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August 1, 2007 / compassioninpolitics

Separation of Church and State & the Public Sphere Part II

Separating Church and State: An Analysis of the Legal and Political Issues

What does exactly does separation of church and state mean? While I agree with some of the sentiments those that would call for extreme secularism express, I don’t see how a person expressing their views in the public square is a bad thing. Its very important that it says “freedom of religion” not “freedom from religion.” Second, it seems that if we suppress leaders from talking about their views it would be a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and if they internally did so it would be betraying their very identity. Third, as long as the politics of faith always gets back to respecting and protecting both human dignity and the common good, it shouldn’t matter what rhetoric its wrapped in.

I was reading a couple chapters from Jim Wallis God’s Politics between bouts of reality TV last night and came across three key notion that dovetail the issues about separation of church and state outlined above:

“One invokes the name of God and faith in order to hold us accountable to God’s intentions—to call us to justice, compassion, humility, repentance, and reconciliation. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King perhaps best exemplify this say.”

Our largest empowerment initiatives to throw off the shackles of oppression were the “anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, the fight for children’s labor laws, and the civil rights movement—[which all] had overt religious roots and motivations”

“Not everyone in America has the same religions values, of course. And many moral lessons are open to interpretation. But by withdrawing into secularism, the Democrats deprive Americans of an important debate”

I think Jim is onpoint on all three accounts. A call to erase religion from the public square would be a draconian and discriminatory witch hunt, which no one wants. And it would roll back the clock on many of our nation’s most precious civil and individual rights. So as the feminists pronounce, the personal is political. Its inevitable that faith is intertwined with politics. Therefore, its up to us to make sure that it’s accountable and that its used in the service of human dignity and the common good. After all, isn’t that the litmus test for all good public policy?

Any feelings on the issue? Is the GOP being responsible with its interpretation of God’s politics? How about the Democrats? Are there ethical issues they are neglecting in their respective platforms which they should address?


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  1. rogueminister / Aug 2 2007 4:32 am

    It seems to me that Disciples of Christ should just be about Kingdom business and let the kingdoms of this world handle their own mess.

    It seems that we put politics first and faith second in many cases which is always a bad idea. Christians will win the world not by winning the debate in congress or having the loudest voice in the public square, but by daily living sacrificial lives of service and humble devotion to Jesus of Nazareth.

    Some other good books on the subject include
    “The Politics of Jesus”- by John Howard Yoder
    “The Myth of a Christian Nation”- by Greg Boyd
    “Mere Discipleship” -by Lee Camp

  2. compassioninpolitics / Aug 2 2007 6:35 am

    Interesting perspective. To me this blog even if entitle compassion in politics….is as much about engendering a compassion in society as well. My hometown is Nashville, TN, but my current (temporary) home in DC is in sharp contrast more classist and cold. I think an ethics of compassion transcends political lines or even political boundaries.

    I don’t think that anytime we see an injustice as Christians we should go running to the goverment to fix it, but alternatively I don’t think we should ignore that the concentration of political power is something to be challenged in word and deed.

    Its interesting that you mention Greg Boyd. I believe I saw him speak about a month ago here in DC. Quite compelling and quite a good speaker. That not withstanding, I don’t think Christians should abandon the public square. Living lives of humble devotion to Jesus of Nazareth is not incompatable with challenging powers and principalities in the world. So I guess you could say my political orientation is both toward the local (me, family, community, local church) and the global (government, nation, and nations around the world).

    What do we do in the face of say environmental destruction or corporate corruption? Would Jesus be silent as the poor were crushed and oppressed under toe? Is our only venue of change personal relationships? Should we vote our hearts and faith in the ballot box? Should we sent letters, sign petitions, or join movements based on the same principles?

    Thanks for the discussion…

  3. rogueminister / Aug 2 2007 10:13 pm

    I too am from Nashville. In fact one of the books I recommended is by Lee Camp who is the biblical ethics professor at Lipscomb University.

    I think we can certainly stand up to the principalites and powers without using those very principalites and powers as one of our tools.

