Segregation of Church & State

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.

16 replies

  1. In the case of public unions the employer is the state. And unions spend lots of money ensuring the goodwill of elected politicians who in turn return the favor with legislation favorable to union interests. This is a self licking popsickle. The losers are the tax payers. We are not talking about the old style company town where the mill or mine controlled everything. If the state does not pay competitive wages then the work force moves elsewhere, including private industry. If that happens then the state will have to raise pay and benefits. Once again the free market solves the problem.
    Public sector jobs are often viewed as “good jobs” because of the job security and benefits. How much is job security worth? In the private sector employees have to scramble to compete for sales and contracts where public employees do not. Without the pressure of economic competition the only pressure comes from the voters who say “enough” and elect representatives who hold the line on taxes. That is how our republican form of government works. I find it reassuring.

    • Sadly, the ideal of the free market rarely works as it should. A quick survey of those states relying more on the impartial arbiters of supply and demand suggests that economic homeostasis results in survival, not health. And were economics free of political maneuvering — on all sides — I could more readily agree with you. However that is not the case. I like Thomas Sowell’s quote, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” I fall on the side of “those who choose not to pay taxes for quality of service should move elsewhere.” Let’s eliminate the indefensible governmental wastes of money before we go after the middle-classes livelihood, shall we?

  2. Many people who now oppose unions forget what it was like when all the bargaining power was in the hands of the employers. Want to know what it was like? Go to any third-world country and note working conditions there.

    For me, the justice issue isn’t only the fairness of wages and benefits. The primary justice issue is equality of bargaining power. When teachers, firefighters, etc. can’t organize to carry out their bargaining, they’re at the mercy of the politicians. There’s enormous pressure on politicians to look good for the next election by reducing taxes. Consequently, they often care more about short-term budget reductions than they do about the long-term benefits of educating children, fighting fires, providing police protection, etc.

    Note that the states with good state worker and teacher benefits are the union states. If state workers can’t form unions, then there will soon be no states left to absorb the good workers. Then, the touted “free market” will simply drive the best workers and teachers to work in private industry.

  3. Doing a quickie internet study- Average teacher salary in Wisconsin is $49K. Wisconsin household median income is $52K. Teachers get health plan worth $840 per month toward which they pay 5% and after 35 years can retire at about 2/3rds pay of their top three years income which will work out to be at or above the average teacher salary. Not too shabby. It is difficult to view these teachers as beaten down. In the private sector unions have to convince their management that they are worth the pay and benefits. If the unions get too much and the company becomes non-competitive then it will go out of business and another leaner company will take its place. It is a self regulating system. In the public sector if the benefits and salary go too high the tax payers foot the bill. Since most public employees have legislation that defines pay scales and benefits what is the purpose of a union? The driving issue seems to be that unions overwhelmingly support Democrats who then turn around and give back in kind once elected. It looks like Gov Walker is trying to break that cycle.
    Church and state should be separate but we will never separate religion and politics. Unfortunately when the UMC endorses a position it always seems to be the Democrat Party position. How do you think the Republicans sitting in the pews feel about that? On a national level Methodist Republicans outnumber Methodist Democrats by about 2 to 1 in the House and Senate. Curious. I wonder if the same split holds true in the rank and file?

    • Interesting filters. Lifelong teachers do fairly well, and yes, Wisconsin treats its teachers better than some. The problem is that many teachers are young, and the starting salaries are only livable with benefits and the advances received due to…(drumroll)…collective bargaining. Nurses, firefighters, and police fall into the same catagory — due to collective bargaining they DO have comparable (though not excessive) salary and benefits. And many of them are Republicans. Hmmm.

      • My filters took years to develop.
        When it comes to education the output should be educated students. Of the top ten teacher friendly states six of them graduate students who score above the national average in math and four below. Looking at nine Midwestern states, three out of the top four in teacher pay are union and three out of bottom four are non-union. Looks like a trend. Of these top four two score above national average and two below. Of the bottom four in teacher pay three score above national average on one scores below. The only conclusion I can draw from these data is that there is little correlation between teacher compensation and student performance. If a teacher in Wisconsin does not like the pay then move to Minnesota or Michigan where teacher pay and teacher comfort index is among the highest in the nation. If Wisconsin does not like it that their teachers are moving out of state then they can adjust pay and benefits to keep them in state. This is how the free market works.
        Feel free to poke around the data yourself. Go to for salary data and for education stats.

