also familiar to Catholics are oaths of fealty.  It has been considered a “Catholic Thing” for centuries, to pledge fealty to the Church.  (See, David Warren, “Fealty”, A Catholic Thing, May 13, 2016,  https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2016/05/13/fealty/).  The question is whether a Catholic should express fealty to the National Anthem and flag, in light of the reality of racism and white privilege.


Perhaps our greatest job as believers is to determine what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God — and then put those things in right order in our own lives, and in our relations with others.

Tolerance is not a Christian virtue.  Charity, justice, mercy, prudence, honesty – these are Christian virtues.  And obviously, in a diverse community, tolerance is an important working principle.  But it’s never an end itself.  In fact, tolerating grave evil within a society is itself a form of serious evil.   Likewise, democratic pluralism does not mean that Catholics should be quiet in public about serious moral issues because of some misguided sense of good manners.  A healthy democracy requires vigorous moral debate to survive.  Real pluralism demands that people of strong beliefs will advance their convictions in the public square – peacefully, legally and respectfully, but energetically and without embarrassment.  Anything less is bad citizenship and a form of theft from the public conversation.

As Christians, we cannot claim to love God and then ignore the needs of our neighbors.  Loving God is like loving a spouse.  A husband may tell his wife that he loves her, and of course that’s very beautiful.  But she’ll still want to see the proof in his actions.  Likewise if we claim to be “Catholic,” we need to prove it by our behavior.    And serving other people by working for justice, charity and truth in our nation’s political life is one of the very important ways we do that.

The “separation of Church and state” does not mean – and it can never mean – separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions.  That kind of separation would require Christians to deny who we are; to repudiate Jesus when he commands us to be “leaven in the world” and to “make disciples of all nations.”  That kind of radical separation steals the moral content of a society.  It’s the equivalent of telling a married man that he can’t act married in public.  Of course, he can certainly do that, but he won’t stay married for long.

We owe no leader any submission or cooperation in the pursuit of grave evil.  In fact, we have the duty to change bad laws and resist grave evil in our public life, both by our words and our non-violent actions.  The truest respect we can show to civil authority is the witness of our Catholic faith and our moral convictions, without excuses or apologies.

In democracies, we elect public servants, not messiahs.

It does not matter what we claim to believe if we are unwilling to act on our beliefs.  What we say about our Catholic faith is the easy part.  What we do with it shapes who we really are.

For many years, studies have shown that Americans have a very poor sense of history.  That is very dangerous, because as Thucydides and Machiavelli and Thomas Jefferson have all said, history matters.  It matters because the past shapes the present, and the present shapes the future.  If Catholics do not know history, and especially their own history as Catholics, then somebody else – and usually somebody not very friendly – will create their history for them.

Consider, please, the history of white privilege in America, as explained by Larry Adelman the executive producer of RACE – The Power of an Illusion and co-director of California Newsreel:

Many middle-class white people, especially those of us who grew up in the suburbs, like to think that we got to where we are today by virtue of our merit – hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of others, we close down when we hear the words “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking goes, why don’t ‘they’? After all, it’s been almost 40 years now since the Civil Rights Act was passed.

What we do not readily acknowledge is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history in this country – a white history. Here are a few ways in which government programs and practices have channeled wealth and opportunities to white people at the expense of others.

Early Racial Preferences

We all know the old history, but it’s still worth reminding ourselves of its scale and scope. Affirmative action in the American “workplace” first began in the late 17th century when European indentured servants – the original source of unfree labor on the new tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland – were replaced by African slaves. In exchange for their support and their policing of the growing slave population, lower-class Europeans won new rights, entitlements, and opportunities from the planter elite.

White Americans were also given a head start with the help of the U.S. Army. The 1830 Indian Removal Act, for example, forcibly relocated Cherokee, Creeks and other eastern Indians to west of the Mississippi River to make room for white settlers. The 1862 Homestead Act followed suit, giving away millions of acres – for free – of what had been Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. Ultimately, 270 million acres, or 10% of the total land area of the United States, was converted to private hands, overwhelmingly white, under Homestead Act provisions.

