Religion encourages us to believe
Politics encourages us to respect the beliefs of others.
Religious beliefs divide us into groups.
Politics unite us around shared interests.
For most of history, churches and church groups were very diverse and, therefore, divided from one another. That division had a positive effect. It kept churches from uniting and dominating society.
With consensus around a few ideas, however, that has changed. Churches have become politically rather than spiritually driven. Instead of trying to save souls – the thing they were commissioned to do – they’re trying to police souls and clean the world up.
What I’ve just described feels good to the faithful. It has the ring of rationality to it. What can be wrong with standing for the right? Anything other than opposing wrong seems too much like cowardice but regardless how courageous it may seem, that approach is not a replacement plan for the Great Commission and it won’t work. The world is not going to change for the better because we treat it with a dose of Lysol. Things won’t get better and God won’t be pleased.
Politics vs Religion
Politics and religion are both important but for two very different reasons. Neither can replace the other but there is friction between the two. They didn’t get along in the past and they don’t get along now for very obvious and acceptable reasons.
The capstone of politics, the one thing that makes it work, compromise, is the one thing churches have a long history of not tolerating. The one thing churches have done repeatedly, divide and go their separate ways (remember the Pilgrims), is the one thing governments can’t do.
But it’s not a stalemate. The idea isn’t for the two institutions to blend or mirror one another or vie. Each has an important job to do. Each needs to respect and allow the free function of the other.
Churches, however, are not comfortable with that idea. The Great Commission is the answer to their angst but it’s apparently not enough to keep them from interfering.
The balance between politics and religion is actually foundational to personal freedom. What we don’t readily see is that that balance only occurs when the government is democratic and religion is a personal choice. Both make rules for their constituents; the church for their members only and the government for all citizens whether they are in church or not.
That is changing. The church is more engaged in political action today than ever before and Catholics lead the way with more than 200 colleges and universities in the US and they date back to 1789 when Georgetown University was established in Washington, D.C. That’s just one denomination. Protestant schools are involved too.
Catholics, of course, have long attempted to impose their thinking on government through educational institutions and with seven Catholic raised Justices on the Supreme Court, they are succeeding.
The difference between politics and religion is significant but not usually noted. Each citizen only has one government and one set of laws to obey. Not so with religion. Every church member must obey two sets of rules; one for the church and one for the government. Church rules usually take precedent over government regulation and that’s the rub. Why are church folks disallowed contraception but for everyone else it’s a choice?
Church groups are quite numerous and varied also. You can find differing sets of rules from one church to another and even between churches within the same denomination.
Some Baptists don’t drink, some guzzle. Some won’t darken the door of a theatre, some attend every major production. Some churches regulate dress codes, others are quite relaxed. Some church folks, overly influenced by Catholic ideology, don’t allow divorce or remarriage and even frown on contraception.
What’s The Focus
Religion deals with beliefs based on the Bible. It takes a top down approach to what we think and feel and how we act. Politics takes a bottom up approach and focuses on what is fair and equal to the individual and how to maintain a safe and secure community.
Government takes its read from the grass roots which means in a properly run democracy religious beliefs can neither exceed the boundaries of recognized law nor be forced on the unbelieving.
Politics regulates the actions of everyone, even the religious, although the religious are allowed occasional concessions when their ideas challenge commonly recognized statutes. The Amish, for example, don’t pay Social Security and conscientious objectors are exempted from military service.
These are examples of democracy deferring to strongly held religious beliefs and they illustrate how well politics and religion can work together when the religious adopt the rationality that is inherent in democracy.
Politics also allows choice where religion does not. In a democracy, no one is required to have an abortion but they can if they choose too. It’s a personal choice. Again, the rub. Religion has fabricated the idea that a fetus is a living soul, an idea neither taught in nor encouraged by the Bible.
Please note that Adam BECAME a living soul only after he was fully formed which means he wasn’t conceived a living soul.
Also note that all religions taken together pose a very diverse set of beliefs (ranging from the obvious and acceptable to just plain freaky), and they do influence the way we choose to act but only on a personal level and only in ways not prohibited by legislation. Abuse and graft are not allowed no matter how much one might argue “Jesus told me to do it.”
Adopting religious ideas is always a choice. I can choose to attend church or not. I can choose which church to attend. I can choose to volunteer for ministry or not. In every case my choice may be influenced by religion but the law makes no requirement either way other than to prohibit religion from forcing the issue.
Religion cannot make anyone do anything. No one goes to prison for breaking with religious doctrine.
Religion teaches us to be decent. Politics allows decency to be a personal choice.
Yes, you read that correctly. Politicians may wish every constituent to be decent but they allow for those who choose to be otherwise.
The Forming Of America
Discussions around the two concepts featured prominently in the birth of the United States but the problems resulting from the intersection of these ideas aren’t unique to the US. In fact, it was the historical friction that had long occurred between politics and religion that moved our forebears to separate church and state.
