When people are going over my resume, if I am present, I love to watch their reactions. I see a few of them pause as they read the letters A…C…L…U. They don’t even look up at me, afraid to reveal their horror. They quickly move on to more palatable things, such as my work with battered women, the homeless, and the poor in Ethiopia.

But I really couldn’t care less about such reactions. I relish my work as chair of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Litigation Screening Committee because I think every Christian, and every citizen in this country, should be actively, aggressively working to protect the First Amendment’s separation between religion and state, and that is one of the things ACLU does best.

Our constitutional “wall” between religion and the government has produced the healthiest, most diverse religious community in the world—for that matter, in all of history. In one study, people were asked if they “never or practically never attend worship.” The number answering “yes” in the U.S. was only 16 percent. However, 60 percent did so in France, 55 percent in England, and 48 percent in the Netherlands.

I have read several articles recently where the authors contend that part of Europe’s discomfort with its growing Muslim population is the dedicated, disciplined religious lifestyle of Muslims. Many Europeans just don’t understand such a deep faith in God.

Let me be clear. I don’t think people in this country are more spiritual or religious than Europeans. Every human being is a spiritual being. There are many different ways of getting in touch with our spiritual nature besides institutional religion. But institutional religion in Europe appears to be on life support.

I believe institutional religion has faded in Europe in large part because it has been discredited by disastrous marriages between religion and the state, religion and very specific political agendas. Who can forget most of the church going silent when bishops blessed tyrannical kings, when the Protestant work ethic was linked to a ruthless form of capitalism, and when Jews, political dissidents, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered folks were hauled off to death camps?

When the church links its wagon to a particular government or a political ideology, the church rises and falls with that government or ideology. Having linked their wagons to some despicable governments and leaders in the past, the churches of Europe today are paying the price.

Some argue the importance of the separation of religion and state on the grounds that it protects the government. To me it is equally important that the wall protects religion and religious people.

Despite the diminishing power of the Religious Right in this country, this year’s presidential campaign has been filled with the injection of religion in a way that should frighten every person in America. Reporters and moderators of debates have had no qualms about asking the candidates questions that demand very specific answers about their personal religious beliefs. Some candidates have had no qualms about making statements of faith more explicit and comprehensive than we require of people joining the church. As a citizen and as a person of faith, it is astounding—and terrifying—to watch.

Under totally inappropriate attacks on his Mormon faith, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney felt the need to give a speech on the right relationship of religion and state. After doing a pretty good job of defining the relationship, he proceeded to declare Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior! Just as the waters started to clear, Romney muddied them again.

Each of the presidential campaigns has a staff person whose work targets the religious community. In my opinion, this is not good for the church, any other religious group, or the nation. We have become one more “interest group” in the political process. Too many religious folks welcome this kind of access to the political system. But it is an access road leading directly to a discredited, disgraced church. And well that we should be discredited and disgraced if we allow God’s Word to become synonymous with some political word or candidate—if we allow ourselves to use or be used by a political candidate or party.

In Romans 7:14-24, Paul complains to the Romans about a universally human experience: he does the things he doesn’t want to do, and he doesn’t do the things he wants to do. In a rather startling statement, Paul concludes, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but sin which dwells within me.” I have always wondered why some criminal defense lawyer hasn’t developed this into a sophisticated defense theory! After all, Paul appears to absolve the individual of personal responsibility and places the fault on a sin which dwells within us but is not necessarily “us.” It is the “devil made me do it” defense.

Paul then says, in verse 22, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind.” Again, there is an assertion, frequently ignored, that in our inmost selves we delight in the law of God. In our inner core we are not averse to God but delight in God.

We can have a great debate as to whether or not our human nature is good or sinful. But putting aside our inner nature for a moment, there can be no argument about Paul’s and the Bible’s view of our external behavior: it is chronically, habitually wayward. We don’t do the good we want, and we do bad stuff we don’t want to do.

In my opinion, these verses by Paul are the single most profound insight into human behavior found in the Bible. They help explain why we are so frustrated with our own behavior and that of others. There is something about the very nature of reality that causes good intentions to be warped into less than positive outcomes. We set out to do good and end up doing wrong. We try and help our kids and sometimes end up hurting them. We try to do something noble and end up doing something awful.

No wonder Presbyterians insist not only that we are reformed but reforming. Every reform itself quickly ends up in need of reforming. Reformed is a temporary state of being. Reforming is a permanent need. And this is precisely why the church cannot hook our wagon unthinkingly to a specific political agenda. No matter how majestic the vision, the carrying out of any political vision inevitably ends up with problematic results. The New Deal solved some problems, but it created other new problems. The war in Iraq removed Saddam Hussein from power but opened up a new form of hell for the people of Iraq.

