It has been an interesting few weeks here in Wisconsin — making the national news almost daily due to our governor, Scott Walker, and his crusade to eliminate collective bargaining rights as a cost-cutting measure to help balance the budget. There is no doubt that it would produce a short-term savings, however, as I have written elsewhere, from a systems perspective this is a short-sighted, dangerous, and costly decision in the long-term. I know too many people in education, health care, law enforcement, fire and emergency services, as well as hundreds of blue-collar service providers (and am widely read in the history of labor negotiations and fair practices) to see this as a positive direction. Many of my clergy colleagues, laity partners in ministry, and personal friends have supported those most impacted by collective bargaining as a simple justice issue. Most of us are not concerned with the political machinations undergirding this debate, yet I am simply amazed by the number of church people who cry out, “the church shouldn’t get involved in politics! Separation of Church & State!!!” Respectfully, the only people who can seriously hold such a view a) don’t understand the concept of separation of church and state, b) haven’t read the Bible, and c) don’t understand what it means to be a United Methodist. Engaging in the political decision-making process of our nation is not merely an option for Christians, it is a fundamental tenet of our faith.
The separation of church and state is a mutual protection: the state cannot impose a religion upon its people, and no religion can impose its particular confession and polity on a governing body. But that does not prevent politicians from using religion as a political lever, nor does it restrict any Christian from challenging political decisions based on religious convictions. There is a basic respect for personal freedoms at the core of this dual protection. But the protection is offered to those actively engaged in the process, not those who choose to exempt themselves. Charles Taylor, in his recent article in The Hedgehog Review (Fall 2010), The Meaning of Secularism, offers an insightful review of the purpose and practice of the separation of church and state, and reminds us that any strength and integrity our religious diversity and freedoms affords us is only relevant to the extent that we stay connected to the larger civil society. People of faith take their beliefs and values with them into the voting booth, which is as it should be, but their civic duty does not end once their ballot is cast. Separation of church and state does not extend to a separation of belief and politics — people cannot compartmentalize themselves this way. And “politics” should never be used as an excuse or abdication of responsibility. Were that the case, there would be no Christianity — for Jesus was one of the most political religious leaders on record, and Paul would not have become the champion of anyone who subverted the core values of justice, mercy, holiness, (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, etc.) to a state agenda or political machine.
Some lift from context such messages as Jesus saying, “Render to God what is God’s, and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” or Paul’s very context-specific instructions to the church in Rome in Romans 13:1-7. Both Jesus and Paul challenged the political leaders/regimes of their day — overturning the money-changers tables was every bit as much a political statement as a spiritual one, and the trial reports have deep political overtones (as do most of Jesus’ teachings). Paul offered instruction in a time where the imminent return of Jesus was the expectation and there was little or no value in engaging the powers and principalities of this age when all was soon to enter the age to come. It was not for any apolitical reason that Paul advised acquiescence in the short-term — simply that he didn’t believe there would BE an earthly long-term. Still, a person does not get arrested and imprisoned on a regular basis because he is the model political citizen. Paul constantly challenged and confronted the political forces of his day.
Ah, and then there’s United Methodism — as lived through all her antecedents. The Evangelical Association was heavily involved in shaping and reforming government structures. Methodist, Methodist Church South, Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist and African Methodist Zion were all heavily invested in the social justice, social gospel movements. Church of the United Brethren was a vocal union supporter, as were most early Methodist affiliates. Browse Our Doctrinal Standards, Our Theological Task, our Articles of Religion, our Social Principles, then try to make a case for our church not being appropriately engaged in things political and cultural. Methodists, in all forms, are reformers, advocates, champions of justice, fairness, equality (in most cases), and we work through our own organizational system to care for the poor and marginalized in our world. We not only allow, but encourage our faith to inform our politics. And this is equally true for the conservative as it is for the liberal, for the radical as well as the mainline, the defender of the status quo as well as the progressive, the Democrat as well as the Republican. Our country is all these and more; our church is all these and more.
We do not all agree, but that does not mean we should all keep quiet. I applaud anyone, anytime they speak up for the oppressed, the beaten up, or the beaten down. I am a supporter of anyone who crusades for justice, kindness, equality, compassion or mercy. I really don’t care their political party, or even their particular flavor of faith. When the children of God get up off their ponderous complacencies to make the world a better place, I am all for it. Being doers of the Word and not hearers only is a good thing, and engaging in civil and constructive discourse, even about the things over which we disagree, is a huge step in God’s direction. So, by all means, keep church and state separate, but let us never segregate our hearts and spiritual lives from our world and the systems that govern it.