Since we’re already in the process of an election, I think it would be a good time to talk about religion and politics. There is some history you may or may not know and there are different attitudes that I’m sure you have heard. This week we read part of the Torah where Moses is instructed by God to give the law to the people, and a week where Jesus quotes a portion of the Mosaic Law to his questioners. Those readings are right at the intersection of religion and government.
“I don’t want to hear politics from the pulpit” is the most common negative thing I have heard in my preaching life. I think that opinion has several origins. First, it comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution – I’ll say more about that later; second, I think it comes from the notion by some that the preacher’s politics are going to be different from the listeners’; and third, it comes from the American idea that there is a wall of separation between religious things and secular things.
Unlike some churches, the Episcopal Church has always believed in Christian citizenship. We believe that Christians and churches should be active participants in society and government. We do not, as a consequence, believe that there is anything in the public square that God does not care about, or is not involved in; so we reject the idea that there is a place where God is welcome and a place where God is not. Because we believe in this connection between public and private life, we support the effort to bring Gospel consciousness and Gospel perspective to the public square. Our involvement has not always been admirable, and there are times we have backed away from involvement, or even discussion of cogent issues, altogether. But because we are not one of those churches that believes in a complete disinvolvement from politics and government, we are able to discuss, debate, and experience growth and change in our shared public life.
I want to talk about race in this context, since that is in our political conversation this year. You know that the history of race in the United States is complicated, and that complication includes the areas of both religion and politics. In 1963, when I was 16, my father took our family to the deep South on a working vacation. He wanted to study and talk with African American people who were working in campus ministry. I remember a meeting with a Black Minister in Louisiana who drove us to his church in his car. He told us not to roll down the tinted windows because he didn’t want white people to see that he had white passengers. He said he had already had a cross burned on his lawn and he wasn’t anxious to get the wrong people interested in him again. I remember that far more than I remember the conversation we had about his ministry in that place. I remember the tension in his voice and in his face.
Progressive Americans are used to being negative about the involvement of white conservative Christians in politics, yet some of the heroes of the faith are black conservative Christians who have been involved in politics, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Al Sharpton and Ralph Abernathy. The Civil Rights struggle was a political and a religious struggle. In the African American community, one of the few places where men, and later women, could find work in a professional capacity was in the church. The subsequent sense of responsibility to the community by at least some of the Black Church and its ministers brought about a consciousness of a connection between civil and religious life that historically has been more unusual in the conservative white church. In the African American Church we find fewer people complaining about the intersection of politics and religion, as witness Rev. Al Sharpton’s sermon at George Floyd’s funeral.
Black Christianity in America had its beginnings on the plantations, as white slaveholders argued about whether African Americans could benefit from Christian teaching, since not all of them would agree that Black people had souls. But they did allow preachers to begin the process of preaching to and converting slaves. One of the discomforting things about that process, as many slaves embraced the Gospel, was that white slave owners found themselves cast in the role of Pharaoh, with the slaves as the symbolic Hebrew people in Egypt longing for freedom. We see this, for instance, in spirituals like “Go down, Moses,” where we hear the oppressed of the earth singing “Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.” How uncomfortable it must have been to hear the people you were oppressing using the God you proclaimed to them against you. How quickly Christianity turned into a condemnation of the politics of the age and the region.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament, God was considered to be the real ruler of Israel. The histories and the prophets show God acting for the king and his nation when the king was listening to God, and acting against the king and his nation when he was ignoring God. The government and God were linked together. We see this in the laws, as with the reading from Leviticus. We see that God told Moses what the law would be, and Moses told the people.
But when we get to the New Testament the connection between God and government is different. There is no nation of Israel. The so-called king was only a vassal of the Roman Emperor. Jesus referred back to the Law of Moses regularly in his teaching, as in today’s reading where he repeated the commands to love God and our neighbor, but the Roman government had him arrested and executed. Apostles like Paul found themselves using Roman law when it was helpful, but it was not always helpful. They were arrested and thrown in jail for the things they said and the trouble they caused, and many of them were also executed. But in Rome, too, the government was considered to be a part of divine reality, to the extent that the emperors began to claim that they were demi-gods themselves. Again, religion and government were part of one another. When Constantine accepted Christianity for Rome, the claims to imperial divinity were abandoned, but religion and government were still part of one another.
This continued after Rome fell, as kings and queens around Europe began to claim divine right to rule; that God not only accepted but arranged for their reigns. God was the one who put the crowns on their heads. This is still reflected in England, where the new monarch is crowned by an archbishop. The government told the subjects how to worship and what to believe.
When Pilgrims and others came to America, we were taught that they came here for religious freedom. That is not true. They came here so that they, rather than the crown, could tell their subjects what to believe and how to worship, and each colony had its own form of intolerance written into its laws. That situation led the revolutionaries who wrote the Constitution to include the clause in the First Amendment which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Many people believe that there is a phrase in there about separation of Church and State; you probably know that there is not. That phrase came from Thomas Jefferson’s other writings. The establishment clause is supposed to protect both the State from religion, and religion from the State. The Supreme Court never said that schools and governments could not talk about religion; they just said they couldn’t endorse a specific religion. And the government has only restricted Churches from telling its members to vote for a particular candidate with something called the Johnson Amendment. President Trump has eased that restriction.
