The Great Church and State Debate

I must admit that because of my occupation, a student, I am not privy to information as it is relevant and current, but rather I am often confronted with information in retrospect and therefore through a different set of eyes for analysis.  In that vein, in my Systematic Theology class, I was was presented with the address that Barack obama-churchObama gave three years ago at the Call to Renewal’s Building a New Covenant for America Conference.  I must admit that somehow, despite the meticulous effort with which I attempted to follow President Obama before, but definitely during, his historic and victorious Presidential campaign, I missed this address.  This address (you can find it here), given at the Covenent for a New America Conference addresses the issue of the relationship of Religion/Faith and Government/Politics.  The fact that Barack Obama, then Senator and now President of the United States of America, was willing to address the complexity of this issue in a public forum says a lot about him as a man of faith and his role as a progressive leader.  Let me state that in its essence, this blog is not one that is resplendent with political over- or undertones.  While I am intentional about not separating the two spheres, I know that I spend far more time analyzing the faith-side of the national/international dialectic regarding the place of faith in the public sphere.  Nonetheless, let me take a few moments to unpack this address.

For those who have followed Barack Obama’s career, much of this will seem quite redundant; however, forgive me for taking time to carefully unpack this address.  Obama begins this address by addressing an issue that took place during his 2004 Senate General Election in the State of Illinois.  His opponent, a man named Alan Keyes, made a radical claim.  He stated, “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.”  This strong claim was buttressed by the fact that Keyes, along with much of the “religious right” thought that Barack Obama’s actions and stances on public policy was fundamentally un-Christian.  Obama states:

But what they didn’t understand, however, was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed to speak for my religion, and my God.  He claimed knowledge of certain truths.  Mr. Obama says he’s a Christian, he was saying, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible callas an abomination.  Mr. Obama says he’s a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred.

This portion of his speech raises a serious question – What does it mean to be a Christian?  This question if often taken for granted when we talk about the Christian faith.  Is one’s Christianity determined by their family background or a personal confession of faith?  Does one’s Christian faith absolve from the the “eternal fires of hell” or does it simply raise one to a higher plane of spiritual consciousness and responsibility?  What is the significance of Baptism in the Christian tradition?  What role does ones Christological views play in their faith and what level of Christology makes one an “acceptable” Christian?  What role do traditional cultural practices play in the creation, or destruction, of Christianity?  Before we answer this question so quickly, take time to really think about it.  We have the tendency of transplanting our views as a universally accepted truth; however, we must understand that we are not living in a religious homogenous society, but from within and without, Christianity is diverse and just one of many faiths represented in our society.

As he continues in his address, Obama states:

I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

church and stateI believe this mandate still stands for both sides of the debate; however, from the side of the faith community, we must understand our faith in the light of other faiths in our society.  In order to participate in this communal dialogue, we must admit to certain truths.  First, we must understand that we don’t possess all the answers nor do we have a monopoly on God.  This goes for all denominations and faith communities.  When we begin to assert that we possess a monopoly on God’s Truth, then we do not feel the need or even possess the desire to, entire into dialogue across partisan, religious, denominational, and social lines.  In my experience, we often fill God’s mouth with our words and the language that we often use is divisive and inflammatory.  We then disseminate this language across our denominations and religious circles with such fervor that God’s true voice of cannot be heard and God’s true will cannot be discerned.

Recently, I have blogged about the importance of dialogue and the role it plays in the progression of our individuals faith journeys as well as the progression of our society.  Recently, I had the priveledge of talking about the role of women in the church historically and currently.  This conversation was had with people of varying religious background from Church of God in Christ to African Methodism to myself (transitioning from Pentecostalism to Episcopalism/Anglicanism).  I will not take the time to unpack the entire conversation; however, I will state that we were able to have the conversation and remain civil.  We were able to talk about our own experiences without disregarding or disrespecting the experiences and views of others.  We were able to learn from the experiences of others because we came to the open and willing to share, willing to grow, and willing to learn.

As Obama continues in his address, he talks about the ability of faith and government to work together to address issues plaguing society.  He talks about the need for us to educate our young people about the contraception in order to “prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that every child is loved and cherished.”  Conversely, we must instill within our young people a sense of self that promotes a sense of responsibility and “reverence” for the act of sexual intimacy.  In this way we make faith pragmatic and we soften to harsh edges of public policy.  In order to work together, or as a negro spiritual says “Walk together Children,” we must begin to open the field of dialogue and not just with people who will agree with our point of view.  We must be willing to engage in intentional and progressive dialogue with people of varying partisan affiliations, religious and denominational affiliation, races, sexual orientation, creeds, colors, and socio-economic statuses.

We cannot deny the power of faith in conversation, particularly with society and culture.  The religious underpinning of the Civil Rights Movement is a clear example of faith in conversation with culture.  Obama states,

Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.