They knew from history that these two elements don’t work well together and the two should never overlap.
Church should never become the State and the State should never become the Church. The variable nature of church beliefs and the zealous intent to impose those beliefs on everyone naturally creates social/cultural rifts.
Church/State separation is still maintained today although, because of the nature of faith, religionists seethe at the idea and find many workarounds to subvert it. Once an idea becomes ensconced religiously, it is the only idea, and the intent to make it a requirement can hardly be resisted. The temptation is just too great.
An important distinction to point out is the fact that Democracy, not religion, is the corner stone of personal freedom. If the state didn’t do the work of enforcing personal rights even when those rights offend religion’s sensitivities, the church would dominate.
Religion doesn’t like it when people think for themselves, ask too many questions or influence the flock in ways that conflict with church doctrine. Religion has a long history of vying with members, governments and even other religions for prominence.
“Vying” may not be the best word. It implies friendly competition but when religion is involved it easily becomes deadly, physically, mentally and emotionally.
The Church of England wouldn’t exist today had King Henry not squabbled with the Catholic Church over divorce and Ann Boleyn might have lived to be an old gray headed lady.
There was no bloodshed when Martin Luther broke with Rome but that could easily have been the outcome.
And those were a few of the less violent cases. Historians have compiled long lists of people executed for defying religious decrees.
Most of that occurred in the past but even today there are bad apples. Iran and Saudi Arabia are religious states that regularly threaten death for noncompliance and personal freedoms hardly exist.
The US is a democratic country and that democracy protects the freedom to be religious without interference from other religions. The discussion around these concepts is an ongoing debate because the balance is like shifting sand. It’s maintained only by constant vigil.
Fortunately, and much to the dismay of religionists, the Bible does speak to these issues.
Two Important Bible Truths
There are many very interesting truths that emerge from a study of the New Testament but two of those truths are standouts: The Gospel (good news) and The Great Commission (sharing the good news). Those words are capitalized because they are paramount. Without them, everything else falls apart.
- The Gospel
The Good News in short is Jesus died to pay the price for our sins and the after effect is huge. He also gives us a new and completely untainted nature which means salvation puts us into a different category completely and in a different relationship with God. Believers are forgiven, changed and reclassified. Incredible! And the upside doesn’t stop there.
The Gospel encourages generosity. Hate, murder, lying and stealing would all be good strategies if there were no Gospel, which is free to receive, free to give away and there’s no limit. Anyone can share it. Anyone can receive it.
Without the Gospel, the most important person in my life is me. Selfish actions, however, get little traction when the Gospel is present because the Gospel isn’t about any one person. It’s for everyone. We gain more when we share it freely than we do by withholding it.
The Gospel is also securing. The Good News is Jesus not only died to reunite individuals to God, He also keeps us safe afterward. That’s security.
The concern that usually follows salvation is embodied in the question “Will I fail? Will I commit some sin? And if so how will it effect my salvation?” The worry is more than just a distant possibility. Paul said his sin nature was always present and interfered with every good thing he attempted to do. His words:
What I want to do, I do not do but what I hate, I do (Rom. 7:15).
To be clear, he wasn’t accusing the Devil. He wasn’t blaming other sinful people. He was talking about his own internal nature, the sinful one which dogs every saved person until their last day on earth but nothing, also according to Paul, can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39).
In other words, not to worry, you are safe and secure despite your failures.
- The Commission
It only gets better. The natural to receiving the Good News is to share that Good News. What’s good for one is even better when applied to more.
And here’s where the blessiing multiplies. God not only allows us to share the Good News, He’s turned it into a commission.
Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature! (Mark 16:15)
That’s like commissioning a child to play in the dirt all day. It’s a joy, not a job.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that every believer naturally wants every person to know and embrace the Good News of Jesus. The desire to share this Good News is so intense that these believers are often overbearingly, in-your-face with their effusive efforts. And a lack of response from the target group can be discouraging.
Christians are often known to brain storm more and better ways to get conversions and that brings us to an interesting nuance. The Commission (also referred to as the Great Commission) is sometimes confused with conversions. We aren’t told to go out and preach the Gospel to each creature until they convert. That would be nice but conversions is not the commission, sharing the Gospel is.
Conversions is ultimately the object and those among us who are more goal oriented love to make that the point but it’s important not to get too much ahead of ourselves. The reality is, in the life of every believer the number of people with whom we’ve shared the Gospel will be much greater than the number of conversions we experience.
That’s even true for evangelistic greats like Billy Graham.
The Holy Spirit
Another Bible truth that goes hand in hand with those two paramount ideas is the fact that Christians aren’t working alone. God in the person of the Holy Spirit goes before us and with us as we embark on the Commission. Our part is to share. It is after the sharing that the Holy Spirit is able to do His most important work.
It’s like football. The quarter back is responsible to dispense the ball to one player or another. Once dispensed, it’s the other players responsibility to advance the ball. It would be silly for the QB to pass the ball and then run out to catch his own pass.