    When dealing with any type of social issues a Christian’s reference should of course be Jesus. With that said, we must imitate Him. He changed the world by what Dr. Camp calls “suffering servanthood,” not by working the political arena. The first four hundred years of Christianity is virtually void of folks being involved in the political arena and when they finally did during the Constantinian shift it was only detrimental to the call of Christ.

    I would argue that Christians should avoid being involved in government, but I dont hold that view in a sort of legalistic way. We instead should be human shields, willing to suffer with the poor and oppressed in order play a part in God’s redemption of not only those who are oppressed, but the very principalities and powers themselves. I believe if disciples of Christ did that then we would be faithful to Jesus and His call on our lives.

    Be blessed!

  4. compassioninpolitics / Aug 3 2007 3:20 pm

    Sorry…I don’t know how I missed your comment yesterday.

    Actually my parents met at David Lipscomb a little over 33 years ago. And Dr. Briley and Dr. Nance (who was in physics) used to be my preachers.

    I think you’re right on the one hand “suffering servanthood” is an option. I’m not sure how Jesus’s vocation is helpful for us in someways. He was a carpenter and a missionary. Hence, I don’t see how this helps someone who wants to be a doctor, lawyer, or pastry chef. Second, Jesus wasn’t one to worry about metaphorically dirtying his hands a little bit in the muck, in order to accomplish a larger mission. And while I wouldn’t see Jesus as a banker, real estate agent, a marketer of anything except his work, or an IRS agent. I’m not sure there is anything in the scripture which says I’m any less of a devout Christian if I choose these professions. Perhaps the later…but I fear in putting Christian living in such a procrustean confines. Jesus seemed to transcend that, being much more concerned with principles than rigid rules of conduct. In fact the mere name “suffering servanthood” seems to suggest that Jesus’ life was mired in suffering–which is questionable but not particularly verifiable. (not withstanding the cross…) I think beyond the temptation in the garden and beyond the cross, I think the “suffering servanthood” model breaks down a bit. Jesus didn’t seem to be a complainer about things like that, so perhaps we’ll never know–at least in the near future.

    This may not be a fair characterization…but “suffering servanthood” seems to risk being a bit of “hide it under the bushel” model. I think at least a model of “speaking out” in the public square is at least as viable. Not because perhaps were legalistically required to do something, but because we identify with their pain…and in compassion…speak out in love.

    I’m not sure how Jesus or Dr. Boyd would respond to Wilberforce’s activities? Certainly Jesus endured some injustice, but would that have been his response to slavery? He said to love other people. Beyond that, it seems like he left a lot of it up to us…

    Your thoughts???

  5. Undereducated Opinion / Aug 4 2007 1:30 pm

    1) Great post. Such an extreme Separation of Church and State interpretation would completely ignore history, particularly of the founders who repeatedly invoked God throughout the Constitutional Convention and their lives. Most people are unaware that Scripture was read during the CC to provide guidance.

    2) I also believe that the withdrawal from politics perspective would make about as much sense as withdrawal from all occupations. Although as Christians, we can too often see the State as our savior and forget our own Christian duties to evangelize/help the poor/etc., an absolute prohibition is on political involvement is not the solution. Not everyone is called by God to be a traveling street preacher with no occupation, as Christ was. Some of us are called to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and even politicians. My father is a pastor, and he is extremely great full for Christians who have other occupations (they provide his salary via tithing).

    In addition, the political platform can provide a useful tool for teaching Christian principles to the world and showing them our compassion, who we are and what we stand for (unfortunately, politics often perverts otherwise moral people, but that is not necessarily so). Political tools can also be effective at ending certain injustices. Without political means and Christian morality behind it, Lincoln could not have ended slavery, etc.

  6. rogueminister / Aug 4 2007 6:32 pm

    I think the “suffering servant” model holds up as long as it isnt confused with being passive. Its more like making yourself a human shield in the midst of a war zone. You can certainly, and I believe should, adopt this mentality no matter your profession. It doenst mean you seek out suffering as much as it calls you to place yourself in a position that helps you play a part in Christ’s redemptive work in the world and being willing to face the consequences. You may or may not actually suffer, but you must be willing to do so.