The problem in the relationship between Faith and Government comes from misplaced priorities and seedy motives.  When people use faith-talk to back up their prejudices, we have a case of misplaced priorities.  When people use faith-talk to qualify their own personal insecurities and deny justice and equality, we have a case of misplaced priorities.  Dr. Martin Luther King once stated,

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.

The “Religious Right” have had relative success in making Christianity a tool of the state.  They have managed to boil entire presidential campaign down to two hot button issues – Gay Marriage and Abortion – as if that is all God is concerned about.  They have managed to divert the attention an entire population away from issues such as systemic poverty, injustice, covert (and overt) racism, and discrimination.  the Church must regain its prophetic mantle and speak out against systemic racism that manifests in public policy and is perpetuated by a failing education system.  The church must regain its prophet mantle and speak out against injustice inside and outside it walls.  We must not allow faith to become a tool of prejudice, as has been done every since Constantine instituted his Imperial Church in 313 C.E.  Our mission has changed from service to the “widows and orphans” and being proponents of “justice and mercy” to services to a select few in social club and a constant barrage of sermon after sermon filled with divisive, oppressive, prejudicial, and misinformed – dare I say it, ignorant – words.

One of the highlights of this speech deals with the present reality of religious pluralism in the United States of America.  He brings to the table a truth that all of America must accept if we are to move forward in intentional and progressive dialogue.  He states,

Given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater.  Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

As much as the “Religious Right” and much of “Christian” America wants to deny it, and even polemicize it, America is a religiously pluralistic (among other things).  Let us first deal with this inter-religiously.  There is present in the United States a myriad of faith communities outside of Christianity such as Judaism (Reform and Orthodox), Islam (Sunni, Shi’a, Nation, etc.), Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, indigenous religions representing cultures from throughout the globe, and even those who are agnostic or atheist (yes, contrary to ignorant religious rhetoric, they do exist).  All of these religious represent a particular view of self and society that may or may not be different than others.  Intra-religiously, Christianity is not a clean-cut religion of universally adopted theological suppositions.  As a faith community, we represent a faith that initially was meant to transcend the boundaries of culture and context and unite humanity under a commitment holistic self/self, self/human, and self/divine relationship.  We represent different interpretations of biblical texts, differentthe-holy-bible2theological views, different denominations, etc.  That’s why we can’t answer the aforementioned questions regarding what it means to be a Christian so easily – because we represent different views, different lived experiences, different theologies, we bring different beings to the table.  As we look at the Bible, we must answer serious questions, as Obama presents them.  If the “Religious Right” managed to create and form a “Christian America,”

…whose Christianity would we teach in schools?  Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s?  Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?  Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay and that eating shellfish is abomination?  How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith.  Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application.  So before we get carried away, let’s read our [B]ibles.  Folks haven’t been reading their [B]ibles.”

In strong words, Obama offers a sharp criticism to much of Christian America about its biblical interpretation.  His final statement that “Folks haven’t been reading their [B]ibles” is a statement that struck me.  I must admit that as harsh as it sounds, this statement carries with me a certain truth.  For so long, Christianity has tried to create a seemless, perfect, inerrant, religious text from what is a messy, imperfect, and errant book that takes skilled exegesis to apply to our current cultural context.  We have long denied the conversation that is taking place in the biblical text between the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ, Sermon on the Mount and Leviticus, Law of Moses and the Laws posited by Christ, Pauline texts and Deutero-Pauline texts, conversations within the Gospel, and the differing views on Christology, ecclesiology, cosmology, soteriology, and eschatology.  Let me be clear, even those who assert the inerrancy of the Bible chose to put different weight on different scriptures, choosing some to be taken verbatim and others to be contextualized.  Biblical exegesis is not an easy, superficial effort, as if often presented in church.  Part of this dialogue in understanding the we must view our faith as a conversation between past and present, God and humanity, and as we grow and change and therefore God changes (no, I do not hold to the immutability of God for if God can do all things, then God can change) we must be sensitive to this.

As we prepare to engage in mutually beneficial conversation between the faith community and government, we must also be willing to reframe our faith-talk in terms that would not exclude those outside of our faith community from our conversation.  This takes skill.  This takes tact.  But we must be willing to intentionally reframe how we talk about faith.  In our classroom dialogue, a question was raised about whether faith has been removed from the conversation or has it simply resurfaced in different terms.  I would tend to agree with the latter.  Faith has been, and necessarily so, been reframed in its understanding and its communication because of our religiously pluralistic society.  As current and future religious leaders, we must be willing to continually rethink and revise this language that we use.  We must now include people of different, and no, faith background.  At the close of his address, Obama talks about the need of using fair-minded words in religious/political conversation.  In our conversations regarding our faith, we must use fair minded words, taking into account the views, lived experiences, sacred beliefs, cultural norms, and “being” of others.  It is through this mutually beneficial dialogue that the faith communities and political communities can “Walk Together” in a way that promotes justice, equality, love, and respect.

- Shalom

The Word of Marcus for the People of God…