As we just completed our local elections and we contemplate the 2020 national elections, which are already becoming increasingly pervasive in our thoughts and the daily news, it seems appropriate that we consider how our Christianity affects our role in politics. The relationships between our religions and our governments, often referred to as “church and state,” are a hot button issue for many, and as is often the case, this is made far more controversial because many of us misunderstand what we are being told about the constitution. The Constitution is not nearly so restrictive in this regard as often perceived and sometimes implemented by confused officials. The relevant constitutional provision is: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The 14th amendment makes that provision applicable to all levels of government.
Many self-declared Christians, some of whom insist that this is a Christian nation, deplore the constraints imposed by the Constitution. Ironically, American history tells us this very freedom of religion was the primary motivating factor for many who overcame difficulties and took many risks to come to this continent. Many wise leaders, religious and secular, recognize this separation to be in the best interest of both government and religion.
By the way, prayer is not prohibited in our public schools. As any of our young students can attest, as long as schools give examinations, there will be prayer in school.
As Christians, we believe our religion should be an integral part of everything we do, and that would include our political actions. You and I do things as individuals, families, church, and other organizations, and as participants in various levels of government. Everything from the declaration of war to operation of local service agencies is done by us or on our behalf by those we elect. You and I don’t individually make decisions about international alliances, military and commercial ventures, military strategies, or immigration, but we elect the people who do. You and I don’t set the budget priorities for local public services, but we elect people who do. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ours is intended to be a “government of the people, by the people, for the people….”
Using our political processes, we act as a community that may be a neighborhood, a municipality, a state, or a nation. Of those political processes, Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”-
Although the act of political entities may be beyond our individual control, we have the same moral imperative to act politically in accordance with the standards and criteria that apply to us as individuals, in our case Christian standards and criteria. The rise of Nazism and other oppressive regimes throughout the world, even some actions taken by our own nation, remind us of what can happen when a society fails to accept this responsibility
Mere voting does not satisfy our Christian duty. A vote by someone who is uninformed has a corrupting effect on the election process. Votes should be cast wisely. James tells us how we can do that. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” James 1:5a. If you are already wise, that’s great, but some of us may need to pray before we vote. By the way, there is no constitutional prohibition against praying at the polls.
God’s wisdom is not only essential to making good decisions, but in this acrimonious climate, it offers other needed qualities.
But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:17-18
Doesn’t sound at all like our political campaigns, does it? God can and will give us wisdom, but we also have a responsibility to be informed when we vote or otherwise act politically. We need to know as much as we reasonably can about candidates and issues. There are excellent journalists and analysts with a full spectrum of views that can provide valuable insights. It is vital that we avoid being influenced by information that is ambiguous, irrelevant, or not verifiable.
As Carmen told us last week, “We are called not be deceived…. We are called to study and to ask questions and to engage in discernment. As Christians we are not called to be timid or gullible. Rather, having been created and chosen as beloved children of God, we are called to weigh every word, every spirit, and every letter carefully.”
Carmen said “we are called….” God calls each of us. The methods of deception are numerous and have multiplied with technology. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of a candidate skillfully misleading an audience took place in a Florida senate race in 1950. It is said that George Smathers found a way to sully his opponent’s image with an unsophisticated audience without being untruthful at all. The following words are attributed to him:
Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.
The accuracy of this report is questioned, but Smathers trounced Pepper.
We should consider becoming more involved in the political processes, especially if we are not satisfied with the choices of candidates and other decisions presented to us in elections. Can there be any doubt that politics can benefit from more Christian involvement?
What must you and I, as Christians, try to achieve through our political processes? Micah 6:8 gives us some help with that.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Justice, kindness, and humility are essential, but effectiveness can be greatly diminished by incompetence. So, in addition to justice, kindness, and humility, I am looking for governments that perform their roles with competence. We are told by Paul,
Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord,…. Ephesians 6:7a.
We all know some government workers didn’t get that memo. I am offended when I see a woman whose work ethic makes me feel lazy denied medical services for which I pay taxes because Massachusetts is so irresponsible in paying its obligations. I am offended when a widow who worked a full career for our federal government has to suffer the incompetence of Ohio Medicaid personnel when her medical costs exceed her savings and income. I am offended when fellow veterans, many of whom have been badly injured and crippled in service to their country, are denied any of the high quality medical benefits to which they are entitled.
Thankfully, notwithstanding the often deserved complaints and bitter jokes about government bureaucracies, there are many in government service who perform diligently and effectively. After dealing with incompetent personnel for a full year in three Social Security offices, including Washington and Jamestown, I was gratified to deal with a conscientious and knowledgeable woman who solved my problem in minutes.
Kindness and compassion are integral to our religion. We are aware of Fruits of Spirit from scripture and the hymn Bill Ward leads. Our policies and practices toward those who need compassion, for whatever reason, should assure that their needs are well met. As Christians are commanded to love our neighbors and even our enemies; we must manifest that love in our political decisions.
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matt 25:40b.
Most of us realize that it is our collective best interest to address the needs of persons who whether because of unavoidable misfortune or even bad choices need our help. We have also come to realize that our humanity dictates that we adhere to the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” As a result there are efforts to reform our prisons. There are persons engaged in prison ministry. The use of and support for capital punishment in this country is diminishing. (Our Discipline expresses UMC opposition.) And although it is to our shame that it was necessary, we have reinstated and updated our rules against torture.
We look for justice. God offers some training on this subject in the 23rd chapter of Exodus, prohibiting false or malicious testimony, perversion of justice, partiality against the poor, false accusations, bribery, execution of the innocent (inevitable with the death penalty), and oppression of aliens. We may accept the adage that “life is not fair,” but we have an obligation to make our society as fair as we can. Brutal law enforcement must end. I say this with the greatest appreciation and respect for those honorable men and women who risk and sometimes give their lives to protect us. It is not uncommon in our society for innocent suspects to be coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit. This is but one example of unacceptable processes that must be removed from what we call our justice system.
God says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:74. There are also moral and ethical considerations as to how we may be influenced by our self interests. Right and wrong are not defined by how we are affected, and the Christian should be looking, with humility, for competence, compassion, and justice, not a government that accommodates selfishness and greed. It is tempting but inappropriate to favor or oppose actions, such as funding of a public services, on the basis of self interest. A Christian votes for what is in the best interest of the people of the political entity involved, not what is most advantageous to him/her.
Even when elections are over, we will have a duty as Christians. I was privileged to read a message from Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan, then president of the University of Virginia, to her university community. She quoted Thomas Jefferson who included the following in his 1801 inaugural address, after a bitter and acrimonious election battle:
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things….
President Sullivan concluded her message as follows:
A civil society begins with civil individuals. I encourage every member of the UVA community to place our common bonds above our political differences in the days ahead. As individuals we will always have our differences, but our capacity to respect and even celebrate those differences is essential to the cohesiveness of our communities and the integrity of our democracy.
May it be so!