Fun Facts of Lent, Day Twenty-Six: The Separation of State and Church

In church during the Prayers of the People we pray for Barak Obama. That’s because we always pray for the president every Sunday, no matter who holds the office. I spent eight years praying for George W. Bush and don’t think it wasn’t hard at times. But we pray for the president just like we pray for the governor, our bishop, and the clergy person in charge of the congregation.

I wore a Black Lives Matter button all through my church’s General Convention last summer. We recently put up a banner outside my home church of St. Peter’s in support or our Muslim brothers and sisters. I’m proud of both of these actions because I see racism as something we are all called to overcome, and I see a spiritual core to the fight. God does not create us with systemized hate – it’s something we give to each other.

But does that mean as a Christian I should also be speaking in support of presidential candidates who agree with that notion? What about candidates who, like me, see anti-racism as a gospel call? That’s where it gets icky. I don’t mind speaking out as a person, but any time you bring God into politics you’re asking for trouble. I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln, who said that he wasn’t worried that God was on his side, but that he was on God’s side. In politics it’s easy to let your feelings lead and expect God to follow. As they say, you can be sure you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.

For me, I try to get the big picture from my faith, and then get the details from my reason. In the big picture, I believe our earth is a gift and we are called to be its stewards. Therefore when it comes time to decide on the details, I tend to favor government actions that protect and heal the earth. In the big picture I believe that in Christ there is no woman or man, so in detail I advocate for legislation that blurs the notion of gender and ensures no one is held down by the gender expectations of others. Others issues, such as abortion, can get a lot stickier (I’ll be writing a post on abortion later, let me know if there are any other sticky issues I should talk about).

I get uncomfortable when I see signs of patriotism (such as the American flag) inside religious buildings. As much as we are all compelled as humans to make the different parts of our lives match up, I think both the state and the church are better when they are slightly at odds. When the church becomes the government, we get the crusades and the Inquisition. When the government becomes the church, we get Mao and Stalin. Both forces, when left unchecked, can snowball into bloodshed.

As much as I want my faith to inform my political life, I also want the two things to keep a safe distance. I don’t want to think of my country as a holy place, because it will make it harder to criticize. And I don’t want my religion to control the country, lest control blind us to our own failings as a church.

As a side note, the one exception I can think of to the pattern of imbalance inspiring mass death is Genghis Khan, who slaughtered millions without abolishing religion or dictating everyone follow the same religion. Conquered people under the Khan were allowed to worship as they pleased with one caveat: no matter who or what you prayed to, you had to pray for the health and well-being of Genghis Khan. I suppose this makes Genghis the first known advocate for the Prayers of the People.