His column reminded me of a discussion going on in a series of internet postings about separation of church and state. Well, it wasn’t so much a discussion as a fortified engagement in which religiously loaded grenades were lobbed back and forth. There is no such thing as separation of church and state, argued some. God, as known and proclaimed in the bible, is in charge of everything. It says that he raises empires and brings them down. It is only by our sinful nature, and the power of the devil, that secularism has taken hold. Christian must vote in such a way that the nation will be brought (back?) under the authority of God’s dominion lest it be destroyed by God’s wrath. It’s been tried. The Puritans were the last Americans to try to put such a political theology into practice through a hybrid theocratic democracy. It worked only so long as their ruling elders, all duly elected men of good standing, could maintain control over what was publicly held to be correct Christian dogma. Public punishment, banishment, and the occasional execution were the preferred tools of enforcement. I wonder how that would work today?
Not long ago, the local paper ran a column by a fundamentalist pastor who urged everyone to vote. So far so good, but he couldn’t stop there. It is one’s Christian duty to vote in support of Christian values that will restore the country to its Christian roots. That was more or less what he wrote. He was never specific about what Christian values are or what restoration to Christian roots might look like, but he was adamant about the Christian responsibility to vote accordingly. I confess to being skeptical about what Christian values he might have had in mind, indeed skeptical about whether they would even fit my understanding of what Christian values are. No doubt he would be equally skeptical about me.
There are other examples. Medieval states, nominally Christian, were more about gaining and retaining power than they were about nourishing the state with Christian faith. English Puritans, certain that the English Church was an evil echo of Rome, waged war, beheaded the king (he of divine right to rule in God’s name), and set up a Puritan theocracy ruled as a de facto dictatorship, only to discover that they could not be both Christlike and disciplinarians of faithfully correct behavior at the same time. It took a half century or so, but the people got their king back, their church back, and began to discover that toleration of diversity had value for all. We can look across the spectrum of modern nations observing that those that encourage religious freedom within an otherwise secular state tend to prosper in other kinds of freedom as well, while theocratic states tend to be oppressive, with little opportunity for fullness of human expression. In them, God is not loved but feared. Even more feared are the enforcers of what obedience to God is said to be.
I want to suggest, as I’m sure others have also, that it is not the responsibility of Christians to conform the state to their beliefs, particularly since we do not agree on what those beliefs are, except in the broadest of terms. It is the responsibility of Christians to be politically engaged as followers of Jesus Christ. What does that mean? The gospel message is fairly clear about that. In summary it means to work to break down barriers of separation, to be agents of healing and reconciliation, and to advocate for economic and social justice.
In this morning’s ecumenical clergy group we offered prayers for the nation from the Book of Common Prayer. They seem appropriate to share here as well:
Almighty God, giver of all good things:
We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them.
We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.
We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.
We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.
We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless
again and again.
Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name. Amen.