      • Were this simply a matter of only these teachers in only this case, I think the generalized statistics would make the case. Being a researcher and a statistician I know the wondrous luxury of reducing specifics to non-representative generics. There are so many variable factors that impact student education that it is irrational to place the burden of proof on salary/benefit statistics. What we do know is that the ability to retain effective and dedicated teachers is to offer them competitive compensation. The long-term implications of making teaching a low-wage, low-benefit, low-protection “industry” in Wisconsin will be on the quality of education and the lives of students. We can offer education the quality of that in Mississippi in no time at all — by having our brightest and best leave for Minnesota and Michigan. We haven’t even touched on health care workers, fire fighters, police, emergency medical technicians, and the dozens of other professions impacted by the collective bargaining issue. Walker offers a short-term, stop-gap solution to a much larger, much greater issue. This isn’t about one group or another in the immediate future; this is a systemic issue that has potentially egregious ramifications for the future viability of the state. Walker is not an economist, and he won’t listen to economists. He slammed the door on high-speed rail service (which could have solved the budget crisis over time through the generation of new revenue and commerce) and now he appears poised to put us back a century in existing labor. There is a bigger picture here that requires some long range planning and true visionary leadership, not just knee-jerk reactive decisions to protect one segment of the society at the expense of others.

    • The problem with your filters, Kevin, is that you’re comparing average teacher pay with average median income. To make a fair comparison, you need to compare average teacher salaries and benefits with average wages/salary and benefits of those with a comparable level of education and training. The same is true for other state workers. Only then can you see whether or not teachers and other state workers are getting fair wages.

      If you’re really going to be fair in comparing salaries, you also need to take the job hazards into account. Police and firefighters are exposed to far more risk than the average desk or factory worker, and should be compensated accordingly. Even teachers have varying levels of risk depending on where they teach.

      I haven’t crunched the numbers, so I don’t know whether state worker salaries are higher or lower than their private sector counterparts. I suspect they’re lower, but feel free to prove me wrong. You still might not change my mind about collective bargaining, but I’d appreciate your position a whole lot more!

  4. God, I hate your sanctimonious arrogance. The Republicans are trying to save our nation and help us become the people that God wants us to be. Liberal Democrats are cowards like those who ran away from the fight in Wisconsin, and all they want to do is take the wealth away from those who earn it and give it to those who are lazy and only work to destroy our country. You support these people? You want us to march in solidarity with the very people who cost taxpayers their hard-earned money? You should check out Americans for Prosperity. This is a group that knows the answers. If you want to get politically active, get politically active on the side of God and Jesus. Don’t keep crying because the “poor” aren’t getting a free ride. If all the people scared of losing their “collective bargaining rights” would simply get an education and work hard, none of this would be an issue. Get them to go to church and maybe they would learn what God wants them to do.

    • Yikes! May I say, takes one to know one? Glad you feel so passionately that you have all the answers, but I disagree with you. That which harms is not holy — not when it comes to being a people of God. Many of the people who will be adversely affected by the current political trends do go to church, they do love (the Republican) God, and they do know what it means to work hard. The current reality that breaks my heart is that so many blue-collar workers who voted Republican (based more on “family values” than understanding the political and economic agendas of their candidates) are the very ones who are being injured in the current debate. If I hear one more person in Wisconsin say, “Well, if I had known what Walker was going to do, I never would have voted for him,” I will scream. Say what you want about Walker, he is not a liar — he said exactly what he planned to do and he is doing it. Anyone who voted for him cannot pretend to be surprised by anything he has said or done. Those who voted for him got exactly what they asked for — which makes it so much more painful to watch.

  5. A few random thoughts:

    What you are saying does not appear to me as terribly provocative, upsetting or controversial. I assume that I share your views, both on the specific issue of supporting teachers’ unions (and other unions) as well as the larger points regarding Christian political participation. I further assume that I underestimate (perhaps signficantly so) how many hold views to the contrary.

    For whatever reason, I feel compelled to illuminate a few other questions.

    1. If the 60 Minutes report last night was even remotely accurate, there is a quick growing population of homeless children in America. Their families populate weekly-rate hotels and live hand to mouth. What was absent in the report was any presence (UMC or otherwise) of church (save for a passing mention of church food pantries). Where is the Christian presence, decrying the injustice, making a difference, defining the issue?

