Should the Church Stick Its Nose into Things?
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Should the church stick its nose into things the church shouldn’t stick its nose into? Interesting question as the presidential campaigns begin the winnowing out process shortly – the Iowa caucuses this week, the New Hampshire primary next. I know we cannot do it yet, but have you decided how to vote? Many have, I suspect, although the polls say there are still remarkably high numbers who are undecided. Brooks Hays, a former Congressman from Arkansas told about a political pollster who went to the hill country of his state. The pollster asked a woman about her preference in the upcoming election. She responded, “Son, I’m a Christian. I’ve never voted in all my life and never intend to. It might encourage them.”(1)
Should we even be TALKING about politics from the pulpit? The candidates ARE talking about religion on the hustings. These days they seem to be falling over each other getting the word out to the world about their personal faith. Could there be any ulterior motives, do you suppose?
Some years ago, shortly after I had moved to Florida, on a Sunday just like this one, just before an election, I preached a sermon about Christian responsibility in regard to the ballot box. A few days later, a letter arrived on my desk from one of those who had been in the congregation that morning. It expressed absolute outrage at my “political use of the pulpit.” Huh? I had not said anything even remotely controversial (I thought); no particular candidates or positions were endorsed – my point that day was a reminder that, as Christians, when we enter the voting booth we must be concerned with more than naked self-interest – Christians can NEVER be concerned with only naked self-interest. Other folks who heard or read the sermon and then read the letter (it was addressed not only to me but the Session, Southwest Florida Presbytery, and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly) were as surprised as I was at the reaction.
But in a way, I understood the concern. Even though there was nothing partisan in what I had said, just the hint of the church getting involved in what Justice Frankfurter once called “the political thicket” causes great concern. People think that there ARE some things the church should keep its nose out of. We tend to agree with Prime Minister Baldwin’s comment after a group of bishops attempted to bring the British government, coal miners and mine owners together to solve a disastrous strike back in the 20’s. Baldwin asked how the bishops would like it if he referred a revision of the Athanasian Creed to the Iron and Steel Federation.(2) Just as we do not want the government interfering with our church’s worship, we do not want the church interfering with the government. We want them separate.
Of course, as you scholars know, that has not always been the case. A study of history shows that church and state were INseparable for centuries. Indeed, in the days of the Holy Roman Empire it was the church that selected temporal rulers. There have been times when the prevailing attitude was that this was the ONLY sphere of influence the church should legitimately have. Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, after hearing a particularly evangelical preacher, remarked, “if religion were going to interfere with the affairs of PRIVATE life, things were come to a pretty pass.”(3) Hmm.
In our own nation, the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” provided freedom FOR religion, not FROM it. The amendment was NOT so much, as many suppose, designed to prevent the formation of a state church, but to PROTECT the state churches that were ALREADY in existence.(4) In fact, the official state-supported church in Massachusetts remained official and state-supported until 1833, almost a half-century after the Constitution was ratified. There have been laws on the books of many states requiring religious affirmations before someone could hold public office – in Pennsylvania, it was a profession of belief in God and the divine inspiration of the Bible; in Maryland, an affirmation of Christianity; here in North Carolina, the truths of Protestantism; in New York, a statement rejecting any civil authority of the Pope. The last of these laws was not repealed until 1961 after a notary public refused to take an oath affirming belief in God.(5)
Should things between church and state remain absolutely and utterly separate? I suspect that most folks WOULD rather the church and its officials keep completely out of the political thicket. We are uncomfortable when the church starts telling government how to run things because we are afraid the church is dealing with something outside its competence.
To be sure, if we take seriously what Jesus told us about being Salt and Light for the world, we cannot quietly ignore what is happening in the public arena. Not to take a stand IS to stand for the status quo. But we are cautious because we know that even though salt can enhance flavor, too much can obscure it; even though light can offer guidance, too much can be blinding. We want to tread lightly. Most Americans do not want God and politics mixed, at least until our own ox is being gored.
But there is the rub. There are too many political issues that DO gore religious oxen. For example, should church property be tax exempt? Should federal support be made available to students attending church-related colleges regardless of what is being taught…even if we think it is loony? Should a church which calls homosexual practice a sin be forced to hire a gay organist because of equal employment opportunity laws?
How about chaplains? A couple was touring the Capitol building when the guide suddenly pointed out the Senate Chaplain. The lady asked, “What does the Chaplain do? Pray for the Senate?” The guide responded, “No, he gets up, looks at the Senate, then prays for the country.” Should tax money pay for chaplains? How about school prayer, abortion, capital punishment? These are both political AND religious issues. The question becomes not should religion be kept out of politics, but WHICH religion should be kept out.
The bottom line is that there is just no way that the interests of church and state ever can be totally separated, whether we like it or are comfortable with it or not. Should the church stick its nose into things the church should not stick its nose into? THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS! You see, the church says that Jesus Christ is Lord, and if he is not Lord OF all, he is not Lord AT all. Nothing in human life, not even politics and government, is outside the Lordship of Christ.