The same is true with us. Once we share the Gospel, we must then allow the Holy Spirit to advance the Gospel.
But believers don’t like that. Being content to just share the Gospel feels like shirking responsibility and the five year planners can’t abide that. It seems aimless. So, instead of just sharing, we argue the point and revisit the point and restate the point and publicly state how much we’re praying for the person to whom we’ve shared the point and the end result is total offense.
That doesn’t matter, we argue, because time is of the essence. Who knows when the target may die or when Jesus may come again and every soul must be plucked from the ever reaching flames NOW!
There is an interesting argument about the timing of salvation relative to death. Some believe the choice to get saved can be made after you die and some believe it can only be made before you die but either way it is still a choice. A personal choice. Making arguments to encourage others to make the right choice is important but Who better to make those arguments than God.
Doesn’t He have something to say? Doesn’t He have the ability to make arguments more effectively than we.
I understand why Christians become pushy. I’ve done it. The sense of urgency won’t allow us to just share the Gospel and shut up but anything beyond sharing is really just interference.
The Spin-Off Motive
But there’s another motive at play here.
Let’s say you share the Gospel 500 times and only one person responds with acceptance. That can be deflating. You’ve gone to the effort several hundred times only to be rebuffed 499 times. That’s a lot of rejection and there’s not much you can do about it other than keep sharing the Gospel over and over, which in the end gets tiring.
So you shift into another gear. The Kingdom gear. Jesus taught the Kingdom is among us right now. Not a literal King-on-the-throne type kingdom with a capital city, clearly stated laws and well organized enforcement but a Kingdom none the less. This Kingdom has no material infrastructure – unless you count church buildings and schools – but it has many subjects.
Every believer is essentially a subject. How can anyone resist the effort to organize this crowd into a political party or lobby or action committee of some sort? The pure in heart (or puritanical) can easily find a cause to push even if it’s not clearly outlined in the Bible.
Prohibition was one such cause. The arguments were rational enough to seem reasonable but they were mostly emotively driven and we know how much trouble that spawned.
The thinking is Jesus is the King, we are His subjects (by invitation and personal choice) and the Bible provides a framework of sorts for guidance. All that’s very good on an individual bases but what happens when Christians become antsy about what they perceive as the rules that must be necessarily applied to everyone, subject or not.
The particular issue being used to build this momentum isn’t the only problem. A loose, uncoordinated arrangement of subjects is no more satisfying to hard-driven A-type personalities than fruitlessly sharing the Gospel so they organize, along political lines, aiming to force so called Kingdom justice on everyone whether they like it or not and all in the name of Jesus.
It isn’t uncommon that Christians not only observe rules but can be quite forceful in promoting them. It’s also historically a fact that Christians react when their rules aren’t respected. The Pilgrims came to America to get away from what they perceived as religious persecution, meaning they weren’t allowed to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.
They took their ball and went home.
But what happens when the Christians become so great in number that the sheer weight of their influence forces issues that may not otherwise get a hearing?
That’s a good question because we’re facing that very situation today.
Faith By Crowd
The Bible has been hated, vilified and targeted by an untold number but it’s also been accepted and revered by just as many if not more.
The divide between the two groups seems to widen over time. Instead of maintaining an open and inviting stance believers are isolating more and more. Instead of turning the cheek, they’re becoming the fist.
The posture of the believing community is a big reason for the divide and it may be getting worse.
The number of those who believe has grown in recent times which might seem like a positive fact but could also be creating more distance between the two. It has to do with the magnitude of attitude.
If believers and unbelievers were armies, believers would definitely have the upper hand. The mindset is with so many people believing, how can anyone not believe. The idea may sound reasonable but it can also be problematic.
Evangelism by crowd dominance guarantees nothing. The crowd can’t save. Never has, never will. Following the crowd does not generate faith; not the kind of faith that is personal and that’s the only kind to which Jesus responds.
It’s tempting to use a crowd dominance strategy but it really doesn’t work. Submission to the crowd is not the same as fully embracing Jesus.
But this approach is being used slyly and to great effect.
Slowly but surely the Supreme Court has been loaded with religionists. Not from a varied number of religions but from the most socially/culturally dominant church in history, the Catholic church.
It’s a fact that seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices were raised Catholic and six of them are still practicing Catholicism. That’s a problem for any democratically minded citizen. As a rule, Catholics don’t moderate or compromise. When it comes to issues like abortion, same sex marriage and the like, they cannot be fair in their judgements and true to their church. Every decision is a landslide of bias.
Can a Catholic judge rule in favor of abortion rights or gay rights and not go to confession? Should these judges recuse themselves when the docket includes such cases? Can they be honestly fair? Must attorneys be required to argue around the religious sensibilities of these topics?
The questions are endless but need to be addressed if we are serious about democracy and the separation of church and state.