“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
— Thomas Jefferson
You won’t find that quote in the Bible, the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but you’ve heard “a wall of separation between Church and State” so many times you probably have it memorized more deeply than most scripture. We have so enshrined this concept that it almost seems like a tenet of faith that churches should not speak out about political topics or candidates. Think about your own emotional reaction when you hear a pastor do so. What happens in your emotions? Does it somehow feel wrong to you? If so, can you explain why without relying on the phrase, “a wall of separation between Church and State”? Can you explain why there ought to be such a wall?
This is just one area in which our culture has developed roots so deep we might not recognize when a cultural principle may actually contradict biblical commands. I know this was true for me.
I noticed several election cycles ago that certain churches routinely delve into politics with reckless abandon. They invite politicians (but never their opponents) to take their pulpit. They speak against certain candidates by name. They act as if they had assurances from the IRS that they would never have their tax exempt status challenged. I was shocked because it seemed so brazen. I was also shocked because the politicians who received their support often were those who strongly endorse legislation that violates biblical morality.
Today I officially enter the fray. I am beginning a series of posts that will delve into politics, and I hate it.
- I hate it because I love people and don’t want to argue with anyone. “Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King asked. Oh how I wish!
- I hate it because politics is dominated by people who know everything. Just once I’d like to see a candidate who says he or she has great ideas for our economy but admits to knowing nothing about foreign affairs. Not going to happen. Every politician is an expert on everything, probably because they follow us on facebook. After all, we seem to know everything about everything. My fb friends and I can set you straight on COVID, on Brexit, on murder hornets and on economics. We are armchair experts on everything.
- I hate it because I actually know so little about so much. I read articles, listen to the radio, watch videos. To break free from the echo chamber I try to read articles and blogs from both sides. But I often walk away feeling like neither side is giving the full, unfiltered truth. And trying to find the truth between them is like trying to get the truth out of your 4-year-old twins who keep yelling, “He started it!”
- I hate it because I really only want to talk about Jesus.
So if I hate it so much, why am I doing it?
- Because the Bible shows us that you can’t talk about Jesus without putting Him into the context of people’s lives. Jesus is supposed to be the Lord of our whole lives, not just select parts. The Bible speaks repeatedly about the importance of consulting God on all of our decision making. So why would we think He’s uninterested in how we vote?
- Because elections can shape the direction of the whole nation. No doubt you’ve heard people say this is the most important election in our lifetimes. I’ve heard that numerous times this year. I also heard it in 2016, 2012 and 2008. In one sense, it’s always true. Past elections aren’t as important because we can’t change the past. Most people worry about the long-term impact that a candidate’s policies will have on the economy, on international relations, on health care and the like. Those are all important, but I suspect God is more concerned with the moral and spiritual impact a candidate might have. President Trump has an undeniable deficit in moral capital, and a great many people understandably want anyone but him because of it. The character of the president is worthy of discussion, despite how loathe I am to get into a conversation in which I may have to speak unglowingly about someone.
- Because we need to be reminded of what the wall of separation really means so that we know if and when it should be breached.
- Because that wall was already breached while the Church was asleep.
- Because the only way to resolve our differences is to talk about them. The old adage about never discussing religion or politics is intended to prevent arguments, but not to build godly unity. If I value the peaceful relationship I have with my neighbor more than I value his eternal soul, I won’t talk religion around him. But if I truly love him I will risk our friendship on the chance of leading him to know the love and calling of Christ. Sometimes we need to talk religion. And sometimes we need to talk politics. And sometimes the two overlap, despite any supposed walls.
- Because some people have been reaching out to the Church on the subject of politics. Some are looking for direction, others to express concern over our recent break from the silence. Much of what I will share in these blog posts will come directly from my responses to those emails.
What does God say about government?
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
— Romans 13:1-7
And He changes the times and the seasons;
He removes kings and raises up kings;
He gives wisdom to the wise
And knowledge to those who have understanding.
So governments are set in place by God to restrain evil. That is their purpose. God has given them the sword to execute wrath to evil doers on His behalf. How does this square with the idea of a wall of separation between church and state? God walks through walls. He has been interfering with kings and rulers since before He created the world. He is the King of kings, after all. He threw down Satan when Satan exalted himself to the throne, and God has done likewise with men throughout the ages.
You’ve probably heard about the origins of Thomas Jefferson’s famous quip about church and state. He was writing to a pastor friend of his who worried about whether the new U.S. government might repeat England’s abusive interference with the Church. Jefferson was assuring his friend that the constitution restrained the government so that it could not. No one was worried about the Church interfering with the government. In fact, they were counting on it. They knew that they needed the moral fiber of the Judeo-Christian worldview to sustain such a novel government as ours. No church would have political control of the government, but the universal Church would provide the people with the moral character and guidance necessary to be good citizens and good leaders in government.
But over the years the idea morphed to create a taboo against people of faith allowing their faith to influence their politics. And the biggest taboo of them all is for a pastor to give an opinion on anything political.
Have you ever noticed how some highways use both asphalt and concrete? Highway 70 has lanes of each. I’ve often wondered why. When politicians want to debate the merits of concrete and asphalt, the Church has no interest in the subject. Politics is all about solving practical problems in such areas as national defense, transportation and commerce. But when a political party pushes an agenda that is deeply immoral, it is not the Church passing through the wall of separation but the political party. Morality comes from the Lord, thus it is the realm of the Church.
Over the 244 year history of this country, perhaps most of the time pastors have had no reason to get involved in politics. But periodically the politicians step outside their bounds and pass through that wall, putting pastors in a position to either address politics or to violate God’s calling. Pastors did that in the years leading up to the civil war because the stench of slavery had become too repugnant. Pastors did it again in the days of the civil rights movement. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did it in Germany to speak out against Hitler even though it would cost him his life.
Over the next few weeks I want us to explore this concept and the times we are living in. I
want to — no, I feel that we must — discuss the candidates and the issues in the light of scripture — without the bitterness of the world, without the crass and disrespectful use of oft-repeated slurs and name calling. We’ve been talking a lot lately about unity, about the kindness that comes from the Holy Spirit and about brotherly love. This will be a chance to test ourselves and see if we can live up to that. We won’t agree on everything. But being nice to each other isn’t a challenge when we agree. This will be a chance to see if it is Christ living in us or the old man who was buried with Christ. I hope you’ll join me and pray for me. There’s some turbulence up ahead, we better fasten our seatbelts.