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Monday, May 17, 2010

Freedom of religion, freedom from religion

A candidate for governor has urged pastors to ignore the law which would remove the tax-exempt status of churches if they allow the pulpit to be used for partisan political purposes. Madville Times has weighed in on the matter.  He has caused the devotees of misinformation, disinformation, and general scurrility to make up a whole bunch of stuff under the pretext of shining their beams of enlightenment on what they regard as the benighted Cory Heidelberger.  

The Constitution is not explicit about the separation of church and state.  It's major author, James Madison, was not all that specific about a lot of things he covers in the Constitution. The First Amendment simply states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  For interpretation of how  far that sentence extends, people cite most often Thomas Jefferson, who said that a "wall of separation" between church and state was established in that amendment. 

However, Madison and Jefferson drew heavily on John Locke in defining the separation, as they did many of the concepts incorporated into our form of democracy. Reduced to his basic argument, Locke maintains that no civil magistrate has any business tampering in the affairs of the church.  And likewise, no ecclesiastical authority has any business tampering with the affairs of state.  The wall of separation of which Jefferson spoke was defined in those terms.  

Madison also recognizes that the idea of separation of church and state was a premise of the Reformation.  He noted that Luther conceived of two kingdoms, civil and spiritual, which required discrete areas of authority to allow individuals to establish their individual relationships with their faith.  He is particularly wary of the intrusion of the church into civil affairs:

"Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history."

The wall of separation between church and state is more precisely defined by Roger Williams, the puritan minister who preached against the intrusion of civil and religious bodies into each others affairs and was banished for it.  Any cogent discussion of the First Amendment must include Roger Williams' writings because they inform the American context for its creation.

The principle set forth by Locke is based upon a reciprocal separation. Just as no state authority would be permitted to set the rules of worship for any religious sect, sectarian authorities should not intrude themselves into the civil affairs of state.  So, according to this Lockean concept,  if the pulpit becomes an agency for partisan propaganda, why could not political partisans appropriate the pulpit for their own ends?  

What concerns pastors I know and have known is that the church loses its integrity as a spiritual agency when it becomes identified as a purveyor of partisan politics.  The custom has been for people to leave their political differences at the door when they enter the church for ecclesiastical purposes.  It is a pragmatic matter.  A church cannot function when a congregation divides itself on partisan lines.  It loses its ecclesiastical purpose.

The 21st century has brought new challenges to churches.  Pastors have told me that the toxic atmosphere of contemporary politics has affected their congregations.  One pastor noted the number of members who have stopped attending services and have failed to make the annual pledges on which congregations maintain themselves.  He also said that the selection of pastors has come to involve a consideration of their political leanings.  According to him, civil concerns have already intruded into the church. And some churches are mere extensions of political factions, he claims, 

As far as churches losing their tax exemptions, there are both political thinkers and ecclesiastical thinkers who contend that giving tax exemptions is a form of government support of religious entities.  

The theological question of our time may be whether God is a registered Republican or Democrat.  Partisan advocacy is a good reason not to go to church.  


1 comment:

larry kurtz said...

The Roger Williams tenet seems like a double-edged sword as much as it bulwarks like a fortress; in the words of Mr. Epp: "maybe it's time for a good old-fashioned lawsuit."

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