There are a number of things that I try to avoid with church work. On the top of my list are things like craft shows, ice cream socials, and politics. The first two are simply due to a strong and well-reasoned fear of glitter and an intolerance of lactose; I do not have any theological issues or ethical problems with craft shows or ice cream socials. The third, however, is because of the ethical and theological quandary that accompanies any conversation having to do with politics in the context of the church. As a culture we have tried to separate religion and politics. As a pastor I have tried to stay away from the merging and mixing of the two.
Yet to claim to be devoid of politics in the religious sphere is disingenuous; religion is, by nature, political and speaks to the current political context in one way or another. At one level or another to read scripture, to pray, or to attend and participate in worship is a political act.
First, consider the notion that politics is about the ways in which one relates to people and is about the practice and theory of influencing people on a global, civic, and individual level (thank you Wikipedia). Because of our disestablishment heritage made concrete in the First Amendment, one aspect of the discourse of American politics has moved to a place where politics claims to be devoid of religion, and many wussy religious leaders (myself included) strive to claim that religion is devoid of politics. We claim that religion has no place in politics and politics has no place in religion. Yet religion is about influencing people on a global, civic, and individual level. When I preach I am trying to persuade people to aspire to a certain way of living and a certain way of being in relationships with other people. In Christianity we tend to embrace an ethic that calls us to treat people a certain way (mostly nicely) and to take care of people who are in need (mostly). Such an ethic speaks to an idea of how the world is supposed to be; a place where everyone is mostly nice to each other and were we mostly take care of people in need. It may be watered-down, but this is a political ethic. Perhaps one cannot so easily separate one from the other.
It is not difficult to push a little bit and see those moments when Christianity was overtly political. The roots of Christianity, the purity laws (as well as others) found in the Hebrew Scriptures (or the Old Testament for you close-minded folks) are political in the way they guide people’s lives. The vice and virtue lists in the letters of Paul and in the Pastoral Letters are intended to shape and mold the behaviors and relationships of a nascent community. Kinda political when you think about it. In the Medieval era the church and the state were closely inter-twined leading to the notion of divine mandate suggesting that kings were the spokespersons of God and of Cardinals and Popes wielding real political power. That didn’t go well when some kings believed that their divine mandate empowered them to go against the current teachings of the church and trying to do crazy things like divorce their wives (I’m looking at you, Henry). Others, like John Calvin, Ludwich Zwingli, and folks who came after them (I’m looking at you and your Puritan ilk, John Winthrop) believed that government needed to be led by religious people who were right with God in faith and action. We have a history of a close and at times messy relationship of religion and politics.
But we have tried to pull the two apart. Part of the radical nature of the great experiment of religious liberty (a nod to William Penn and Roger Williams) was to suggest that the government would not have a religious bias. Because of experiences in England and in Colonial America, people here in the United States thought it might be a good idea to try having a government that was guided by reason, rational, and human decency, but not by a specific branch of any faith tradition. Thank goodness for prevalent preaching of secular humanism and the optimistic hope in humanity to undergird such a notion (sarcasm?). People could be trusted to do the right thing because people are generally reasonable even if they are Quakers or Methodists, or dare I suggest, Baptists! In time the notion emerged and took hold that one’s faith need not be a dominant aspect of one’s political life and that it is best to keep God out of politics. An individual piety emerged and a social conscious diminished.
Note: I realize that I am glossing over large swaths of American religious and civic history. The abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the civil rights movement, the Religious Right of the 1980s are all examples of Christian political action. The point is there has been a thread in our narrative that looks to keep religion and politics separate.
Yet I contend that religion is to a degree political and will continue to be political and there will continue to be a strain and tension between the relationship of religion and politics.
Some say it is important and appropriate for churches to be engaged and involved in political processes. There are times when injustice is so great that to stay silent is in itself a sin. While in a jail cell in Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr., famously called out many white, Protestant pastors to join in the cause for civil rights, claiming that they could no longer wait in the arms of compliancy and live with fundamentally unjust laws. When H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that it would be wrong for churches to be involved with or advocate for any kind of military action in the 1940s his brother Reinhold responded that his brother was holding an “illusory hope” and to the impossible notion of a society of pure love. There was a need for the church to advocate for the United States to become involved at the global level even if it was an evil, it was a lesser evil compared with inactivity (he then proceeded to give his brother a noogie).
These are only recent examples of times when Christians were called to be directly involved in the political process of our nation. We hear again and again in the New Testament about the “Kingdom of God,” and are given a picture of a utopian society of equality, sharing, and grace. It is a very political idea and if we really believe it then perhaps we should be working to implement it. To be passive could be interpreted as not embracing such an integral part of the Gospel writings.
Yet on the other hand there is the reality of the diversity of moral convictions and faith traditions in our nation. Even within our Christian family there are many different understandings of what is important, of what needs to be a priority for the individual, and of what Christians should be advocating. Can you believe that some Christians actually disagree with others? Can you believe that some Christians may actually disagree with me? Some may say that the greatest problem that the government needs to face is hunger and poverty and others may say that it is actually abortion and what happens in someone’s bedroom (hopefully a lot of sleeping). Both are political claims, and while they are not mutually exclusive, there is a way in which addressing one may undermine the other. Perhaps it would be best if we just stayed out of politics over all and that way no one will ever get upset, just bored.
The reality is that the practice of religious freedom, while messy, has shown to be positive and productive in helping people thrive. Yet politics will necessarily call for a compromise on one level or another and faith is not about compromise. Hence, there is a mess in the mixing of religion and politics.
Thus, speaking about politics in a Christian context is difficult and messy. Yet it must be done. It must be done because:
- It reflects the basic Christian notion that we are called to care about and for other people. As soon as we speak about anything political we are speaking about the lives of others and the ways in which they may or may not interact with our own live. If we recognize that people struggle and suffer and that we need to do something to help them, our next step will in one way or another be political. Even if it is handing out sandwiches it is a political act (albeit very safe and surface)– a redistribution of resources.
- We are called to show compassion to people. Compassion is a resources in rare commodity in politics today. The current method of political discourse is with a great quantity of vitriol and acrimony and the common wisdom is that the louder you shout and the meaner you are the more persuasive your argument. Yet that is not part of the core teachings of Christ. Actually I believe that they are not part of any of the teachings of Christ. Instead, I believe we are to treat other people with charity, compassion, and grace no matter how much we disagree with their policies and beliefs. This is a way of evangelizing our faith through politics, by being radically nice to others even as we disagree with them. Sadly, today this is not an approach that is practiced by many Christians who are politically involved.
- Power and principalities are real. There is power in the world, governments have power over people and often time enact policy that threaten and harm individuals. Institutions often are given power in one way or another and embrace actions that harm the least of society. Again, we are to try to take care of other people, and that means we work to make sure that wherever power is, it acts and moves for the benefit of the poor, orphans, widows, and the like. Kinda like the prophets, Christians can and should be an influencing presence with institutions and governments (powers and principalities).
So get involved, be political, get riled, but do so with a lot of compassion, with a lot of prayer, and with a lot of humility. Think about the least of our society, pray for guidance, hold your nose, and be political. Start with reading your Bible, which can be a very dangerous and political act, and then get your hands messy and pray for forgiveness because whenever we get involved in politics we will most likely need it.