We all hear it: you know, the phrase “separation of church and state.” But what are the implications of this phrase in American life? We all know that many early settlers came to America due to the inability to exercise their religious freedom in their native countries. Thomas Jefferson used the “separation” idea to exclude government from trying to influence what is preached from the pulpit. Thus we have the clause to the first amendment that reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Let’s turn the table toward the pulpit. Should politics be preached? Should pastors insert themselves in the political process by declaring their personal stand about candidates? There is no Jeffersonian Constitutional clause prohibiting this but there are tax laws that discourage pastors from politicizing the pulpit. To qualify for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must meet the following requirement: “The organization may not intervene in political campaigns.” If pastors get too political, tax exempt status may be withdrawn from their church.
Christians, let’s be honest. What Jesus preached in His lifetime was not a series of sermons, parables and admonitions for us to be “political”. He preached radical ideas but “love one another” does not seem to fit the behavior exhibited by polarized politicians today. Forgive those that harm you is totally out of fashion as today’s political charge is met with countercharge. The usual pattern is name-calling followed by unsupported statements, etc. Many politicians today are more concerned with their material needs and holding onto their seat in Congress. Jesus preached for us to not be consumed by material wealth. I would venture to say that most politicians are very concerned with their exercise of power whereas Jesus seemed not to be too concerned about power. Think about His trial where He could have called down angels to be freed. When asked simple questions about who He was and what He was doing, He did not even attempt to defend Himself. Indeed Jesus seemed to draw the line between God and government when He replied in Mark 12:17 “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ And they were amazed at Him.” This comment was delivered to a group of Sadducees who were trying to trip up Jesus and make Him look like an insurrectionist. Instead, the way He responded seems to imply church/state difference.
Today, what is the climate of politics? Where do we see a confusing overlap between church and state? The examples go on and on. A Vice-Presidential candidate declares that he is a Christian first, a conservative and then a Republican. President Obama has taken his pet issues like health care reform and invoked the command from God “love thy neighbor as thyself” as the reason he has been dedicated to health care reform.* Some Christians struggle with single issues like Supreme Court appointees, gay rights or abortion. Others oppose candidates due to crude, sexist comments. Thou shalt not lie is the commandment that causes a lot of trouble for Christians and makes voting very hard because politicians are caught in so many lies. One television news network touts faith and patriotism; in fact they seem to have a monopoly on claiming Christ in everyday life. Another network speaks of progressive issues and seems to cast Jesus as a social reformer.
Let’s get real? Andrew Sullivan says it best: “ A Christian cannot find salvation by fighting political battles, winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super pac.”**
If Sullivan is correct, what are we to do?
The answer is simple, read the Bible and try to live the life of Jesus as much as you can. Living the life of the political Christian is giving into the world and we know we are not to be of this world [see John 17]. Sullivan says that focus on worldly concerns is not the key because Christianity is a life not from the head, not from the gut, but from the soul. It is a quiet religion, not seeking the limelight. Meekness of Christians should be liberating. The materialism that we cling to in America is not a Christian concern. Our anxiety-ridden lives are not characteristic of how Christians should respond to crisis. We are to do God’s will on a day-to-day basis. We are to read His Word and apply it to our lives. We are to study His Word and grow more in loving our neighbors.
Yes, the answer is simple but the execution is terribly hard.
Don’t confuse yourself. God is terribly concerned with our execution of His ideas.
There is a great cost in politicizing Jesus, a great cost to our country, a great cost to our churches but most of all to you and me.
*February 2nd 2012 National Prayer Breakfast
**Andrew Sullivan Forget the Church: Follow Jesus