Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Preaching Politics

After a long hiatus from writing anything other than sermons and letters, I am again writing.  I have found a purpose that can motivate me to take precious time away from resting while my one-year old son naps: politics.  This political season has been a mess, as we all know, and as far as I am concerned the role that churches and ministers played during and after the presidential campaign has also been disturbing.  Much of the hateful division we see in the country right now is due to Christians' behavior, who claim to be people of love and compassion.  So here we go.  I am going to start, or at least for one random post in the midst of writers' block, preaching politics.

Not really.  Indeed, preaching politics is exactly what I will not do.  I won't do it because the separation of Church and State is good for both sides.  To have the state influenced or run by the church makes us a theocracy, the histories of which are not pretty; to have the church influenced or run by the state questions the validity of the Church, as the origination of the Church of England makes rather clear.  On one hand you cannot have a state in which non-believers feel uncomfortable, threatened, or are disenfranchised, and on the other you cannot have a Church informed by the political whims of the state.  While it can certainly be argued that efforts to remove a religious presence from state operations, schools in particular, have over-exaggerated what a separation between Church and State means, it should not be argued that the separation itself is dangerous. 

Yet arguing against the separation is, essentially, what many now do, whether they admit it or not.  To be honest, this was the first year that I paid any attention to the conventions of the two major parties.  I was saddened that at both ministers prayed publicly and openly for the election of a particular individual.  And I am of course no stranger to the concept that Trump made prominent and that Evangelicals have voiced over the years of re-empowering Christianity and Christian churches.  Putting aside for now the debate over whether we can actually call ourselves a Christian nation, what we are seeing can be no other than a trend to want to put Christianity in power and is, a) an attempt to sever the separation of Church and State in favor of the Church, and b) dangerous.

It is dangerous for a minister or church to step over the boundary into the State for a number of reasons.  I won't touch on the fact that Christianity and the Church has not meant one thing since the Reformation and so 'putting Christianity in power' could mean an internecine Christian war, as churches fight for political preeminence, which is dangerous.  Nor will I touch on a minister's personal political ambitions.  A minister, like any other citizen, should feel able and welcome to run for office at any level.

What I am talking about is when a minister steps into the political arena on behalf of his or her church and/or expressly in the role of a religious leader and throws his or her support behind a party or a candidate.  Preaching politics in that way is dangerous.  It is dangerous because the church's identity then becomes partly wrapped up in political results.  For instance, if a minister says, "We need to vote for Candidate A because we believe in God," and Candidate A wins, then the minister and the church will probably say that God ensured the victory.  But can we really say God did so?  On a larger scale it's like praying that your sports team wins, and then it does, and you thank God.  Well, did God care?  I don't know that we can say, especially if Candidate A turns out to be terrible.  Did God condemn us to terrible political leadership?  More importantly, if Candidate A loses, then the minister and the church might then say, "Everyone who didn't vote for Candidate A is sinful, and God is now punishing us for the sins of our country."  Walking down that road is not only theologically sketchy and terrifying but practically so as well.  When ministers claim that a certain event occurs as God's punishment against us, the corresponding emotion is not compassionate but hateful or distrustful.  If an earthquake is punishment, then we don't then serve the victims out of compassion.  Indeed, we might not serve the victims at all, but if we do, it would be with an eye toward converting everyone because we can't trust that they are good people.  Arguing that a political decision is some wide-scale punishment only heightens the issue because then the fear and distrust of people extends to one's own neighbors or family members, or to one's self.  The only solution that is ever offered in such a scary time is to follow that minister's or church's religious advice.

And if we believe that minister or church, then we have stepped into the second reason why a church's overstepping the boundaries is dangerous: power.  The founders of our country knew that human nature is less than ideal, and so created a government in which a person's own avarice and ambition would balance and check themselves.  Unfortunately, many churches do not contain the same checks, allowing ministers to funnel power to themselves and to the church that they oversee.  Such power in the hands of the church is not biblical or God-ordained. 

Look, sure, Paul might say in his letter to the Romans that we should obey authorities, and Christ may have said that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's (and render unto God what is God's, the meaning of all of that is obscure), but the arc of Christ's life and the Christian movement thereafter pushes against the powers that be.  Christ's political life fought against Rome and the temple leaders and Paul's message of grace for all encouraged nonconformity with typical elitist power structures.  Many scholars argue that it was when Constantine commandeered Christianity as part of his consolidation of power in the empire that the movement lost its passion and footing.  There are a lot of good arguments and lots of good evidence for that.  So for a Christian group to cheer when a candidate promises more power for Christians and churches, and for Christian groups to petition for such a reality, is essentially non-Christian.

