As we conclude our series of message, Voices of Faith, this morning we come to Voices of Faith: In the Political Arena.
I am so weary of the present campaign season, as you probably are as well, so let’s talk politics. And religion. Who doesn’t want to talk about these things, especially in church!
I know. This might be a bad idea. Each topic, in and of itself can be very contentious, and the intermingling of religion and politics is an especially volatile area, but it is also a topic that needs some level of discussion. I imagine that all of us feel not only uneasy, but sometimes quite ill at ease with some of the political goings on in our country. Regardless of your political persuasion – whether you are a conservative, liberal, or moderate –there is enough going on at our juncture in history to unsettle us all.
So I thought I would jump in with revealing my position on one of the most contentious issues for people in my generation. It is a question that has not only caused conflict in many offices and workplaces, but has divided families and ended friendships. I do not hesitate to jump into that contentious question this morning, and here is my opinion – I prefer the Sammy Hagar version of Van Halen over the David Lee Roth version (this is my small attempt to bring a bit of levity into a difficult conversation). I want to assure you that is as partisan as I will get this morning, and I want you to know that I enter into this topic with a measure of trepidation and that I take great care in what I have to say. If I were sitting amongst a congregation, if I had worked hard at my job all week, if I got up early, if I had driven to church and taken me seat, the last topic I’d want to hear from a minister is how they believe I should vote or what my political opinions ought to be.
I am not here to tell you how to vote or what your politics should be. If you read my column in the Sentinel-News you know that I am often very specific about my politics opinions, in that space, but far less so in my preaching, which is very much my intention. You are free to read or ignore what I write in the paper, but worship is different. It is not my purpose to pedal my personal political agenda in a worship service, because I don’t want to offer the impression that I am speaking for the congregation on such matters and because I don’t want to create a partisan atmosphere in our worship services.
If you would like to ask me about my political beliefs and opinions I will answer those questions – outside of the worship services – but in the worship service I am not going to tell you what I think you should believe. You don’t need me telling you what to believe, but I am more than willing to sit down with you and help you, in any way you might desire, as you formulate your own opinions.
The topic of this message covers such a huge swath of matters to consider, and I will only be able to give very cursory coverage, so understand that I have to leave out many points and may leave a lot of questions unanswered. I know that what I have to say may generate more questions than answers, but I do offer these thoughts in the spirit of helping you to come to your own conclusions regarding the way in which you think about and act upon both your faith and your personal politics.
There are many Scripture texts from which to choose on this topic. Paul writes about our relationship with government in Romans 13:1-7, and Jesus spoke on a couple of occasions to the question of paying taxes (Matthew 17:24-27 and Matthew 22:15-22). Throughout the book of Acts we find the apostles were often in conflict with the governing authorities, and often imprisoned because of that conflict. But I chose the passage in Matthew 4:1-11, that tells of the temptation of Jesus while he was in the wilderness, after his baptism. The second temptation presented to Jesus is one that touches on politics and earthly power, which Jesus very explicitly rejected.
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.
6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.
9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
This morning, I will offer a summation of a few things I believe to be important when we consider the topic of faith in the political arena, and I will begin with a few comments about an oft-misunderstood concept, and that is the idea of –
1. The separation of church and state.
You are probably aware that this phrase does not appear in any of our founding documents, but was first mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in a letter, dated January 1, 1802, to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Virginia.
The separation of church and state in no way prohibits religion from having a presence in the public square. In our present age, we sometimes hear people express their belief that religion is to remain solely in the private domain and is constitutionally forbidden from any expression in the public square. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I am amazed how often I hear that belief expressed, especially by people who should know better. It makes me wonder if people still read history books, or if they have read the Constitution. If they were taught in school that faith has no place in the public square or in the political sphere, perhaps they should ask for their money back on their education!
What our Constitution prohibits is the establishment of state churches, any interference of government in religious affairs or in the workings of congregations, or the use of government to further sectarian religion. In short, the state is not to dictate on matters of religion, and neither is religion to dictate their faith through the power and reach of government.
