Being Political

I have generally stayed away from political machinations on this blog for quite a while. At least one of my regular readers noted that they didn’t like when I wrote on politics, and I have honored her request for the most part. I imagine all sorts of reasons for her concern, such as my left of center political leanings. Yet I think one of the reasons is the continuing belief that ministers shouldn’t somehow be separate from politics.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I heard a report on NPR regarding the move by an organization to monitor church services in conservative circles to ensure that they didn’t violate their non-profit status by political activism. Hugo recently posted on this, and I commented there on the technicalities of the IRS rules, that non-profits are not allowed to endorse specific candidates, and can engage in issue activism as long as they don’t spend more than 5% of their total budget on those activities. Yet, as I heard a woman speak yesterday on her monitoring activities, I was troubled. It was less about the secretive monitoring of a worship service, but rather her comments on why she was engaging in this activity. “It’s about the separation of church and state,” she said. “We want to remind folks that church and politics don’t mix.”

This is a familiar argument for me, since I was hit with it regularly when I was coordinating the United Methodist response to the Tennessee Lottery. “What are you talking about preacher?” my folks would say. “You should be above the realm of politics.”

Here’s the problem with that belief. It assumes a worldview that is frankly heretical. To believe in a wall between religious thought and political thought is to assume a segmented life, one in which our faith and family and politics and vocation are separate from one another and don’t connect. With this understanding I can maintain a politcal identity that is completely divorced from my understanding of God’s love; I can function at work with no concern for the things of God. Suggesting that politics and religion don’t mix is to not understand the power and role of religion in one’s life.

Jesus came into the world to make our lives whole, integrated. He also came calling us to a life where we love our neighbors. Love of neighbor requires an interest in politics since politics is how we organize our life together. The values we argue for in society must arise from the values of our lives, and for religious folks those values will have religious implications. To love our neighbor means that we will be concerned how the government and the entire society relates to that neighbor. My reasons for opposing the lottery were not about some belief in gambling as an individual sin, but rather that the societal “sin” oppressed my neighbors and should be discouraged. My left of center politics are based in an understanding of Christ’s ministry that opposes radical individualism, believing in a communitarian ideal. To suggest that my politics can somehow be divorced from my faith is to completely ignore the power of faith in one’s life.

What do we do with the non-profit laws, the tax advantages of churches that these activists worry about? I believe that the current standards are valid — avoiding formal endorsement of candidates and limits on political spending. At the same time, there must be a recognition that churches will indeed be involved in political speech, political thought, political action. Faith demands that as we work to bring forth God’s kingdom here on earth.

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