Religion, Activism, and Politics

Have you noticed all the confusion between religion and politics lately? It doesn’t much matter whether the people involved are liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, it seems that everybody has a significant amount of confusion about the relationship between religion, activism, and politics.

The first place you see it is in all the confusion of the separation of Church and State here in America. What the Constitution actually says is that the government shall not establish a State religion. Those who came to this country were very used to the idea of a State religion, and consequently rather shocked at the idea of passing a collection plate. To this day in most of Europe tax dollars are given to the Church to support its operations, and so a collection would be redundant. That prohibition of a State religion is really all the Constitution says about separation of Church and State. Of course, people read a lot more into the phrase than is really there.

I have had some people say to me that religion should not involve politics. While there are very explicit IRS regulations regarding tax exempt organizations interfering in a political campaign, this isn’t what these folks are generally talking about. They tend to mean that they believe that their local church shouldn’t comment on political matters like war, hunger, civil rights, and so forth. Clearly, the Constitution is silent on this issue. What does Jesus have to say about this?

Jesus lived in a theocracy, a system of government where the Church is the government – at least on the local level. For him the Church was the government, and Jesus confronted the Church (read that government) on issues of women’s rights, the treatment of foreigners, taking care of widows and orphans, and how to treat the soldiers of the occupying Roman army. These are precisely issues of war, hunger, and civil rights. On what basis then can one properly say that the Church shouldn’t speak on political issues?

You see, political issues are issues which argue for change in the status quo. The are different from partisan politics or political campaigns. Since these discussions address issues in society that need to be changed they are necessary components of an authentic Christianity, particularly in light of the fact that Christians have been charged with loving their neighbor as themselves.

Of course, some people take this one step too far and become so involved in activism that their activism takes the place of a life of faith and prayer. Many members of organizations like the Gamaliel Foundation and various other spiritually based lobbying groups have made this mistake. They become so convinced of the importance of working to make the world a better place that they believe that the only authentic spirituality is activism, and prayer, worship, sacramental life, and everything else is a waste of time. While there is certainly value in activism, activism in and of itself is no spirituality and absent a life of prayer and worship is spiritually bankrupt. It also, I might add, leads rather quickly to burnout.

So what about politics? I find it absolutely fascinating that people, even those who profess to be very concerned about the separation of Church and State, approach Presidential politics as if it were the annual meeting of their local church. Candidates are questioned about their faith. Churches and their members imply we shouldn’t vote for this person because he’s Catholic; that one because he’s Mormon; this one because his father was Muslim, we don’t know his mother’s religious affiliation, and his church is predominantly black; this one because he’s been abducted by aliens, or any of those others because they violate some doctrine or dogma of my faith (even though they aren’t members of my faith). The Catholic Church instructs priests to refuse Communion to candidates for political office who are pro-choice on the abortion issue (and the IRS looks the other way) and we worry about how many wives this candidate has had while wondering if this other one is born again or not. That’s not religion, friends, that’s politics – and Activism, the new American religion.

The Hebrew prophet Micah reminds us what is really important: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God. Walking humbly means having a spiritual life – prayer, spiritual reading, worship, and reflection to name but a few. To walk with God means to spend time with him in the quiet of our hearts. Any work for justice not rooted in a life of prayer has nothing to do with God and everything to do with our ego. The Church compounds the problem when she attempts to energize her membership for political action without emphasizing the need for grounding in a healthy and strong spirituality.

It’s long past time to get back to basics.

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