When Jesus faced his second temptation, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (verses 8-9). Setting aside the fact that, for the devil, those kingdoms were not his to offer, Jesus still had to settle the question of whether or not he would be a political messiah, using political means to establish his kingdom, or to stay true to his calling of ushering in the kingdom of God rather than seeking after an earthly throne. This is what we call a Faustian bargain, that is, a deal with the devil. It is so tempting to use the powers of government to further a religious and spiritual agenda, but that is a path fraught with a great many dangers, and one that Jesus was not willing to take. Jesus rebuffed at every turn the temptation to use politics to advance the agenda of God’s kingdom and he led his disciples to see that the kingdom of God is far beyond the narrow boundaries of earthly politics.
But in our culture the lines can sometimes get blurry. During the course of my ministry, I have been asked many times to pray at public events, some of which are political in nature. I still pray, when asked, at public events, but I have decided to no longer pray at events sponsored by elected officials, political candidates, or for government gatherings. I made that decision after arriving at the sense that, on more than one occasion, I had been used for political purposes and I don’t want to be in that position ever again. I do not want to do anything that gives even the impression that the Christian faith is aligned with a particular political party, political candidate, or political ideology. There are many people of deep and abiding faith who are members of all political parties and followers of all manner of candidates, and I am grieved when I hear people say you can’t be a… (Republican, Democrat, Independent – you can fill in the blank) and be a Christian.
2. I believe that all people are created equal by God and endowed with the same rights, the same worth, and the same inherent dignity.
That is a statement of faith. If we live in a random universe it is impossible to make the claim of anything inherent in who we are as people. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we recognize that all people are given the same standing, worth, and value as any other person.
I hope that I am open and accepting of people, and if I am it’s probably a trait that I inherited from my mom. My friends were always accepted at our house – no matter who they were – as long as they followed a few of my mom’s basic rules, and one was to treat others with respect and kindness. If you could not follow that rule, she would send you home, and I witnessed several of my friends over the years sent packing by my mom.
We are not all born equal. Some people are born into life with great advantages of wealth and privilege and some with great disadvantages, in the midst of poverty and with much of life stacked against them, but we are all created equal by God, and one of the reasons why politics are very important is because political attitudes and decisions greatly affect the lives of people. There are too many examples of ways in which our government has not always treated people equally, in spite of the fact that every person is deserving and worthy of equal treatment.
My writing, my thinking, and my preaching are all based in my belief that God has created all people equal. In Matthew 5:45 Jesus reminds us that (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If God has created us equal we ought to treat everyone equally, and sometimes, unfortunately, our government does not do so, and when this happens we ought to advocate on behalf of those who are mistreated. And, not to be a broken record, as I have noted this before, but this is the area in which Jesus was most often criticized, because he had no hesitation in his embrace of people, whoever they were.
3. My allegiance, and yours, is, ultimately, to God, not man.
I find it very interesting that, while Paul writes that we are to be submissive to those in authority (Romans 13:1-7, Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor) there were many times when he did not follow his own instructions. Paul was often in conflict with the governing authorities, he was sometimes jailed because of that conflict, and he eventually lost his life because of that conflict. The apostles also found themselves in conflict with the governing authorities. They were told on one occasion to stop preaching but, immediately upon release, went right back to their preaching (Acts 4:18-20, 18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”).
I am grateful to be an American, but my allegiance is not limited to political or national boundaries or the interests of our government. I find my ultimate allegiance in being a follower of Jesus, and sometimes that allows me to affirm what our nation and our government does and sometimes it puts me in conflict with our government and our nation.
But ultimately, I answer to God, not to anyone in an elected office. And for that reason I don’t fully identify with any political party or ideology, because God doesn’t see Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or any other party. God doesn’t see American, British, Chinese, French, Mexican, or any other nationality. God doesn’t see national borders or language barriers. I believe that God sees only his children, and if that is what God sees, that is what I am called to see as well. And that is where I will stand, always.