In the world of British sociological order, there are five estates: nobility, clergy, middle class, press, and then any other group that can stand up to the other four. In the United States, having rejected the idea of the nobility and, at least in our public documents, rejected a direct role for clergy in government, we have things set up with checks and balances with four prescribed roles: executive branch, legislative branch, judicial branch, and the media.
Since the early 1980s, people of faith in America have been taught to conflate a life of faith with the work of government. Far from a separation of church and state, what we have been creating is a marriage of church and candidate, where True Believers vote a certain way — and anyone who votes for that other guy is not a True Believer.
One side posts photographs of newborn infants, claiming anyone voting for the other guy clearly wants to kill newborn infants. The other side posts photographs of the children of immigrants, detained at the border, saying anyone who votes for the other guy wants to put children in cages. All of it leads to the very, very unhappy, unhealthy marriage of people of faith and government.
Government, get out of my business
I am a Baptist minister. I am so tired of hearing politicians get in my business I could spit. It reminds me of the episode of “The Office” when Michael Scott plays with the baler. Like Michael Scott, politicians don’t respect what they are messing with.
While it might not look like it from the outside, and while, admittedly, quite a few faith organizations fail to behave as if people’s lives depend on their doing their jobs correctly, that is, in fact the case. When we allow words of hate to be spread in the community, people get hurt and even killed. When the church either defends or ignores bad policies, people get hurt and even die. When a youth minister tells a young person who identifies as gay that he or she is going to hell, that young person becomes lost to a life of faith, sometimes forever.
People of faith have something vital to offer their community: a healthy, vibrant, inclusive way of life. Ways of love and kindness. Ethical behaviors. Truth existing beyond the ability of anyone to manipulate it. We have a job to do, and politics and politicians are a big, fat ball of dead flies in our Jello mold dessert.
Speaking truth to power
When we let politics and politicians into our communities of faith, one of our jobs becomes immediately impossible: speaking truth to power. If we allow the conversation to be about “who is a real believer” based on what candidate they voted for, we’re done. That candidate is now off the table, whether for praise and support or for checks and balances.
Why? Because we are married now.
“If we allow the conversation to be about ‘who is a real believer’ based on what candidate they voted for, we’re done.”
At that point, if I, as a pastor, speak out against a policy of government, then I am advocating for the opposition candidate. If I, as a pastor, speak up for a policy of government, then I am advocating for a candidate.
Even the party we have supposedly espoused won’t listen to us if we are critical of them because they know they have us over a barrel — we agreed to their litmus test, so we’re going to vote for them no matter what they do.
Return to separation
There are two reasons for us to return to a value of separation of church and state. One is, of course, the right we currently enjoy to worship in whatever ways seem correct to us. We have, for the most part, protected that element in our country (no thanks to those who have been banging at the doors of this right for 40 years).
The second, though, is the one we have neglected in our zeal to be on the podium with the politicians: Unless we are separate from government, we have no teeth with government when it matters.
You doubt me? Try the German church in 1938. Take a gander at the hot mess of people being burned at the stake and otherwise tortured for their lack of adherence to the state faith that was a fair portion of the history of Europe from the 11th to the 17th centuries. Why do we think those pilgrims hauled all their worldly goods across an ocean in a creaky, rat-infested ship the size of a Mini Cooper?
“Faith organizations and governments make terrible partners. At their core, they hate each other because each has something the other wants to use to gain more power.”
Faith organizations and governments make terrible partners. At their core, they hate each other because each has something the other wants to use to gain more power. They hold each other in absolute contempt. Not a great basis for a happy marriage. And, worst of all, the very act of joining up with a government would indicate that the faith organization has flushed its values down the proverbial toilet.
In my own book of faith, God tries everything possible to keep the people from getting a king. Jesus makes very clear that he has no truck with government — he even treats their money with disdain. When he is handed a coin, he gives it back. “You keep that. Give it back to the guy whose picture is on it,” he says. I picture him holding it up like a dirty diaper.
Government’s proper role
Here is the job of a government: do the things we cannot do by ourselves. Build roads. Make sure we are protected. Make sure the weakest people are getting their fair share. Governments should make sure there are plenty of safe buildings in which students can learn. That teachers are paid fairly, and that they have access to the equipment they need.
“The North Carolina Legislature functioned like a mad goose at a Chihuly exhibit every single time it tried to legislate teaching.”
