Mike Clawson here…
So some of you know that I am currently back in graduate school working towards a PhD in Religious History. This affords me lots of opportunity to read fascinating books and contemplate interesting ideas, unfortunately it doesn’t often afford me much time to actually write about any of them, either here or at my own blog. However, the other day I was reading about the history of Methodism in America and came across an interesting paragraph that made me wonder about a few things that I really wanted to run by you all here. Speaking of the struggles over slavery among Methodists in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Norwood writes:
“In slavery we have a clear case of the unavoidable mingling of church history and economic history. Try as they would to stay out of secular affairs, churchmen were caught up in events. Slavery, slave revolts, and the underground railroad pressed in upon the church as powerfully as upon business and finance. Churchmen might claim to stay out of politics – but they could not.”
Let me first just say that I very much support the separation of church and state. I don’t want any government dictating to people what they have to believe, nor do I want any religious groups trying to legislate their own morality on others. I am especially angered and embarrassed by the political agenda and actions of the Religious Right who are explicit about their desire to “take back America for God.” On this issue, I stand united with the atheists here for the continued separation of church and state.
However, Norwood’s account of the abolitionist movement among Methodists 150+ years ago reminded me once again that sometimes things are not quite so cut and dried. You see, while I support the separation of church and state, I also strongly support numerous other social justice causes – e.g. racial reconciliation, the abolition of modern slavery, fair wages and fair trade, environmental protection, active international peacemaking, Third World debt reduction, immigration rights, women’s rights, GLBT rights, etc. – and actively encourage other Christians and churches to do the same, not just as an add-on to their faith, but as an essential component of it. According to my own personal understanding of Christianity, these sorts of things are inseparable from the meaning of the gospel. However, these issues are also inherently “political”. I can’t get involved in these issues without stepping onto the turf of “the State”.
Now of course I can do this as an individual citizen with no problem, but what about as a pastor? (I no longer lead a church community, but I did for three years, and often faced this dilemma.) Am I crossing a line by encouraging my members to actively engage with these issues? Should a church community take up a social cause, abolishing modern slavery or supporting GLBT rights for example, that directly involves influencing the legislative process? Is that blurring the line between church and state too much?
Also, does it make a difference to you that my faith leads me to support “liberal” or “progressive” social causes, versus “conservative” ones? I mean, I’m still attempting to “impose my own religious morality” on society – it just so happens that my particular religious morality leads me, for instance, to support rights for GLBT folks rather than restrict them. But should that make a difference? Does the “wall of separation” only protect us from religious opinions we don’t happen to like?
And before any of you answer too quickly in favor of the church staying completely out of politics regardless of the issue, stop and consider the historical examples. Do we tend to applaud and affirm the numerous churches who just stood on the sidelines of the slavery issue and refused to take a stand way back then? Or fast-forward to the Civil Rights era – would most of us have preferred that Martin Luther King Jr. had just kept his mouth shut, since, after all, he was speaking and acting as a religious leader out of a religious motivation (don’t forget that the organization he founded was called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference)? Do we tend to look favorably on the many, many other church leaders who just stood by in that fight and refused to stand with MLK because he was just “too political”? Was it okay for them to avoid speaking out for justice by hiding behind “separation of church and state”?
Or to take an even more extreme example, what about Nazi Germany? I am currently taking a class on the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was among a handful of clergymen that actively took a stand against the Third Reich, and who eventually ended up being executed in a prison camp for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Do we say that Bonhoeffer did the right thing by getting involved in “politics”, or should he have just stayed out of it, as so many other churchmen did back then? Don’t we typically condemn the church (Lutheran, Catholic, whatever) for not having the courage to speak out against Hitler and his genocide against the Jews when they had the chance? But of course, for them to do so, as Bonhoeffer did, would have required a suspension of any kind of separation of church and state.
So I guess that’s my question – in your opinion, is the separation of church and state an absolute principle, or do exceptions apply for matters of social justice? And if the latter, then where do we draw the line? How much involvement is too much, and when is it not yet nearly enough?
Again, when I was a pastor this was a question I had to deal with on a regular basis. I have my own thoughts on it, but my mind is in no way settled on the issue, so I would be very much interested to hear yours as well.
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