The Episcopal Church has a conflicted history with government. We were the Church of England until the end of the Revolution, and that was a problematic association afterward. Many of the clergy left for Canada after the American victory, since so many of them were Tories and loyalists, and there was actually talk of closing the Church of England in America and just joining the Lutherans. But among the revolutionaries were Anglicans, and they decided to reorganize as the Episcopal Church with a democratic instead of monarchic government.
Despite historic aberrations, Episcopalians have never been happy with dogma. We don’t like telling people what they have to believe. That includes politics. We did not separate into northern and southern branches during the Civil War, but that was because we were unwilling to discuss it. There were Episcopal clergy who joined the Confederate forces as well as Union forces. During World War I, Paul Jones, Bishop of Utah, a prominent pacifist, declared that he believed war to be unchristian, and he was forced to resign because of that. But we have changed over time. We do insist that people use their minds and the Gospel in coming to decisions. We have a tradition of being a church that says “both/and” instead of “either/or.” That perspective has been an important part of our ethos and made it possible for our doctrines and practices to evolve.
St. Luke’s is a part of the Episcopal Church as it started to develop in the 1960s and beyond. The Episcopal Church wants to be a place where all sorts of people and opinions can be accepted, but we also want to be a place that supports reaching out to the needy and that resists oppression. We have developed as a Church that is open to women and gay people in ministry, which has led some of our more conservative sisters and brothers to write us off as a bad lot, as happened here at St. Luke’s. We have become a place where the poorest among us are as welcome as the wealthiest. We have explored the ecstatic experiences of the Holy Spirit as well as the quietness of meditation and centering prayer.
When Jesus silenced the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he was silencing those who claimed to be the heirs of Moses, claimed to speak for and to everyone who worshiped the God of Israel, those who were the religious government. They claimed to be the only ones who could interpret Scripture, they claimed to be the only ones who were allowed to have an opinion on how people were to live and believe in their society. Jesus’ interactions with people about law and tradition help us understand how to do that in our own time and place. We see him speaking truth to power, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
The Episcopal Church continues to be a place where anything can be discussed with all comers, a place where part of our religious tradition is the use of our minds instead of presenting a dogma we are not allowed to question. There have been historic attacks on that. During the American Revolution, the Church of England used the 1662 Prayer Book, which includes a prayer for the King of England with a mandate to say it at every Sunday service. Revolutionaries were known to come into a church to see if the priest would say that prayer, and if he did, they would stop the service and throw him out the door. Some of them would cut that prayer out of the prayer books in the pews. We have seen other activities which are aimed at silencing those we disagree with. But even though that is our history, it is not our tradition.
I have gotten in trouble in the past for saying how I think the Gospel connects with our public life, though only on rare occasions have I used the pulpit to ask people to vote for something specific. For instance, many years ago there was a citizen initiative in this state that was aimed at suppressing LGBTQ people and I told the congregation I believed they should vote against it. I also got scolded for opposing the first Gulf War. But that is the tradition of our church. We are supposed to be a place where we understand that God is the God of all of Creation and of all of our lives, and there is nothing that is outside of God’s interest and involvement, or our discussion. I bring my gospel perspective and you bring yours.
Many of us have been participating in a Wednesday evening series of films, readings and discussions about race in America. This series has really hit home regarding many things we take for granted about our nation and its religions, and it has reminded us of the tremendous cost there is when we do not speak the truth, when we take the path of comfort, when we do not question injustice. It reminds us to hear and consider the experiences and thoughts of others we may not normally encounter or think about too deeply. It has been very heartening to me to see and hear people taking the emotional risk to take part, and it is a reminder to think about the way our nation, our politics, and indeed our religion and our churches fall short of the Gospel and the law of love.
We need to hear that Black lives matter. We need to hear that Brown lives matter. We need to hear that Indigenous lives matter. And when we get the opportunity to vote we need to use that opportunity and remember the example and words of Jesus when we do. We must not listen to the voices that tell to be silent.
We have found throughout our history that people, including politicians, are ready and willing to use Scripture to support all kinds of things. I would remind you that if they are using Scripture to support anything that does not reflect the love of Christ then they are not using Scripture authentically.
I would also remind you of something I’m sure you already know, that voting is the minimum requirement for Christian citizenship. Vote with the Gospel in your mind and your heart. Vote with the words of Jesus in your thoughts. Vote against hate and indifference. Vote for love, for caring, for those whose experience of life in America is an experience of fear. The free exercise of religion in the Episcopal Church is an exercise of the Gospel in the streets as well as in the nave. Take the strength you receive from Christ into the world.
God’s blessings be upon us and upon our country and people as we determine what happens next in our lives together.