Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Separation of Church and State

There has kind of been a renaissance of interest in social justice among American evangelicals over the past few years. For the past 20 or so years, evangelicals have stereotypically been interested only in issues such as abortion, God in school, laws against homosexuality, and regulation of the media. Typically they have been fiscally conservative and voted Republican.

The tide seems to be changing when it comes to you younger evangelicals. Most young people seem to be more interested in the issues that the previous generation surrendered to the Democrats and "liberals" (environmental issues, racism, etc.). I tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, with the presidential election upon us, I have been thinking a lot about what the church's role should be in politics. A church cannot endorse a particular party or candidate at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status, but individual Christians have often been very vocal in national politics to try to rally others around their candidate.

Generally, I have ben very turned off from these movements. It seems like they do more harm then good. You mention groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition and most people just roll their eyes. There is a real distatste in this country for groups trying to "legislate morality" by pushing their religious agenda at the polls. Now, with younger evangelicals typically taking a more leftish stance on a lot of issues, these groups are even more suspect--they're pretty much ridiculed in most "emerging churches." I have tended to agree--the evangelical alliance with the Republican party is a bad idea and the marriage between the two has led to more problems than solutions.

However, in the last few months I have started to question this judgment. I was reading A Testament to Freedom, a collection of sermons, letters, and essays written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (one of my heroes), and I came across a letter he had written while staying in America. Bonhoeffer was used to the German system where church and state operated together so that pastorates were government appointed. He noticed that Americans took pride in the notion of separation of church in state, and he wasn't sure that this was a good idea. He said that when the church separates itself from the state, it loses it's influence to make change. In other words, the church in America is emasculated from making any real change in social issues. (This is what Hillary Clinton was getting at when she said that Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot for civil rights in America, but it took Lyndon Johnson to enact into law the things that King preached. Without the state's intervention, the church's cries for justice would have been just noise.)

I think that Bonhoeffer was on to something. One of the main aspects of my job is getting the church involved in the community around us. I believe that God has special concern for the poor and disenfranchised and that it is the church should be leading the way in standing up for social justice. But how do we do that in a politcal system in which we have no power to make real change? We can continue to alleviate the symptoms of poverty with things like soup kitchens, but we will never be able to solve the causes of poverty without intervening in politics.

So, all that to say that I am second guessing whether the Christians-turned-politicians in the religious right were that far off of the mark after all. Even if I disagree with a lot of their policy decisions, I can't criticize someone who decides that they want to put their faith to action in a way that will be able to generate real change.

Maybe the church needs to form a new organization that does not line up with the Republicans or the Democrats, but with the Gospel. Maybe we need to be more vocal in challenging the Republicans to hold corporations accountable for their actions and the wages they pay their workers. Maybe we need to challenge Democrats to see abortion as a social justice issue. Maybe we need to challenge both parties to find a way for all Americans to afford basic health care.

Regardless, at least we need to vote.

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