A Slippery Church-State Slope

By Becky Garrison 2-18-2008

In the 2008 election, "change" has emerged as the new catch-all buzzword. I reported on the God's Politics blog a few of the positive signs of social change I've been observing recently as a religious satirist. When I was interviewed in a recent Living Church article profiling emerging churches, I quoted Diana Butler Bass' astute observations that "she finds vitality and growth in those mainline churches who are mining the resources of their tradition while tapping into a global spirit that infuses religion, politics and the culture at large, transcending organizations and individuals."

Lately, I am noticing a number of emergent church leaders who have interpreted this spiritual sea change by endorsing a particular candidate. While one can say that emergent is a conversation, once you are seen as a published author/pastor/spokesman of any religious enterprise, your words carry weight when uttered in any public forum, be it book or blog.

Something in my bones tells me we're on the precipice of a slippery slope where before we know it, certain groups will be perceived as political pawns. When I was researching my dysfunctional family tree I learned I'm a direct descendent of Rev. Roger Williams, the founder of the state of Rhode Island and a champion of religious freedom. The more I delve into my 12th and 13th great-grandfather's work, I realize we're very similar souls.

So perhaps Williams' writings can provide some added perspective here. Despite constant threats of persecution, book burnings, and other means of oppression employed by the crown, he continued to advocate for the preservation of "soul liberty," a term that means that neither the state nor the church can judge anyone's conscience regardless of their religious beliefs. According to Williams, individual conscience must be free from the tyranny of the majority. As he noted, state sponsorship of religion would yield an unhappy situation wherein "the whole world must rule and govern the Church." The merger of church and state remains "opposite to the souls of all men who by persecutions are ravished into a dissembled worship which their hearts embrace not."

So we don't all get seasick during this sea change, perhaps we should all we heed Williams' wisdom. So, what role should those seen as religious leaders and spokespersons assume during the 2008 presidential election? Should they express their presidential preferences in public forums like blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace? And on a more personal level, what if a church elder wants to wear a campaign button or T-shirt to the church picnic? How do we walk this fine line between preserving the right to free speech versus the need for the church and those seen as her leaders to be prophetic voices and not political pawns?

This bantering by all the candidates claiming to be the champion of change brings to mind previous campaign slogans such as "Compassionate Conservatism," "Putting People First," and "Kinder, Gentler Nation" that have been utilized to galvanize voters to rally behind a certain candidate. A quick run-through of the politics enacted during any president's term reveals that their rhetoric fell short of their results one they were in office and reality set in.

During the 2006 midterm elections, I commented on The Ooze how "this foolish quest to conform Christ's teachings to the whims of a particular political party has really started hitting the faith and it's been stinking up the local churches big time. I know Jesus was born in a barn but do churches have to smell like one as well? I dunno about you, but I think it's high time we started mucking out the stables." Tony Compolo's infamous quote about the mixing of church and politics should serve as a cautionary reminder here. "Evangelicalism getting wedded to any political party is like ice cream mixing with horse manure. It's not going to hurt the horse manure, but it sure will mess up the ice cream."

Becky Garrison explores how the church can be a prophetic voice without becoming a political pawn in her books The New Atheist Crusaders and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church.

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