The Common Good

Working for the Kingdom of God: A Defense

Deep down I don't believe in the separation of church and state. Oh, I am against the idea of a state church or giving political preference to one religious sect or another, but it's the idea that somehow people can divorce their religious identity from their political identity that I just can't accept. That either our religion or our politics mean so little to us that we could restrict them to compartmentalized spheres in our lives seems absurd to me. I know people attempt to do it all the time, believing in the modern myth that an individual can assume an objective stance in this world, but reality is a lot more complex than that.

We are creatures shaped by our world. Our culture, our community, our environment, our faith all have contributed to hewing out our present form. We can always grow and learn, interrogating our culture as we expand and diversify the influences in our lives, but we can never undo the fact that we have been shaped. Whether or not we accept or reject a God, or gods, or spiritual force that choice becomes a part of us. To pretend otherwise for the sake of maintaining a functional albeit shallow pluralism is to live in denial of who we are as people. Religion (in both its broad and specific senses) cannot be separated from politics because it is people, whole people not fragmented forcefully compartmentalized people, who are the ones doing politics.

So in not believing in the separation of church and state, I mean that I think the very idea is impossible. Church and state are not abstract entities, but are functioning communities of people who cannot help but bring their whole selves into those particular relational spheres.

That said, there are of course drastically different ways of how this gets lived out. On the extremes are those that choose to reject either religion or politics. There are the religious people who, while admitting to our identity as religious people, feel that religion is too offensive to ever force upon others even in the form of dialogue, and so they advocate for remaining silent on anything having to do with religion. I understand the desire to care for the sensibilities of others, but if I didn't believe in my faith enough to think that it should make a difference in the world then why bother with believing at all? At the opposite extreme are the religious folks who think culture and politics are too corrupt for religious people to participate in, and so they advocate for complete withdraw from such things. They desire all people to be religious like they are religious, but cannot be bothered to work for the transformation of the world because then they might become tainted with the ways of this world. Like Jonah they just want to condemn the world never expecting that there is any real chance that the world can ever change.

But I'm not a fan of the extremes. I think God is at work in the world at all levels in all places. I cannot hide behind or withdraw into my localized tribe if I truly believe that God loves the world enough to reconcile all things to Godself. My beliefs shape my identity and therefore how I exist in the world -- including how I am involved in culture and politics. But in doing such things the big question becomes whether I am letting my faith shape me and my actions or if I am using my faith to advance my selfish ends. When I involve myself wholly in politics and culture is my goal to let God use me to transform the world or to fight to control the things I personally care about. In other words, am I imposing my faith on others to gain power and prestige for myself at the expense of others, or am I accepting my place in the body of Christ and humbly loving and respecting the other members in the body.

To me that is the major difference between dominionism and the kingdom of God. Advocates of dominionism are pushing their religious views for the sake of working for the supremacy of a very small group of people -- often at the expense of all others. Although ostensibly Christian, it rejects the notion of love of neighbor and the call to in humility consider others better than ourselves in exchange for the opportunity to have one's own philosophy be the one in control. It is this sort of self-serving imposition of religion that has sparked the need for people to attempt to separate church and state. When one religious view strives to dominate and silence all others, making it dangerous for outsiders to be their true selves, we are no longer functioning as one body with many parts. It is not God that is given dominion, but the name of God that is invoked as justification of individuals grasping for power.

Despite the presence of such manipulative uses of religion, I still think God is at work in the world and that I am called to serve God's kingdom. Doing so means letting my faith guide my interactions with culture and in politics, as I believe that God cares about and can be served through all manifestations of human community. I believe in God's kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, just as I have to believe that all of humanity is created in God's image and therefore to be treated with dignity and love. That core of my faith has to guide my every action in the world -- from how I treat my kids to how I shop to how I involve myself in politics -- if I am to say that it is truly my faith and not my selfish ambitions that is directing me. So even as I follow the way of Jesus and affirm that God reigns over all, to be working for the kingdom of God means that I cannot exclude, oppress, or marginalize those who appear different than me. I am connected to them and am commissioned to work for their good -- not because I have rejected religion but because I embrace my holistic identity as a religious person.

As the nation starts to cringe at a resurgence of the imposition of self-seeking religion upon others, it can be tempting to retreat into a renewed call for the separation of church and state. But to do so not only denies our identities as religious beings, asking us to attempt to suppress central aspects of who we are, but it fails to examine the motivating factors behind religious interactions with the Other. While I fully understand the fear religion elicits in some, as a religious person I also cannot trivialize my beliefs by restricting them to just the isolated private sphere of my life. I will not mock my faith in that way. But even as I live a public faith, I will try to let my life serve as a reminder that the Christian scriptures do not call us to destroy the identity of those who are different than us but to love them as we work for a better world, God's kingdom come, for all.

portrait-julie-clawsonJulie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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