“When the church and government get in bed together, it’s the church who gets up disgraced in the morning.”
I heard this memorable statement from Emanuel Cleaver, an ordained United Methodist pastor who had recently been elected as a U.S. Congressional Representative from Missouri. I was in my first year of professional ministry and had come to Washington, D.C. to meet with other young clergy from around the country. We were there to learn about how the United Methodist Church tries to address social issues, especially while interacting with government entities.
We heard about our church’s history of “social holiness”, that Wesleyan notion that disciples of Jesus are called to transform not only their inward relationships with Jesus, but also the world they live in. For John and Charles Wesley (founders of the Methodist movement), social holiness involved ministries of both charity and justice. While feeding the hungry or providing free medical care and education to the poor, early Methodist leaders also preached against worker exploitation, slavery, and war. They didn’t avoid the topic of money, either. John Wesley preached that every penny we receive beyond what is needed to meet our families’ basic needs is ours only to give to those who have less.
There was no separation between personal holiness and social holiness for Wesley. They both were part of Jesus’s gospel. Similarly, in his home nation of England, there was no real separation between church and state.
That’s obviously not the case today for American Christians. For more than two hundred years, we have been arguing about what exactly was meant by Thomas Jefferson’s desire for a “wall of separation between church and state”, and how that basic idea applies in our own times. Does it simply mean there should be no state-sponsored religion, or should it go so far as the IRS does to say that churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they publicly endorse a political candidate or party?
I recently read an article on CNN’s Belief Blog describing a movement called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which calls for pastors to engage in civil disobedience by flouting this restriction and publicly endorsing candidates from the pulpit. And I have to admit, in a way I admire their conviction. If you believe your right to express your religious views is more important than your tax-exempt status, then by all means do what you’ve gotta do (so long as you don’t mind paying more taxes).
Contrary to the quote from Mr. Cleaver that opened this piece, there are plenty of times when the church has had a positive impact on government policy, such as when the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted the first Social Creed in 1908, shown below, which focused almost entirely on protecting vulnerable workers from exploitation.
1908 Methodist Social Creed
The Methodist Episcopal Church stands:
- For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.
- For the principles of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
- For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality.
- For the abolition of child labor.
- For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the cummunity.
- For the suppression of the “sweating system.”
- For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practical point, with work for all; and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life.
- For a release for [from] employment one day in seven.
- For a living wage in every industry.
- For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
- For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills.
The United Methodist Church and other faith communities continue to have a positive effect on our nation, especially when they wade into the work of creating more just public policy.
No, I have no problem with ministers or other people of faith speaking their convictions. What I do take issue with is the set of opinions that many pastors tend to express, and their belief that what they say is completely in line with God’s or Jesus’s priorities.
I can see the point of Mr. Cleaver’s statement. Too many times the church claims its moral authority in order to push a narrow, conservative, “family values” agenda that completely avoids addressing societal injustice. They’ll support candidates who promote violent expansion of the American economic empire, dismantling of worker rights and domestic social safety nets, and the unrestricted exploitation of basically everyone and everything on earth, just so long as the politician claims to be a Christian against gay marriage and abortion, two things about which Jesus said absolutely nothing.
Jesus did, however, speak quite a bit about forgiving our enemies, taking care of the poor, welcoming outsiders, the dangers of power and wealth, and the persistent problem of greedy, power-hungry, hypocritical leaders who make a show of their religion while ignoring God’s desire for peace and justice.
There are ways to address social issues, infuse faith into politics, and promote social holiness without getting into bed with power. Jesus and other faithful prophets have been showing us how to do this for thousands of years. But we do need to be careful. It’s easy for us to take on a tribal mentality when it comes to our faith. We fall into the trap of lazily thinking that so long as he or she is “one of ours”, then the leader will do God’s will.
Social holiness is not about making sure the “Christian” team wins the political game. It’s about transforming the world into something closer to the Kingdom of God, that place where all are welcomed, all are fed, and love is evident in every human interaction.Like this? Click to subscribe!