Instead of insisting that the government stick to those things and actually do them well, we let the government get into the business of the classroom — another place where politicians become Michael Scott trying to drive the fork lift without a license. As a former teacher in North Carolina, I can tell you that the North Carolina Legislature functioned like a mad goose at a Chihuly exhibit every single time it tried to legislate teaching. We hand our governments so many things that should not belong to government.
Governments have no business, at all, with religion or religious leaders, except to make sure that no one else is keeping people from being able to worship in whatever way seems best to them. In my own living out of my profession, I don’t even like signing marriage licenses, although I do, because people who are trying to get married have enough on their plate without me being all “separation of church and state” about the thing.
It is way past time for us to get to work on the divorce of faith organizations from politicians. Way, way past time. Tremendous damage has been done, is being done, because we continue to allow this to happen.
We can’t have responsible conversation about guns and public safety because of this totally unhealthy marriage. We can’t address the deep, painful and dangerous issues of our systemic racism because of this toxic relationship. We never can get to the vital issue of healthy human sexuality because of the perversity involved in making bedfellows of politicians and clergy.
The Fifth Estate
Our job, as people of faith, is to be ready at all times to act as the Fifth Estate. To speak up for a higher set of morals, to turn heads toward light, toward welcome, toward broad safety and inclusion. To be people who are constantly seeking truth without the blinders of profit motive or political power.
We are to be the people who are content not to have power so that when power becomes despotic (which power always, eventually, does) we have our feet firmly planted in our life of faith. We have legitimacy and distance that let everyone around us know that we do not speak for our own benefit, but for the benefit of those who cannot speak.
Who would listen to us now? We’ve allowed ourselves to become so enmeshed that it is impossible to extricate ourselves enough to have a moral high ground.
And, hear me, oh ye progressives: You are not without sin in this. I see just as many posts from progressives talking about who is “real” Christian, who is really following Jesus as I do from conservatives. We decided, long ago, to demonize everything that did not line up with our definitions.
“Half of progressive Christianity couldn’t find the book of Micah if their 401(k) was riding on it, but they dare to speak of what is in the Bible and what is not.”
Half of progressive Christianity couldn’t find the book of Micah if their 401(k) was riding on it, but they dare to speak of what is in the Bible and what is not. No, the only group I can think of, off-hand, that could truly say they are untouched by this wave of unholy madness is the Amish.
It is no wonder that people are leaving faith communities in droves. Some days, many days, I would like to leave, too.
I’m so tired of being told I am “too political” (or rather, to hear that someone told someone else to tell me that the reason they aren’t coming to church any more is that I am too political). If I had wanted to become a politician, I could think of a more straightforward path.
I have no desire to talk about politics. What I do believe is mine to discuss, because my Scripture discusses it liberally, is the radical inclusion of all people into the circle of rights — which includes wealth, health (mind, body and spirit), property, safety and education. And water-skiing sometimes. And rock climbing when we feel like it. Going for runs without somebody trying to shoot you. Having a surgery without worrying about whether you will have to sell your property in order to pay for it. Having the right to ask for asylum, to escape from a drug war that our society created, without being incarcerated.
Time for a separation
And I believe that calling on our communities of faith to publicly and permanently separate themselves from all discussion of politicians and political parties is what we need right now.
I would like for politicians to stop ending every speech with “God bless America!” I desperately want them to stop trying to quote from my sacred text. I would like to say to the politicians: “My business is a dangerous one. You are not qualified to drive the fork-lift of my sacred texts.” I would like to say to all the well-meaning business people and medical professionals and lawyers and judges and state legislators: “My business is a dangerous one. You’re welcome to read my sacred text for yourself. You’re welcome to have your say inside community on the interpretation of that sacred text. But only if you remember that this is a dangerous business. And, by yourself, you are not qualified to speak for the rest of us.”
Anyone who wishes to use my sacred text as a weapon against others should expect to have to fight me, politicians included. People die when we do the work of faith poorly. It is a dangerous business. It is best done inside community, where we answer to each other.
We would do well to hire some divorce lawyers for the disturbing marital partnership that is faith and state. It’s enough already. And we’ve got work to do.
Martha Dixon Kearse serves as pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. She earned the master of divinity degree and doctor of ministry degree from Gardner-Webb University.