    2. Health care, in spite of any and all claims to the contrary, is still out of reach for a lot of people. Where is the Christian presence, decrying the injustice, making a difference, defining the issue?

    3. Many banks and several large companies reported profits last year, and did so with the help of government assistance. In spite of this, foreclosures remained at record levels. Millions remained unemployed. Many more businesess closed. Where is the Christian presence, decrying the injustice, making a difference, defining the issue?

    4. Adjusted for inflation, the government’s debt to GDP ratio is at near record levels (if not surpassing all records). Debt now threatens every major sector of our culture, from filling potholes to buying groceries. Where is the Christian presence, decrying the injustice, making a difference, defining the issue?

    I am increasingy annoyed at the tendency in “mainstream” Christianity to follow the issue in political conversations. We certainly talk when an issue is reported. I hear this all the time at the local church level. All I have to do is watch one of the major news channels to know what a majority of folks will be talking about at the next church get-together. Sometimes it’s a word-for-word parroting from the popular news. I’m not suggesting that this is what you did or what other Christian leaders are doing in Wisconsin. Just making a general observation.

    At one time Christians were running hospitals when health care debates weren’t even conceived. Debt management was taught as a basic principle before Dave Ramsey’s great grandparents were even born. Etc, etc, etc.

    I am convinced that the current (though not mainstream) “church” paradigm is missional. The silent majorities of tomorrow will be below the radar screen, off the best seller lists, unnoticed by the conference lecture circuit, and generally at odds with current mainstream Christianity (at least its forms and functions for the past 50 years or so). That has everything to do with your observations regarding involvement in politics. The trend is easily confirmed by observing what is currently happening in Tunisia, Libyia and Egypt. Wholescale political (and cultural) revolution is taking place largely without armies. The same phenomenon is possible in Christian culture. If you ask me, that’s exciting news for Christians interested in helping out in bringing about real change. As I type this out, I realize this phenomenon is not really new. It’s just old-school Paul (and John Wesley and others) in the 21st Century.

    • In short — Christians are NOT too politically engaged, they are barely politically engaged…

  6. Thanks for this, Dan, because I’m about to get on the bus, figuratively and literally. I’m joining a day-long march and rally on Wednesday, April 6 in Austin to support balanced means to achieve a balanced state budget, not the punitive, draconian mess that has been proposed by our executive Rick Perry, AKA “Guvernah Goodhair.” I’m trying to get more UMs in Dallas to get on the bus with me, but so far, no luck. Keep this effort in your prayers; without more balanced means, we’re going to lose a lot of good teachers, along with cutbacks in vital public services for children and the poor. And I’m going to wear one of my many cross-and-flame T-shirts, too!

  7. THANK GOD someone is finally saying something sensible. I wrote a letter to my local newspaper and I got a s#!??@^* of crap from “Christians” telling me I shouldn’t speak up for the poor and oppressed. I heard “separation of church and state” from a dozen people, but what they meant was separation of action from conviction. What is being done is WRONG — hateful, hurtful and evil. The rich oppressing the poor is the norm of human history. Money is power. And those in power do everything in their power to make sure those without stay in their place. Collective bargaining is nothing more than giving the marginalized a voice and a measure of power. My only motivations in stepping up in support of the teachers, nurses, policemen, firemen, etc., are a commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ and a basic belief that all people have rights to a happy and healthy life. No politics — just basic common decency and fairness. Thank you for reminding us that it is not a choice but a duty to engage in civil and public politics!

    • I don’t ever do this, but I have to this time. I think what is happening in Wisconsin is outrageous. I cannot fathom that anyone, and I mean any Christian, could side with governor Scott Walker to do such a hateful, hurtful, mean and petty thing. People’s livelihoods are at stake. The teachers of our children, those who provide us health care, those who protect and defend us — even selfish rich people know they need these people — must be cared for. I know there are political differences, and I know there are people who only care about money and themselves, but we are smarter than this. Being selfish in the present at the cost of our future is simply stupid. It isn’t about Democrats and Republicans — this is about humans and inhumans, those who care about their neighbors and those who don’t. If you love, you cannot support the short-sighted and narrow-minded plan of Walker. If you care about anyone but yourself, you have to oppose him.

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