It's also non-American--though the idea that something is non-Christian should be more relevant for Christians.  The first amendment, including the freedom of religion, guarantees the freedom of all religions, not an established church or established religion.  For one church or one religion to be promised political power explicitly contradicts the ideals and liberties on which our country was founded.  We cannot say that our country is a Christian nation for this same reason.  Speaking of which, a lot of Americans, I've noticed, could use a history lesson on the professed faith of our nation's founders, many would be surprised.  But even if the Founding Fathers were all Christian, they, too, would vigorously battle the idea that we are a Christian nation. 

During this election campaign a woman said, "Shame on you," to me because I am a Christian pastor and yet was arguing against building a governmental structure based on Christian principles.  I mean, sure, I'd understand if political power in the hands of a Christian church, or any religion's church, is a good idea, but it's not--it's not good for the Church, for the State, and because of that, it's non-American.  I as a pastor have to put aside any political ambitions I may have on behalf of the Church because doing otherwise would work to destroy the principles of my faith and the principles of my country.

So what is the role of a minister and of the Church in politics?  First it should be said that churches can still be political.  The word polis, from which we get politics, and the Greek work from which we get 'liturgy,' meaning 'work of the people,' are quite similar.  Just as Christ was a prophetic force on behalf of the oppressed, poor, and ravaged, so should churches be--to do the work of the people, of all the children of God.  That is where our political force should be centered: fighting for justice for the forgotten and destitute.  What the Church's political arm should be is prophetic for those who have less, not for the privileged.  Neither should the Church's political arm aim for amassing its own power to become privileged itself. 

Described in this way, what the Church's mission should be differs widely from what the most public expression of the Church is.  Those that we style Evangelicals seem to be pushing for its own political power, and gaining it, while ignoring those most oppressed and ravaged (refugees in particular).  At the same time the Church pushes for approval of certain policies, like a ban on abortion or gay marriage, which amount to a reduction of freedom of religion because, again, we cannot somehow gain freedom of religion for our way of believing without also guaranteeing freedom of religion for other faith systems that, in this case, may be okay with abortion or gay marriage.  By pushing for certain policies the Church is, again, trying to grab power for certain segments rather than fighting for justice in the name of Christ.

Likewise, what a minister's role is, or at least could be, entails preaching the morals and ideals of Christ rather than policies that may agree with our own theology but not the theology of other Christians or people of other faiths or no faith.  On behalf of the Church a minister should only preach on living grace.  Preaching in favor of a candidate or a policy runs in the above issues.  Preaching discipleship of Christ, however, encourages people to live better and trust in God rather than hope in greater power. 

There is a time for a minister to fill the Bonhoeffer role, though.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was executed during World War II for conspiring to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer may forever afterwards exemplify when the time is right for a minister to cross the line: when a political leader corrupts an entire nation into doing downright evil.  What's interesting here is that those ministers and churches who did cross a line did so in favor of the one candidate who could most provoke the Bonhoeffer effect.  With all that Trump said and promised, and has continued to say and promised since the election, throwing public support behind him as a pastor or church amounts to blinded hypocrisy and disavowal of our own principles.  I'm stopping well short, or at least short, of saying that individual Christians who supported Trump are hypocritical or disavowing his or her faith.  Deciding who to vote for this election season was complicated and difficult, more so than normal, and particularly so for Republicans or right-leaning independents.  Behind the exterior of Trump there are policies that one could reasonably support.  That does not change, however, that the attacks Trump leveled against whole swaths of people makes a minister's or church's public support of Trump hypocritical and sad in the light of Christian principles--not to mention dangerous given our country's Constitution. 

In all of this, my points are these: 1) while we as individuals should use our faith as a guide in our involvement in the political sphere, inserting our faith into politics as a tool for power or victory is not appropriate and often dangerous; and 2) a minister or church, of any faith, should never make political pronouncements except to prophesy on behalf of the oppressed that the government seems to want to ignore.  Whether we look to point one or two, the events of the campaign season and the results of it are troubling, especially as many Christians are now claiming political (and because political, spiritual) victory in the name of God over and against other Christians and definitely non-Christians.  That's not very Christian of us.  My prayer is that we can pull back before we institute a theocracy in all but name.

More posts to come.

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