Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Politics, the Pulpit and the People, Part I

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Originally Published by the Michigan Chronicle July 13-19, 2016

Many people believe that the church should stay out of politics and that politics should stay out of the church. This view stems partly from arguments for the separation of Church and State.

“The phrase “separation of church and state” is generally traced to a January 1, 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, and published in a Massachusetts newspaper. Jefferson wrote,

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”[1]

“The intent of this clause was to limit the power of the Federal Government in regard to religion thus ensuring freedom of religion in the United States of America.”

Jefferson believed that no religion should dominate as the religion of the state to the exclusion of all other religions. He also believed that people of religious faiths should not be excluded from political participation because of their religious beliefs.

Government of the people, for the people and by the people demands active involvement from all the people in supporting and holding government accountable in American representative democracy.

Other calls for the separation of politics and the pulpit relate to the ethics of responsibility. The wheelwork of politics and the soul work of religions should be kept inviolate from those corrupting influences which can morally compromise the integrity of both enterprises.

Politics is a blood sport, and it is widely believed that the “swag and swap” of power politics and its fiscal temptations will almost always lead to a Faustian buyout of clergy, pew and politicians who end up selling their souls to the devil for personal gain at the expense of the people.

In the days of Jesus ministry however, religion and politics were not mutually exclusive say scholars John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, Marcus J. Borg, Richard Horsley, Walter Wink, Walter Bruggemann, Obery M. Hendricks, James Cone  and others.

Politics influenced the religion that Jesus preached ( nascent Judaism) and politics affected the religion that preaches Jesus (nascent Christianity), observes Bart Ehrman.

What could be more religious than the politics of bread and what could be more political than the daily quest to protect a believer’s God given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of wellness in the Empire?

Many of the political and religious skirmishes between Rome and people of the Jewish faith and followers of the way during the time of Jesus had much to do with sovereignty rights; the capacity of religious people to practice their faith in Roman society and to be free from political incursions, spatial intrusions, economic depletion and religious subversion.

Numerous revolts in first century Palestine centered on the rights of people to practice their religious beliefs and live in accordance with the Torah and other sacred texts. They longed for the days of direct rule by Yahweh instead of rule by dishonest earthly kings. Their harsh experiences of oppression in Egypt taught them the hard necessities of freedom and the catastrophic impact of the politics of dismemberment.

Even the cross which has become the primary emblem of religious meaning for Christians was mainly a political symbol of capital punishment in Jesus time and the most humiliating form of execution reserved by the state for criminals, slaves and rebels.

The crucifixion and the resurrection are two of the most important events in the Christian faith containing political and religious elements.

Thus the crucifixion of Jesus was a political event with religious implications. The resurrection of Christ is a spiritual event with political implications.

While many people affirm the need to keep politics, the pulpit and the people, separate, others advocate the value of their continued collaboration.

Did not the Civil Rights movement blend the best of the Judaeo-Christian faith and freedom traditions with the best of American constitutional freedom traditions to effect positive social change?

Was not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr one of the most influential political and religious change agents in the history of our nation?

The struggle between politics and pulpit continue for the souls of both entities and for the soul of America. Few things have greater religious and political impact than the current politics of austerity where human greed often denies human need and profits are more important than people.

Few arenas as religion and politics underscore so clearly the struggle between the love of power and the power of love; the equitable distribution of bread and land and the rights of persons to clean air, food and water as well as the right to a living wage, access to health care and helping families in need.

Few things are troublesome as politicians failing to act on behalf of the people because there is no political upside.

Fewer things grieve God more than religious and political leaders yielding their spiritual and political birthrights for a King’s reward and thirty pieces of silver.

The concern then may be not so much politics as it is “poli-tricks”; how the political process is used for ungodly, unjust gain in the name of God and how religious entities are used to justify the virtual elimination of all God given rights by politically driven, “God” inspired politics.

Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and render unto the God the things that are God’s.” Give each his due.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience unto God.”

Both statements emphasize the political, moral and religious imperatives of citizen’s duties and responsibilities not only to themselves, but to the people, and to the larger community and nation for the greater good.

While separation of church and state call for keeping religion and politics exclusive, the politics and religion of daily life still affirm the morality of love, justice, equality, peace and freedom which still remain important to God and should be of supreme concern to people whatever their religious and political views.

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