Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The State of the Union: Ch. v. State

This is the first of my posts on a response to the religious implications of Obama's MLK speech that I posted previously. If you haven't watched it all, please, please take the time. I think it's worth it. A more brief (but less effective IMHO) transcript can be found here on The Daily Dish Blog from The

This first post I want to focus on politics from the pulpit. Is there a place for politics in the Church? I grew up with a stout Southern Baptist upbringing (that at least the Southern part I have departed from), that taught (although not exemplified) s strong belief in the doctrine of the Separation of Church and State. This has been a foundational doctrine since the conception of the Baptist denomination. But what does this doctrine mean?

I've studied many aspects and takes on this doctrine, but we must first understand that this doctrine was a reaction to the Anglican Church and a government-controlled Christianity. Baptists, as with most break-away denominational start-ups in early America, founded this doctrine in REACTION to the world reality that they had escaped. Religious Liberty was a huge issue (one I'll save for another post) with the churches in a young America.

As for the Constitution, it is often misunderstood that it actually calls for the "Separation of Ch. and State," but here's what the first amendment actually says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...(online source). Although not specifically stated as most people believe, the thoughts that there should be boundaries between religious beliefs and the newly established US government are there.

So where does that leave us today? What is the role of Religion and Politics in this country? I will argue that morality transcends religions. We, as a country, are too mixed in our religious beliefs that we can't push (as Southern Baptists have done so well) a "Christian" political agenda. Whether we were founded as a "Christian" nation or not (an opinion that I won't post here), We are no longer a "Christian nation"! In fact, it is our diversity that makes this country so great because it creates some checks and balances in society.
I am relieved to see that the Religious Right seems to not have a voice or pull on the candidates of this upcoming election. It's not that they aren't entitled to their moral beliefs, it's just that those of other religions, and even those also within Christianity, may not share those specific moral beliefs that have seemed to be the deciding factor (even over the war in Iraq) in past elections. The candidates are supposed to represent the PEOPLE who make up America, not a specific religion or people group that thinks they are the foundation of America.

I believe that the government should have no say in matters of religion unless a legal exception occurs. I think that's the true spirit of the first amendment, although the debate continues on. What about OUR religious beliefs and their place in politics? I think it was Brian McLaren who said, "we should be the conscience of the government." (I could be wrong on who said that, if so please correct me). What does that mean? Well, the government has to make moral decisions based on a transcendent morality (one that transcends any SINGLE religion), and religious people need to respect that boundary within our government. The issues that majority of people can NOT agree on (homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research, etc...), that seem to have driven past elections, should not be issues that religions should push our elected officials towards. However, because of us living in a free/democratic country, we should use the assets of our system to further transcendent moral responsibilities. The gray area is where to draw that line.

In Obama's speech he talks about war, peace, poverty, education, health care, civil rights, equality, genocide, environment, and world hunger. He's not the only politician focusing on these issues. Even as Edwards bowed out of the presidential race today, he was adamant that the voice of those in poverty and other causes he has voiced be heard. He went as far as contacting Clinton and Obama and asking that they continue to fight to allow those voices to be heard and represented. These are REAL issues where some progress can be made (and idealistically, the issues can be eliminated altogether). There's a reason that Bush campaigned against abortion, gay rights, stem cell research, etc... yet not real progress towards those agendas have been made. We as a country are morally divided on these issues. But we can rally around these other bigger issues, because these moral issues listed above are relevant in most all religious teachings, and yet, at the same time, transcend all religions.

These are the issues that the religious people should be pushing our government towards action. These are the issues that the US has the resources and power to influence for the good of all; not just of one religion or one nation, but to the benefit of all people everywhere! Obama speaks of MLK's religious POV acted on within the structure of our US government to advance the moral issue of Civil Rights for African Americans in his time. That was a moral issue that transcended the personal beliefs of his own Southern Baptist church, but was a national moral issue that needed to be addressed by our government! Civil Rights is still an issue to which we need to call the government to action, not because we believe in it as Christians (at least we should), but because ALL people should accept this moral responsibility of equality for all. Perhaps the religious people should come together and spend their energy, time and resources on an issue like this; one that can be solved rather than wasting those resources on the "typical, smaller" issues of the past.

One of my fav. quotes from Obama's speech was this: "'Unity is the great need of this hour' is what [Martin Luther King] said. Unity is how we shall overcome....not because it makes us feel goo, but because its the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in our country." He goes on..., "I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny."

Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian and author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, and his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, was a guest on Jon Stewart's The (A) Daily Show last week, and I really liked a lot of what he has to say. Take a look:

(from Daily Show's website if you can't get player to work.)

I really like a lot of what he says. It echos some of the thoughts I've had for a while, some stated here, and says some things that are thought-provoking!
Some of the best comments for me:
-his "Great News": "a new generation has come of age and is applying their faith to the biggest issues that face us." Go us (I am assuming that I am a part of that generation...if not, I'm inviting myself in:)
-"We should speak [politically] in a moral language that is inclusive of everybody."
-"There should not be a religious litmus test for politics. I care not about someones religion but their moral compass."
--To which Jon Replies, "Good point, just that the morality, whether its religious or not, can be judged on its own merit."
-I also like Jim's Idea of, "The Politics of the Common Good". I'll have to pick up his book for more insight.

Also, on the day that Bush was to give his State Of The Union address, Jim puts out a video of his own "State of the Union". Again, very interesting.

In conclusion, my thoughts on the politics in the pulpit are as follows. There IS room for politics in the pulpit! However, I do not believe there is a LOT of room. Mainly I think it can be used when it comes to calling people to action on social justice issues. The reality is that our churches do not operate in a vacuum. We are citizens of a democratic country where the political process is part of how we the people are supposed to voice and effect change. The Church should use that process when absolutely necessary, but not ABUSE the process as has been done in modern history. There is NO room for candidate endorsements from the pulpit. A person should not be told for whom they should or should not vote in church. I do have issues with Obama campaigning from the pulpit, although I do understand that his message and beliefs of change are so wrapped up in his campaign, that he could not separate them. I'm not justifying, just trying to put myself in his shoes. That still doesn't relieve the unease of him campaigning on that Sunday.

But to give all the candidates credit, none are overt about their religion. People have made a big deal about Romney, but I haven't seen him make a big deal about it himself. I've heard Barack say he's Christian, but he doesn't "play that card". The same seems to go for Hilary. I'm proud of the changes that have come about in this election. Right now it seems that there's a 75% chance that the person who becomes president will make history by being the first female, black, or Mormon president. That's an exciting place for our country to be in! But regardless of that, I think that history is being made in the process, as the tides are turning politically. This seems like a turning point in American political history, and that shouldn't be overshadowed by the bigger historical possibility of having a minority, female, Mormon president.

So, what is the role religion should play in politics. I don't claim to have THE answer, just some thoughts in progress.

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