When the church links itself too closely to a particular political agenda, we also link ourselves to all its consequences. We open a political Pandora’s box. This is very risky business.

We need to understand politics for what it is and what it isn’t. Politics is the art of the possible. It lives and moves and has its being in the realm of compromise, accommodation, tradeoffs, and happy mediums. As such, it is an absolutely crucial marketplace where all the different values and ideas in our diverse nation come together and strike a deal to live together. But such political deals almost always provide us with a less than perfect solution, a solution in need of reform and reconsideration in a matter of months or years.

To think we can enact divine absolutes in any given piece of legislation or by the election of any one candidate is to overload the political arena with a burden it cannot bear. We need to inject some spiritual humility into the process. In the political marketplace, the role of the church is to keep God’s eternal values in the discussion while not allowing ourselves to get too tied to any one means to an end. Because, as Paul says, every intended action will ultimately be less than perfect in results.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s
, many of us thought that creating low-income housing was a great idea. It was and it is. But the way we did it too often created high-rise slums rather than safe, healthy, affordable homes. Using Paul’s words, we did what we did not intend to do; we didn’t do what we wanted to do.

Nonetheless, like a scientist in search of the truth, we learn from our failures as we move ever closer to the truth. Safe, healthy, affordable housing for all is a goal worthy of the church’s time and effort. We must support specific pieces of legislation that lead incrementally to a peaceful and just society.

In the political realm, it is also important that we not attempt to legislate our religious values at the expense of others whose values differ from ours. For example, as a nation we cannot accept a single theological notion of when life begins. We cannot accept a single notion regarding homosexuality and marriage. Where there is diversity of belief, our laws must respect that diversity and allow all to practice their faith.

And as we support legislation, if that which we support is always a liberal solution, a capitalist solution, or any other solution that reflects a single ideological world view, then we have fallen into an age-old trap, a trap into which Christians, Jews, and Muslims before us have fallen, a trap from which it is incredibly difficult to extricate ourselves. It is the trap of partisanship.

Frankly, the church is at its best in the political arena when we avoid linking ourselves to a particular political agenda and instead voice the concerns of those who have no voice. In our money-driven political system, the church needs to be a voice for those who have no money and, therefore, no voice—the poor, the planet, the victims of violence (whether they be in Washington, D.C. or Iraq), and so many others.

The church’s greatest power is not our ability to enact legislation. Our greatest power is to be an advocate for those children of God whose voices are muted by our society. As we speak for and with them, we join with spiritual giants such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood the proper role of religious leadership in this democracy.

As a preacher, I find it hard, at times, not to come across as partisan. Occasionally I get chastised for being too one-sided in my criticisms of the Bush administration. I tell such folks, “You should have been here when President Clinton was president!” But while I try to remain an equal opportunity offender, I confess that I am surely guilty of taking a partisan view of reality sometimes. When I do, I welcome and am grateful for the criticisms that push me back toward God’s nonpartisan advocacy for the needs of God’s people.

Whenever I raise to a bunch of liberals the issue of avoiding partisan religion, I am asked, “But what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to be quiet and let the Religious Right have a clear playing field?” Absolutely not. But our response cannot be to politicize our faith as the Religious Right has politicized their faith.

Instead, we can and should object vehemently and loudly to every injection of religion into politics. Write the media folks who moderate the debates and demand that they stop asking questions about religion. Tell candidates and entire political parties we will vote against them if they keep injecting religion into political campaigns. When enough of us demand change, things will change. After all, ultimately, in our representative democracy, leaders have to be followers.

Finally, as individuals, we should be actively supporting particular political candidates, parties, and agendas. However, we are not looking for a candidate who best represents the interests of Christians. We are looking for a candidate who will best represent the authentic interests of all Americans. For the interests of all the people and the interests of God are identical, one and the same.

Of all the gifts the founders of this nation gave us, none
is more precious than the freedom of religion from political domination and contamination. What an irony and tragedy it will be if we freely give away our faith to political forces that would twist and distort it for their own partisan purposes. In
this political year, let us be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.


Questions for Reflection 

  1. What do you consider preaching that has crossed the
    line from prophetic to partisan?
  2. Do you believe it is inevitable that good intentions end up with less than good conclusions? If so, how is progress made? If not, how do you understand Paul’s words to the Romans in Chapter 7?
  3. Is institutional religion in the United States headed toward the same problematic situation in which it finds itself in Europe?
  4. How do we differentiate between the responsibilities
    of the church vis-à-vis the political order and the responsibilities of individual Christians?