Friday, May 26, 2017

Church and State Under Trump: Second Stanza

photo by Pat O'Malley / flickr

Our country has many issues on our plate these days. Russia. Budget. Health Care. Immigration. Economy. Terrorism. Division. The list is long and seemingly endless. It would be easy to forget the continual struggle of separation of church and state. It may sound irrelevant but what the state has to do with religion goes to the heart of who we are as a people.

President Trump recently signed an executive order supporting churches and other non-profit groups' right to endorse political candidates publicly. Which means on any given Sunday you might have some Pastor or other religious figure tell you who to vote for. 

In 1964 the Johnson Amendment was passed which strictly forbids this action. Churches and other non-profits could lose their IRS status if they engage in partisan politics. Though few groups or pastors have been charged—this law is still on our books. President Trump says that churches should have the freedom to back any political candidate they choose. 

This is a dangerous directive. To stand in the pulpit and promote any candidate running for office would diminish the moral authority of church leaders. In every church I have served I looked out on Republicans and Democrats and Independents.  My charge was to be the leader of the whole congregation. It was not to be a Chaplain or even a puppet for any political party. The Church was never intended to be the Republican or Democratic Party at prayer. Such an action would divide the church and diminish its voice. Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War was asked if God was on his side. He wisely responded: “Sir my concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right”. He knew the church is not in the business of invoking the name of God for any particular person or group. Maybe he was remembering the first amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

The task of the church is to help heal the wounds of the nation. If we give our public support to any politician we mute the effectiveness of our message and contribute to the divisions that are serious today. No person should be made to feel like an outsider in church. 

The separation of church and state has a long and spotted history. In 1804 when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were still tender, John Leland, a Baptist pastor wrote, “The fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did.” Baptists and other nonconformists fled England and Holland seeking a safe place where they could worship as conscience dictated. They felt strongly no King or other officials should intrude on the work of the church. But when they came to America they discovered many still had allegiance to the King as head of the church. In protest many preachers were locked in jail, hounded out of town and some even lost their lives. Why? They dared to believe the church and state were to be separate. So with the help of Thomas Jefferson and others the separation of church and state was born. 

No State should expect the church to be a tool in electing any politician. On our better days the church has courageously spoken truth to power. From the time of the Old Testament prophets on, religious leaders have raised their voices against all sorts of injustices. The list is long. Civil rights. Slavery. Poverty. Women’s issues. Gay rights. War. These are only a few our struggles. Their mandate came from Jesus who always gave hope and help to the powerless . 

Rabbi Jonah Pesner is a leader of the social and advocacy arm of Reformed Judaism. He supports the Johnson Amendment calling it a gift to preachers. “It gives me the freedom, from the pulpit to preach about values and policy, but to be protected from partianship. Because if I were able to cross that partial line a a preacher, I’d be under enormous pressure from stakeholders, from members, from donors. It would undermine my moral authority as a guardian of religious tradition.”
I am a retired minister now. I sit on a church bench most Sundays. I listen carefully to sermons. And if some preacher told me how to vote I would walk out of that church and never return. The Church is not Fox News nor MSNBC. People from all political persuasions come to Church and Synagogue hungry for help, affirmation for their lives and hope for people everywhere. Most folk do not come to hear again what they hear to all day long from social media, television or newspapers. Our task is to help people dream dreams and see visions for a better self, a better country, and a better world. Keeping the wall of separation between church and state may be the strongest wall of them all.

photo by Marty Stone / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

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