What is the relationship between religion and politics? Is it true that religion and politics don’t mix? We’ve heard the phrase “separation of church and state.” What does that mean? Does the Gospel apply only to our private lives? Does the Church have nothing to say to our society?
At St. Paul’s we represent a spectrum of political commitments relative to party affiliation, positions on issues and candidates, and the sources we rely upon for information. In some homes the television is tuned to Fox, in others the television is tuned to MSNBC. Nevertheless, I see with few exceptions among us a willingness to give each other room.
I’ve heard among us the opinion that “religion and politics don’t mix.” If by that is meant that the pulpit is not a place for the preacher to substitute for the preaching of the Gospel an agenda relative to a specific issue or candidate as though it were the only agenda possible among Christians, then I would agree with that statement.
The phrase “religion and politics don’t mix” is problematic for me, however. The Gospel of Christ is inherently political; that is, it challenges our social arrangements with a vision of justice, wholeness, reconciliation. The word “Gospel” was first used in Christianity to proclaim that there was an authority above the Emperor; the newly born child of Bethlehem. The response of Herod to this news confirms that the Empire knew very well they faced a political challenge. The Jesus who proclaimed as his mission good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:18-21) is a Jesus with an agenda to challenge the politics of his age and every subsequent age. The Sermon on the Mount proclaims a politics of abundance, a politics eschewing violence, a politics of reconciliation and a new world in which righteousness dwells. The arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus were the response of a political system that perceived the politics of Jesus as a threat to the politics of Empire. The Revelation to St. John the Divine is a political tract encouraging the witness of a persecuted Body of Christ to the authority of Christ above the claims of Imperial Rome. Finally, we begin our liturgies with the affirmation “Blessed be the One, Holy and Living God, and Blessed Be God’s Kingdom, now and forever.” That’s political speech. The Gospel has never been politically neutral. It has never been partisan, but it has never been politically neutral.
William Lamar speaks as a black pastor from the tradition of the black church, which was and continues to be, a place in which the politics of the Gospel of Jesus Christ nourished and strengthened and supported black people for witness and action for racial justice. The black Church in America in the Civil Rights Movement found great inspiration in the biblical story of the Exodus, and understood that God was hearing their cry, as God had heard the cry of the Hebrew people before them, and was their deliverer. The black church didn’t have the luxury of being “non-political”. The politics of Jim Crow and segregation enforced by the white majority made their political activism necessary.
In a recent article, Pastor Lamar wrote:
Whenever we deploy words, especially in the service of God, we are acting politically. There is no such thing as nonpolitical language….The church is a praying, singing, preaching, witnessing body. We witness to the in-breaking of God’s reign of love, justice, beauty, and abundance in time and space. We lament brokenness, evil, and violence. We proclaim that these dastardly realities are ending even as we groan and press toward God’s redemption of humanity and all of creation. Our prayers, songs, sermons, and testimonies are acts of political speech.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas observes:
The only problem with “religion and politics do not mix” is that the phrase is one of the strongest examples we have of political rhetoric. There is no escaping “the political.” To refuse to take a political stance is to take a political stance.
The point I want to make is this. The Gospel of Jesus Christ represents a political challenge to our political affiliations and commitments, which are inevitably to political parties and policies which are governed by expediency, by concern for the maintenance of power, by overlooking the just claims of the under-represented and the unseen. God is, as the bumper sticker puts it, neither a Republican or a Democrat. God is the one whose call to Love challenges us all in our commitments. When Christians gather, we need to let ourselves be deeply challenged by the message of the Gospel of Jesus in a way which causes us to question our closely held opinions, to examine our political commitments, to take seriously our baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Now, a word about “separation of church and state.” This phrase, originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Baptists assuring them that the state would not interfere in their affairs, is to be understood in reference to the Constitution, which provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This provision does not mean that the church cannot bear witness to the state about a matter of policy, based on our understanding of the basic commitments to which the Gospel calls Christians. The church should do that.
When I vote, I cannot just compartmentalize my faith in Jesus Christ off in the realm of privacy. The same is true when I call my Congressperson. The same is true when I get into the pulpit. I made a vow to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. His voice is authoritative and affects every decision about everything. His love for all is apparent, and has political implications. The choices I have are imperfect. I am an imperfect person, in a system designed to accommodate an imperfect world. But the vision Jesus gives me in his teaching, life and death and resurrection means a hunger to see what is right, what makes for justice, for human flourishing. The voice of Jesus gives urgency, a desire to see society bend itself toward justice for all.
NOTE: The quotes from William Lamar and Stanley Hauerwas are from the article “Do Politics Belong in Church?” published in Christian Century Magazine September 24, 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/opinion/do-politics-belong-church