On September 6, 2011

Separation for Church and State

When I was young we had a nice woman come and knock on our door campaigning for herself to be the new Saline County Treasurer. She was kind and bubbly, and she asked me if I would help her win.

I was 10.

But I said yes. Actually, my friend and I went up and down both of our streets knocking on doors and handing out yard signs and bumper stickers for her. We even had learned a few of her talking points as we tried to convince others to take up our righteous cause. It was intoxicating, to say the least. In fact, she really just got us started down the road of political action.She was the gateway politician for us. 2 years later my friend and I would get out the phone book and call every single person in the Benton area to vote for George H.W. Bush’s re-election against Clinton.

On the night of the election, we gathered with in the Republican Headquarters of Benton and waited as the results came in. We were devastated when they did. Clinton had won, and Saline County had even voted for him. Who would have thought that two 12 year old boys making un-authorized phone calls for Bush wouldn’t have worked?

And that’s kind of the end of my political activity. I’ve voted and had heated conversations just like the next person, but I’ve tried to stop putting as much weight as I used to on the political system. I’m still glad that we have public servants who (hopefully) try to work hard and honestly to serve their constituents. But I am a preacher and so my concerns are now quite different than the American government. They are much smaller, and much more important, and still somewhat tied together.

In his book, “To Change the World” James Davidson Hunter makes one of the most helpful observations about our political and religious climate that I have heard in my life. He first paints the different options for Jesus followers in America, and he’s equally hard on all of them…including my own. For the Republican Right, he points out the flawed approach to labeling any political force “Christian” and the same rings true for the new Democratic surge. “Christian” is a really bad adjective for any political party. But for my leaning, the Anabaptist approach to politics, he is pretty hard on too. Because I have been shaped by the writings of people like Yoder and Claiborne and N.T. Wright, who have (rightfully) reminded us that Caesar isn’t Lord.

But, Hunter reminds us that we can’t just define ourselves by what we are not. That is, if I go around introducing myself as not an elephant, eventually people are going to start associating me with large mammals with trunks. Here’s the point:

“Most people think that what matters is the ideological direction of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms…and Culture is always most powerful when it is most taken for granted, it brings into  [focus] just how powerful a force politicization is in our time.”

In other words, when Jesus followers think about how to change the world in America, they almost universally turn to politics in one form or another.

And here is the tragic irony. Politics serve a valid function in our world, but they only do so with the right kinds of people. People who serve their various functions well. And I’m not talking about Democrats and Republicans, I mean the kinds of people who have a better character. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but lately it seems like the amount of scandals among politicians and public leaders have gone up exponentially. We tweet dirty pictures, or have sex with pages, or leave our wives for women in Southern America, or yell “You lie” at the President.

It’s getting ugly out there.

We don’t just need a particular kind of ideology in politics. We need a particular kind of person.

But, the irony of all this, is that churches could have served a purpose here that would have actually helped. Look again at Hunter:

“Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power-not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere. It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics…The irony is that no group in American society has done more to politicize values over the last half century, and therefore undermine their renewal, than Christian-both on the Right and on the Left. Both sides are implicated and remain implicated today.”

In other words, the world needs a certain kind of man or woman who is capable of stewarding power loosely, filled with values that are actually values not talking points for a particular party platform. And this doesn’t come by the church going deeper into politics, but by separating from it all together.

It’s fine to care about who is in the Oval office, or running the treasury of the Saline County Courthouse, but God cares much more about what kind of person his churches are forming. And the irony is, that eventually some of those people will be in those offices.

The best contribution Jesus-followers can make to society as a whole is by making sure that they are formed into the right kinds of people.

And sure, it takes longer, and you won’t be able to get into those heated arguments where you feel some righteous indignation because you care about the poor or the unborn, or the environment.

But it works.

It’s time for the Seperation of Church and State. For Church and State.

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  • Joe

    Well, that’s a succinct way of summarizing about 1000 pages of Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory. 

    I think I’ve had trouble over the past few years believing that anything exists that isn’t political.  It seems every time I’ve bothered to venture to a church all I can see is implicit ideology at every turn; and it’s always ideology that flatly opposes my own.  But, beneath all of that, I’m reminded of a professor we once had who constantly encouraged us to never lose sight of the individual souls we encountered in the world.  If proof of my politics trumps the value of any person in my mind, then all my beliefs have proved their own worthlessness. 

    You’re probably right:  If I could live all that out I could probably see a lot of change in the world around me.  If a church could live it out, then I imagine the Kingdom of God would have come over us all.  I guess that’s a big ‘if’, but a hopeful one nonetheless.

  • Maynard

    I was at the other end of the state campaigning for Clinton.  Pause here to recognize that Maynard is on the right side of history.  Ha.  Seriously, though, I appreciate the thoughts expressed in this post.  I think it is ludicrous for a political party to consider itself or to be considered by others as ‘Christian’.  Each of our two major parties has an excess of baggage from the past and the present that is anything but ‘Christian’.  I think a lot of the anger that is breathed by the Religious Right is in part because they have spent millions of dollars and countless hours to try to get their elected officials to do what only the Church was called to do and what only the Church can do.  What if all of that money and time had been spent furthering the Kingdom and the Good News and not on politicians (many of whom use religion and ‘values’ issues as a smokescreen) being sent to the statehouses or DC to compete in very broken, human systems? 

    To be fair, I realize that many on the religious left are also kuckoo, but they have not hijacked a political party and have minimal influence in the one they are in. 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Married Joe! So good to hear from you man! I hope life is going well for you brother. Well said. 
    You would like “To Change the World” it really is a hopeful but realistic take on where we are at in Western Churches and what the possibilities are. He’s especially helpful on the arts. I hope you and Alice are doing well man! 

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Hey Maynard, that’s so funny, if we would have met back then you would been seriously judged and found wanting. 

    You should read To Change the World as well. It’s a great book, and you’ll be interested in the difficult critique Hunter gives the Democrat party for the politicization of values as well. According to him, Democrats actually moved this direction first in the 60′s and 70′s, Reagan was a master at it, and then ever since then the Democrats had kind of been left out (until a resurgence in the past few years). It’s a great book, don’t worry he’s kind about all his critique.

    Hope all is well Maynard!

  • Maynard

    Your roots are showing when you say Democrat Party as it is technically and grammatically correct to say Democratic Party.  Just sayin’.  Yes, sounds like a great read.  I am not beyond being challenged on these points and I’m sure there exists at least some basis for the critique.  There should be open dialogue from religious and secular leaders in both of the national parties and those who claim none of the above.  Religious leaders shouldn’t be excluded from the table, nor should they play the role of crybaby victims when they are not agreed with.  I think with hundreds of Protestant denominations and Christians being represented in both major parties, it’s safe to say that we cannot agree amongst ourselves.  It should not be a shock the collective evangelical pscyhe that our diverse, pluralistic society fails to legislate the morality of a few. . . .  but here I go hijacking your blog again.