All right, the intermingling is unavoidable. Are there then some guidelines that would be appropriate for the church that takes seriously its mandate to be salt and light in pursuing that involvement? Some should be obvious – examine all issues carefully; hear both sides; do not call names; disagree without being disagreeable – basics…nothing Christian about them. But where the church is concerned, some guidelines are unique. Let me propose a few.
First, the church should not endorse individual candidates. As much as you and I have a right and even a duty to do so, the church by its inclusive nature should avoid that like the plague. After all, the church is one place that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, the haves and the have-nots, the apathetic and the pathetic. That unity is destroyed once the banner of this or that candidate is raised.
So saying, we immediately encounter a gray area. Should church leaders as individuals endorse candidates? Some do. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, others of that ilk have no problem with it. For myself, I DO have a problem. Even though, as an individual citizen, I have every right to do it, I am concerned that the exercise of that right might appear to be the endorsement of the church. That should not be. Some folks will see the minister’s position as the church’s position and thus be driven away. That should never happen.
That leads to a second thought. Whenever the church makes a pronouncement, there should be careful consideration of the EFFECT that statement has on ITS OWN MEMBERS. For example, a few years ago textile workers in South Carolina were seeking to unionize the J. P. Stevens Co. The General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church (the Northern church) came out publically in support of those workers. They could afford to do that – none of their own people would have been directly affected. Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church US (the Southern church) said nothing. After all, the dispute was taking place right in their living room and to have made any statement at all would have been extremely divisive. There may be a few issues over which it is worth splitting a church, but they should be ecclesiastical or theological, not political or social.(6)
That leads to a third point. If the church is going to make a statement, IT SHOULD MATTER. For example, if the Session of St. Paul Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, had taken a public position on the unionization of J. P. Stevens mills, who would have cared? If St. Paul Church, Spartanburg or Greenville would have said something, that would have been different – the pronouncements that make the most impact are the ones that are made closest to the source of difficulty or dispute. Granted, there are times when churches feel they dare not say anything because of danger from an authoritarian government. At times like those, other Christians do need to speak if only to let that government know its abuses are not going unnoticed. But so saying, there is no reason for the church to take a stand on EVERYTHING, and in fact, the influence the church has to effect social or political change will be diminished if it says too much about too many things.
Too much about too many leads to a fourth point. In my view pronouncements on social or political issues should be in terms of what are called “middle axioms” rather than detailed policies. To use an example from recent history, Christians believe that God’s will for humanity is that all persons be treated justly – that is basic theology. From that, the church legitimately said that the treatment of blacks under Apartheid in South Africa was immoral – that would be the middle axiom. The next step for the church was to say that since change in the South African system was needed, the change should be forced by boycott of South African goods or divestment of stock in companies doing business in that nation. Remember that? Should the church have gone that far? My personal view is no. The church had neither special expertise nor divine revelation about the ultimate justice or injustice of a specific course of action. Even today, long after Apartheid is gone and South African society has changed to majority rule, there is still some controversy as to whether boycott and divestment helped or hurt South African blacks during the process. There is a fifty-fifty chance that the church’s action was dead wrong! No one knows. That being the case, I say quit while you are ahead. The devil is in the details.
Some will charge that staying with the middle axioms is not enough. They want specifics – “What would you DO?” In my view, specifics are not the church’s task. For the church, it is most influential when it works on the state indirectly by creating a climate of public opinion. Then, when public opinion becomes strong enough, things get done.
There is obviously much more that could be said on a subject as complex and controversial as this one. But one final and overarching point should be made. The reason that Jesus called us to be salt and light to this world was not for some warm, fuzzy humanitarianism. He said be salt and let your light shine so people would “see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The Greek word we translate “good” here (kalos) means more than simply the opposite of bad; it bespeaks something attractive or winsome. And there we have our motivation – we are salt and light to bring people to the Savior.
Should the church stick its nose into things it shouldn’t stick its nose into? There ARE no such things. Whether we like it or not, no matter how many outraged letters disgruntled parishioners write, the church is in the political thicket, and this year the candidates are keeping us there. But the motivation for our involvement – a winsome witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ – MAKES us careful about endorsing candidates or issuing too many pronouncements or being divisive or detailing specific policies. The last thing we want to do is keep people away. No. The word of the church, the word of the gospel, the word of our Lord Jesus Christ is COME!
1. Quoted by Howard Roberts, “A Minority Report,” Pulpit Digest, July/August, 1992, pp. 28-29
2. William Temple, Christianity & Social Order, (New York, Seabury Press, 1976), p. 29
3. ibid., p. 31
4. Thomas O’Brien Hanley, “Church/State Relations in the American Revolutionary Era” in America in Theological Perspective, Thomas M. McFadden, ed., (New York, Seabury Press, 1976), p. 87
5. ibid., p. 89-90
6. Address by John M. Miller, “Should the Church Get Involved in Things the Church Shouldn’t Get Involved In?”, Hilton Head Island, 5/13/82
Copyright 2000 David E. Leininger.Used by permission.