For those of us who have given much of our lives, both personally and professionally, to the care and nurture of religious institutions, our relationships to the workings of the government have always been fraught with confusion, suspicion, and hope. And those of us in the more progressive end of those institutions have perhaps had the more complex time negotiating just what our role is when it comes to the dictates of our elected and unelected authorities. It will hardly do to quote infamously and speciously from the apostle Paul when he stated in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” After all, this appears from the pen of the same man who called into question the most basic institutions of Roman society in Gal.3:28 when he said, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Surely, Paul would be the very first to say that any governmental edict that affirmed the rigid strictures of 1st century society should and ought to be questioned, if not completely ignored, for the sake of the higher authority of Christ. Obviously, Jesus himself, whom Paul so tenaciously followed, ran afoul of the current Roman authorities so thoroughly that it led him to a cross. Our relationships as Christians with the authorities are by necessity very complex indeed.
This sometimes inscrutable connection between the church and the state, as it is popularly named, has recently had a series of surprising and mind-bending assaults on that supposed “wall” that Thomas Jefferson famously claimed was essential for the work of a democratic society. That wall between the two has lately become rather more a sieve, or perhaps better a one-way funnel, connecting the two. Just take a gander at these contemporary examples.
Due to the raging pandemic of COVID-19, that has laid waste to over 135,000 American lives, infected well over 500,000 more, has gutted the economic livelihoods of millions, has shuttered untold numbers of businesses, and that shows today (July 13) little signs of easing, our federal government passed the largest financial stimulus bill in our history, totaling several trillions of dollars. And since that has proved ultimately inadequate to aid the failing economy, congress is pursuing another, perhaps larger, package to provide much needed dollars to help those millions unemployed survive. Among the recipients of those federal monies were churches. My own church, Westwood United Methodist in Los Angeles, requested and received money from these grants to keep staff people on the payroll, and in part to substitute for the lost money no longer flowing in from weekly services, all of which have moved online and will probably remain so for many months. I do not know how much money our church got, but it has now been revealed that certain very large congregations received significant money indeed. The First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX, pastored by an ardent supporter of the current US president, received no less than 2 1⁄2 million dollars from the government’s funds. Both 1st Baptist and the Westwood UMC are in law tax exempt institutions whose pastors receive significant special treatment under IRS rules and whose churches pay no income taxes on their sometimes very pricey properties. Our property sits on several acres on Wilshire Blvd, surrounded by high-rise condominiums and apartment buildings of what was, until very recently, among the most upscale addresses in our very upscale city. 1st Baptist occupies many acres in the heart of downtown Dallas, prime real estate by any measure, and pays no taxes on that property. Yet, when government money began to flow, the church-state wall turned into a funnel, and we lapped at the institutional trough.
I am not here arguing that churches should not have asked for and received such money; I am reasonably certain that the money was in the main well spent for people who work in those churches. What I am saying is that the churches, that are also by law not to engage in any partisan politics by publically urging votes for one candidate or another, or one proposition or another, and that have been on occasion sued by that same government when it determines that that church-state line has been crossed, has now gratefully accepted large sums of cash from that same source, making them in some sense beholden in ways that would have been anathema not long ago.
This brings us back to a determination of just what the role of the church is in relation to the state. I have long thought that role, and have said so openly for my entire career, is to call the state into question when the state’s edicts transgress the call of God as the church decides how that call is to be defined. Immediately, I can see a problem in that definition, a problem that has led us to the complexity of church-state relation we witness in the 21st century. Those churches that are unalterably opposed to abortion at any stage of a pregnancy, or at least until the fetus reaches “viability,” a most contested word, demand that laws be instituted that would outlaw the procedure as murder throughout the land. However, the Supreme Court, in its famous 1974 ruling Roe v. Wade said that abortion rights were a given in the entire country, and to date, though multiple cases have reached the Court over the past 46 years, Roe is still US law, much to the horror and chagrin of those who reject abortion completely as ungodly. And it must be said that perhaps the most vociferous advocate of abortion bans, the Roman Catholic Church, received huge amounts of money from the recent government aid program, money that will allow that church’s continued fight against the law that has been settled now for nearly 50 years. One may readily see just how complex that church-state relationship can be!
Just one more example from a very recent ruling from the Supreme Court. As the court ended its summer session, in a 5-4 ruling the court determined that almost the entire eastern half of the state of Oklahoma, including a great swath of the state’s second largest city, Tulsa, remains Native American land, restoring at least in part a degree of tribal sovereignty to some 1.8 million people. Though the chief justice John Roberts dissented from the majority, claiming that the ruling would upset more than a century of settled expectations in the state, writing for the majority, the Trump-appointed Neil Gorsuch rejected those fears: “On the far end of the Trail of Tears,” he wrote, “was a promise. We hold the government to its word.” One might have imagined a bleeding heart liberal to have penned such lofty rhetoric, but Gorsuch was thought to be a rock-ribbed and dependable conservative voice on the court. It turns out that he takes with great seriousness the promises and hopes of the federal government, no matter how failed those promises, especially in regard to our Native American citizens, have proven to be. I, as a religious progressive, applaud the court’s decision, and especially the words of Justice Gorsuch. And I applaud the words precisely because the government, in the person of the unelected Supreme Court, has affirmed the rights of a certain group of American citizens over against the long depredations of that same government against Native Americans. Complexities pile on top of complexities!
Many other examples spring to mind, from cake-bakers who refuse service to LGBTQ persons out of religious conviction to companies that will not offer abortion services to their employees through their company insurance plans, though abortion rights remain US law, to the placement of religious statuary on public grounds, thus perhaps privileging one religious expression over another, and on and on. I am no lawyer, but I can easily see how much work and brain-expanding pleasure a lawyer can receive by diving into the intricacies of those murky waters. I am a theologian, and I welcome the ongoing dialogue that these and other cases provide as the society struggles to find its way through the tunnel of the rights of its citizens and the dictates of its government. Simple replies will plainly not do. Study and learn as future instances of the church-state conundrums continue to arise.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)