Getting into the Weeds
Separation of Church and State is No Excuse for Separating Communities of Faith from Political Concerns
Because of my academic training and religious history, and because I am a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, I come to a view of Christian faith and church life that is steeped in questions of religious liberty, the separation of church and state, and the acceptable role of the church in politics. In examining the modern American history of thought on this question, there seem to be two broad ideological camps.
I will call the first ideological camp the Roger Williams camp. Many of us will recall that Roger Williams was a member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony banished him when he spoke out against the creation of an explicitly Christian polity. He travelled South and eventually founded the colony of Rhode Island in part as a testament to religious freedom. Williams was the first forceful advocate in the American colonial era of a separation of the institutions of church and state. He likened the describing the encroachment of church polity into state governance as like a garden overrun by the surrounding wilderness. He believed, in the context of this analogy, that a wall should be erected to protect the garden.
I find it interesting that for Williams, his concern was making sure that the church remained unblemished by secular concerns and not the other way around, as many tend to think of church-state separation today. Thomas Jefferson, who popularized the separation mantra, follows in the footsteps of Williams. It is not a stretch to say that Williams is the progenitor, through Jefferson, of our modern jurisprudence on the relationship between the church and the state. Those who believe and follow in this lineage (and I would count myself among them) worry about the freedom of the church to fulfill its unique mission once it entangles itself in secular politics while also being afraid for those who do not share our faith should Christianity gain too much control in the halls of government.
Let’s call the second camp the Francis Schaeffer camp. Schaeffer is not well known outside of particular religious circles. Schaeffer was a conservative theologian whose work became the intellectual and theological foundation for the Religious Right. Over three decades and several books, Schaeffer argued that the law is inextricably bound to God. To remove the law from its Christian base is to rob it of logical consistency. According to Schaeffer, it was the responsibility of the Christian to seek to reestablish God’s sovereignty in all areas of life, including government.
Schaeffer had a tremendous effect on Christianity in America and on conservative politics. Thought leaders of the first iteration of the Religious Right like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell credited Schaeffer with changing their beliefs on the intersection between religion and politics. (Falwell, especially, criticized the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement for an inordinate focus on earthly concerns.) Politicians like Michele Bachmann cite Schaeffer’s work as formative. Evangelical Christians can trace their rise as a meaningful voting bloc through the Religious Right back to Francis Schaeffer. Someone like Donald Trump could say he owes his presidency to Francis Schaeffer.
As someone coming from a separationist tradition, I understand and sympathize with churches that are reticent to enter into political discussions in any meaningful way. There are churches where the ministry genuinely believe that their mission is to tend to their members’ spiritual needs and not spend an inordinate amount of time on the issues of the day. “This world is not our home,” I can hear them say. Then there are churches with diverse membership. However that diversity expresses itself, whether through class or race and ethnicity, diversity of membership usually equals diversity of political thought. To address politics, regardless of the position, would mean alienating some segment of the congregation. On the surface, there does not seem to be any worthwhile value to purposefully disrupting the life of the church to address this issue. I submit, however, that we are living in a very different time, and this new day will not abide fence sitters.
To be fair, the newness of this day is not found in the knowledge that racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia exist in our society. The time is not different because those who claimed Christian moral authority became leaders willing to trade moral values for political influence. It is true that these social ills always existed in our nation. The leaders of the Religious Right from its very founding always had darker ulterior motives. What makes this day new is that for the first time in a long time a living embodiment of all these social diseases now sits inthe Oval Office. What makes this time different is the openness with which the leaders of the Conservative Evangelical movement flout their hypocrisy.
The unholy boldness of the current presidential administration and its religio-political underpinnings requires an equal and opposite righteous indignation in response. And that response begins with the small but important step of talking about politics communally in the religious space. If we refuse to wade into the murky waters of the socio-political I believe as the church we ignore important elements of the very reason for our existence. First, we set people adrift to navigate these convoluted issues for themselves. These issues can be perplexing, and we all come with our ingrained biases that threaten to lead us to responses that highlight the worst within us. The church needs to be talking about these issues in order to help guide members through them. The church, if it is to be anything to its members, should be a source of guidance —leading people to more loving, forgiving, and gracious view of the world.
Second, we send a message to those affected by this administration, its rhetoric and its policies. The church should care about the groups amongst its membership that have to live with the possibility that they may lose rights that their ancestors fought to attain, or that they will lose the presence of a family member to a deportation or a travel ban. Or those that wake up just a little more fearful of the police or the prospect of violence as hate crimes increase. I believe that the church should be an advocate for these people, but at the very least the church can let these people know that they are seen and heard. There is a family that understands their pain and their fear and is willing to be a solace for them. The church is supposed to be helping its members make sense of the difficulties of life. How can we do that if we are not even willing to talk out loud about what people in our congregations are facing on a daily basis?
I attend a large multicultural Adventist church in the South. It is the first time I am attending a church that is not racially homogenous. Unfortunately, my church had nothing to say the weekend after the 2016 election. It had only the most obvious comments to make in the wake of Charlottesville. There was only a parenthetical comment in response to Trump’s expletive laden racism and xenophobia. Unfortunately as a relatively new attendee of this church, I did not have the personal relationships that would normally help to overlook such slights. Instead, I never felt more invisible. As a nation we are at the beginning stages of the 2020 political season. (I know we should not be here this early but we are.) I would never advocate for Christian churches to stump for politicians, advocate for a particular party’s platform, or even join a social justice march. Instead I would say that there is likely someone in your church who sees the outcome of the next election as more than just another political contest. For them this election will be a life-changing event. The church should be there supporting them, letting them know that we all serve a God who has not forgotten them and that God is “acquainted with [their] grief.”