    I think Jesus’ ministry was plagued with persecution and suffering. The cross was just the culmination of a long standing plot to kill Him. Jesus put himslef between the religious zealots and the adulteress woman, He risked being ostrcized for touching lepers, He broke deep social taboos by talking to a “half-breed” samaratain woman in public. All of these things fall into the “suffering servanthood” understanding of Christ ministry because each one had the potential for suffering and eventually added up to His execution.

    I think another key to this model, is that it is about a counter intuitive approach to addressing the world’s problems. Governments take care of business by threats and power, but the Kingdom of God instead empowers to powerless and undermines the powers and principalities at work in the world. It is very intentional, vocal, and noticeable and therefore not like hiding your light under a bowl.

    As far as Mr. Wilberforce, I have struggled with that for a bit. It is interesting that he faced most of his opposition from people who claim to follow Christ. I believe that the call of Christ is to the whole church and if we, the Body of Christ, would stand together in peaceful, loving, compassionate, service then we wouldnt need government to bless the world or the public square becuase people would notice the radical difference in our lives.

    Gandhi said something like, “If your christians would act like Christ the the whole world would be Christian.” I think he is not too far off. Certainly there will always be those who rebel, but if Christians imitated Christ instead of the systems of this world then we would have the impact we were intended to have.

  7. rogueminister / Aug 4 2007 6:35 pm

    I just wanna make one thing very clear. I dont hold these views with a legalistic, dogmatic, sectarian heart. I love and respect anyone striving to make a difference in the world for the sake of Christ. I have good friends in the military and politics and can see Christ love in them. I just think that the best way to reach the world with God’s redeeming love is through the types of service I mentioned earlier.

    Be blessed in Jesus, and thanks again for this post!

  8. compassioninpolitics / Aug 4 2007 7:53 pm

    Rogue Minister says:
    I think the “suffering servant” model holds up as long as it isnt confused with being passive. Its more like making yourself a human shield in the midst of a war zone.

    Great conversation!! I only have a second right now. But why can’t we do both??? Sure being in politics involves a balancing act, but so does every other career that involved a position of power: doctor, lawyer, pastor, and pretty much everything else.

    Will post later…need to catch some ZZZs before a church event tonight!

  9. compassioninpolitics / Aug 5 2007 3:52 am

    Thanks to both of you for the ongoing conversation…

    Rogue Minister says:
    It is very intentional, vocal, and noticeable and therefore not like hiding your light under a bowl.

    My ideas & perspective:
    Perhaps my intitial characterization wasn’t fair. I think harnessing the power of government resources and coordination can be particuarly helpful on issues like education and international diseases like AIDs.

    Thanks for the explanation, that helps provide a more complex explanaiton and understanding of “suffering servant.” I think particuarly in the case of washing the disciples feet, this path of servant activism or servant love was particuarly evident.

    So is the only reason (and its certainly a valid criticism) the risk of corruption due to government? I think there is some risk of politization and internal conflict too–but at given what the Christian right is doing–i’m not sure thats avoidable. It seems to me that a moderating voice at the local and national level is needed if only to rectify the stereotypes associated with the worst examples of the far right.

    Any ideas on the atheism/chris hitchens thread?

    Thanks again…

  10. Geoff Elliott / Dec 9 2007 3:29 am

    Actually, candidates should feel free to either express their beliefs about faith or to not reveal them at all. You astutely point out that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion and not freedom from religion.

    However, too many voters in this country seek to impose *their* beliefs on the rest of us who don’t share those same beliefs. This is why Romney and Kennedy before him felt compelled to basically defend their own beliefs to the Religious Right.

    More candidates should so the courage that Abraham Lincoln did during his congressional campaign of 1846. When challenged, he basically told an evangelical preacher that his own beliefs were no one else’s business.

    Here’s the story:

    The Religious Right must be told that as Americans we all have the right to worship, or to NOT worship, as we choose.

  11. compassioninpolitics / May 19 2008 2:46 am

    I think I tend to agree. I just hope that such issues can be approached with an appropriate level of sensitivity…


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