The 1790 Naturalization Act permitted only “free white persons” to become naturalized citizens, thus opening the doors to European immigrants but not others. Only citizens could vote, serve on juries, hold office, and in some cases, even hold property. In this century, Alien Land Laws passed in California and other states, reserved farm land for white growers by preventing Asian immigrants, ineligible to become citizens, from owning or leasing land. Immigration restrictions further limited opportunities for nonwhite groups. Racial barriers to naturalized U.S. citizenship weren’t removed until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, and white racial preferences in immigration remained until 1965.

In the South, the federal government never followed through on General Sherman’s Civil War plan to divide up plantations and give each freed slave “40 acres and a mule” as reparations. Only once was monetary compensation made for slavery, in Washington, D.C. There, government officials paid up to $300 per slave upon emancipation – not to the slaves, but to local slaveholders as compensation for loss of property.

When slavery ended, its legacy lived on not only in the impoverished condition of Black people but in the wealth and prosperity that accrued to white slave owners and their descendants. Economists who try to place a dollar value on how much white Americans have profited from 200 years of unpaid slave labor, including interest, begin their estimates at $1 trillion.

Jim Crow laws, instituted in the late 19th and early 20th century and not overturned in many states until the 1960s, reserved the best jobs, neighborhoods, schools and hospitals for white people.

The Advantages Grow, Generation to Generation

Less known are more recent government racial preferences, first enacted during the New Deal, that directed wealth to white families and continue to shape life opportunities and chances today.

The landmark Social Security Act of 1935 provided a safety net for millions of workers, guaranteeing them an income after retirement. But the act specifically excluded two occupations: agricultural workers and domestic servants, who were predominately African American, Mexican, and Asian. As low-income workers, they also had the least opportunity to save for their retirement. They couldn’t pass wealth on to their children. Just the opposite. Their children had to support them.

Like Social Security, the 1935 Wagner Act helped establish an important new right for white people. By granting unions the power of collective bargaining, it helped millions of white workers gain entry into the middle class over the next 30 years. But the Wagner Act permitted unions to exclude non-whites and deny them access to better paid jobs and union protections and benefits such as health care, job security, and pensions. Many craft unions remained nearly all-white well into the 1970s. In 1972, for example, every single one of the 3,000 members of Los Angeles Steam Fitters Local #250 was still white.

But it was another radicalized New Deal program, the Federal Housing Administration, that helped generate much of the wealth that so many white families enjoy today. These revolutionary programs made it possible for millions of average white Americans – but not others – to own a home for the first time. The government set up a national neighborhood appraisal system, explicitly tying mortgage eligibility to race. Integrated communities were ipso facto deemed a financial risk and made ineligible for home loans, a policy known today as “redlining.” Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government backed $120 billion of home loans. More than 98% went to whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal support in northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to African Americans.

These government programs made possible the new segregated white suburbs that sprang up around the country after World War II. Government subsidies for municipal services helped develop and enhance these suburbs further, in turn fueling commercial investments. Freeways tied the new suburbs to central business districts, but they often cut through and destroyed the vitality of non-white neighborhoods in the central city.

Today, Black and Latino mortgage applicants are still 60% more likely than whites to be turned down for a loan, even after controlling for employment, financial, and neighborhood factors. According to the Census, whites are more likely to be segregated than any other group. As recently as 1993, 86% of suburban whites still lived in neighborhoods with a black population of less than 1%.

Reaping the Rewards of Racial Preference

One result of the generations of preferential treatment for whites is that a typical white family today has on average eight times the assets, or net worth, of a typical African American family, according to New York University economist Edward Wolff. Even when families of the same income are compared, white families have more than twice the wealth of Black families. Much of that wealth difference can be attributed to the value of one’s home, and how much one inherited from parents.

