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Separated, but not Divorced: What is the Church's Role in Politics?

Back in 2004, I wrote a spiritual advice newspaper column titled "Faithfully Yours" that ran for a while in the Loudoun Times Mirror and The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

One of the first questions I received - again, this was more than 12 years ago - was about the church's role in politics.

Here was the question:

"In some churches, political views are strongly expressed by the church leadership, and church members are encouraged to vote for specific candidates or instructed on how to vote on certain social/political issues.  In other churches, this is not done, and the church leadership encourages people to prayerfully develop their own views.

What is the church's role when it comes to politics and the pulpit?"

Here, in italics, was my answer in 2004 - and, not changing a word of it - is also my answer today: 

There are two opposite and equal dangers churches can fall into regarding faith and politics.

The first danger is to say that there should be no connection between the two - to claim that "politics has no place in the pulpit."

In the early 1930's, when Germany began enacting official measures against Jews, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a lone voice crying out in a wilderness of Christian cowardice and naivety. But in fighting against fascism and bigotry, Bonhoeffer understood what many Christians of his day (and our day) refuse to: that sometimes faith demands we take actions that are considered political, even if those actions are unpopular or go against the current culture.

So clearly, politics has a place in the pulpit. We do not check our faith outside the voting booth.

But the other danger is to check our brains outside the church door.

If you encounter a church that is happy to do all your thinking for you, sparing you the trouble of sorting through the implications of your faith yourself, watch out: chances are that church has put a political agenda - of either the liberal left or the conservative right - at the center of their life together, and not God.  But God says "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," and we should have the humility to admit many people of good faith can act courageously out of many viewpoints.

(2016 me again) So, insofar as my ministry as Rector of The Falls Church Episcopal, that's the tension I have tried and will continue to try to keep here:
  • On the other hand, to insist we practice that rare Christian virtue called humility - to resist equating "our agenda" with "God's agenda" and recognize that people of good faith can act courageously out of many viewpoints... 
  • On the other hand, to re-read our Bonhoeffer, and in the spirit of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, insist that sometimes our faith demands that we take actions that are considered political, even if those actions are unpopular or go against the current culture. 
In this nation, church and state are separated -- and for good reasons.

But they're not divorced. And so we remain in cautious conversation with one another, appropriately distrustful of each other, but always looking for ways that we can, through public policies and ordinary acts of kindness, help repair the world.


That's Jefferson, of the phrase "separation of church and state," staring at "In God we trust"-- on government currency ...irony? Or holding a tension between two truths? 


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