Church and State: An Impossible Divide

Church and State: An Impossible Divide February 21, 2014

Note: I wrote this yesterday but had not gotten around to posting it yet. Then a friend sent me a link to an article where someone running for office says, “Don’t vote for a Methodist.”  Decided it was time.

Political party platforms rise from religious understandings of the world. Church and state do not separate in those smoke-filled rooms (actually, with the ban on cigarette smoking, they may no longer be smoke-filled, but they are surely filled with something). The two are so wound up together that trying to separate them is akin to untangling Christmas tree lights or knots formed  when a bunch of fine-chain jewelry is carelessly tossed in a drawer.  It’s doable, but it takes a lot of time and patience.

The phrase, “separation of church and state,” underlies much of the power of what it means to live in the USA and also much of the silliness of what it means to live in the USA.

The power? The government cannot force you or me to be a part of any religious organization. The whole idea that one group could force a set of religious beliefs on another group, while practiced throughout history and still persists, has never worked anyway. Punitive forces might ensure outward compliance but never creates inward change.

The silliness? We pretend we can ignore how much our religious beliefs influence political discussions and decisions. We do not teach religious literacy in our public schools and by so doing, let loose a seriously under-educated populace who then elect public officials–without knowing what actually drives their political decisions.

This may work in more secular countries, but the US is a uniquely religious nation. In our quirky, multi-cultural ethos, many of these religions spring from radically different world views. Those radically different world views strongly influence the positions that are taken, particularly on controversial issues.

A world view consists of the filtering lenses people use to make decisions. Most people have not taken the time to carefully examine the filters and how they affect us. This is a huge mistake, and a big part of the political and social messes we find ourselves in.

I often encourage those who are struggling with faith issues to start here: “Is God, or Is God Not?” In other words, is it possible that Something exists or Is that is way behind our human limitations to comprehend even a tiny portion of it?

If the answer is, “no,” then such a one will make life decisions out of the stance of no such thing as divine accountability or life after the physical life. So then the question could be, “Have you discerned any moral imperatives to drive your life?”

If the answer is “yes” to the possibility of God, then the next question is: “Is God good or is God not-good?”  If God is perceived as “good,” we might ask, “How does God’s goodness affect your understanding of evil?.”

If the answer, is God is “not-Good,” then we could ask, “How should humans relate to that “non-good God?”

Each question/answer branches off to more questions. Eventually, a tree emerges, with the roots being the bedrock beliefs and the trunk, branches and leaves the results of living from those beliefs.

Now, why do we need to know these things? Because when we choose to trust someone with our lives–such as electing them to a political office, we need to know the basis on their decisions are formed.

A a political candidate who thinks the world is essentially evil and will eventually be destroyed will perceive sustainability concerns differently than a candidate who sees the world as full of good possibilities and long future. One who sees people as recipients of God’s judgment and eternal condemnation will see social justice issues in a radically different light from one who sees people as recipients of God’s grace with hope of freedom.

This may not be the language used, but the concepts behind the language guides thinking.

This is a call to be more aware of these things. A candidate’s religion is not neutral territory–and needs to be openly explained.

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  • Rev. Thomas, I remember a time when I smugly insisted that faith and political values were “mutually exclusive.” Five years after that, I was embarrassed to have said such a thing. Faith is a set of core values, and as you rightly point out, a filter through which we see the world. This means that our job as voters is much more complicated than we think. And you are spot on about the need for religious literacy in public life. I have thought for years now that religion should be discussed in much the same manner as human sexuality: frankly, without euphemism and within in a social context. Maybe even a public health context.

    Cindy Breeding

    • And these are exactly the kinds of things I intend to be working on for the next few years. We need to be aware of theories of sexuality and the reasoning behind those stances–so often driven by unexamined religious biases. I know I myself am biased here, but I really do think our theologies (essentially “words about God” underlie most life decisions. It is just that we don’t take necessary time to understand why and why we believe and see how those core parts of the soul affect everything else.

  • Rev. Thomas, I remember a time when I smugly insisted that faith and political values were “mutually exclusive.” Five years after that, I was embarrassed to have said such a thing. Faith is a set of core values, and as you rightly point out, a filter through which we see the world. This means that our job as voters is much more complicated than we think. And you are spot on about the need for religious literacy in public life. I have thought for years now that religion should be discussed in much the same manner as human sexuality: frankly, without euphemism and within in a social context. Maybe even a public health context.

    Cindy Breeding

    • And these are exactly the kinds of things I intend to be working on for the next few years. We need to be aware of theories of sexuality and the reasoning behind those stances–so often driven by unexamined religious biases. I know I myself am biased here, but I really do think our theologies (essentially “words about God” underlie most life decisions. It is just that we don’t take necessary time to understand why and why we believe and see how those core parts of the soul affect everything else.