But a family’s net worth is not simply the finish line, it’s also the starting point for the next generation. Those with wealth pass their assets on to their children – by financing a college education, lending a hand during hard times, or assisting with the down payment for a home. Some economists estimate that up to 80 percent of lifetime wealth accumulation depends on these intergenerational transfers. White advantage is passed down, from parent to child to grand-child. As a result, the racial wealth gap – and the head start enjoyed by whites – appears to have grown since the civil rights days.

In 1865, just after Emancipation, it is not surprising that African Americans owned only 0.5 percent of the total worth of the United States. But by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition of slavery, Black Americans still possessed only a meager 1 percent of national wealth. As legal scholar John Powell says in the documentary series, Race – The Power of an Illusion, “The slick thing about whiteness is that whites are getting the spoils of a racist system even if they are not personally racist.”

Rather than to recognize how “racial preferences” have tilted the playing field and given us a head start in life, many whites continue to believe that race does not affect our lives. Instead, we chastise others for not achieving what we have; we even invert the situation and accuse non-whites of using “the race card” to advance themselves.

Some white people even suggest that differential outcomes may simply result from differences in “natural” ability or motivation. However, sociologist Dalton Conley’s research shows that when we compare the performance of families across racial lines who make not just the same income, but also hold similar net worth, a very interesting thing happens: many of the racial disparities in education, graduation rates, welfare usage and other outcomes disappear. The “performance gap” between whites and nonwhites is a product not of nature, but of unequal circumstances.

“Colorblind” policies that treat everyone the same, no exceptions for minorities, are often counter-posed against affirmative action. But colorblindness today merely bolsters the unfair advantages that color-coded practices have enabled white Americans to long accumulate.

As much as any white Catholic would like to deny his or her own white privilege in America, there is a moral duty not to do so.  The question remains whether simply acknowledging one’s own white privilege is enough?

Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem is a real, tangible way to express the disdain for the injustices perpetuated by generations of white privilege in America. The reality is that the perpetuation of white privilege is what contributes to racism and to the killing of innocent black people by police officers in America.  For the Catholic who chooses to join Kaepernick’s protest, it is saying, “Here I am, on one knee, my sword thrust in the ground.”

When I think of Jesus, I think of all my ancestors who put their lives in his hands, of all the brilliant, powerful, and saintly people who have gone before me who believed. I think of my children and the generations to come and how they will look upon my life and my faith, and how I want to blaze a trail for them to follow.

Unlike anything Man can ever be, Jesus has no wrong in him, he goes down no wrong paths and evil has no dominion in his heart. I can swear blind fealty to this Lord. I can follow him. I can tell him anything and it changes him not at all. He is the perfect country in which to live, he is the perfect Lord to serve, he is the perfect friend to trust, the One True King to follow.

Jesus does not embody the forces which bring about systemic racism and white privilege.

We serve Caesar best by serving God first. We honor our nation best by living our Catholic faith honestly and vigorously, and bringing it without apology into the public square and its debates.  We’re citizens of heaven first.  But just as God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so the glory and irony of the Christian life is this:  The more faithfully we love God, the more truly we serve the world.

To join our black brothers and sisters in solidarity with a rejection of systemic racism and white privilege is more complicated than protesting a symbol of that system.  And yet, to #TakeAKnee is a good place to begin.


Author: Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is a mother of two daughters. She practiced law for 20-years, before retiring with lupus complications. She is a Catholic and is politically progressive.

4 thoughts on “Fealty and Rendering To Caesar: Why White Catholics Should #TakeAKnee”

  1. Thank you Sarah. I’m part of a Clergy Coalition for Justice here in Charlotte NC. It’s been a heck of a week and and not one Catholic priest is aboard. Makes me sad since this is NOT our Church’s long tradition of fighting for the oppressed in our midst. Thank you for this reminder of history we all too easily forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah Smith, all I can say is wow! So eloquently written. I hope this is seen by all with open minds and can effectuate change. I am definitely taking a knee!
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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