With a mere eight days left before the presidential election and with a friend to whom I really can’t say no coaxing me to step into this quagmire, I find my thoughts turning to the intersection between faith and politics. This is not just any intersection — this is the intellectual version of what my seminary friends call “dysfunction junction,” which I imagine gives 1 in 10 drivers in Alexandria, Virginia symptoms of PTSD. At that intersection, Braddock Road, Quaker Lane, and King Street all cross, and many vehicles trying to brave the passage do not make it out unscathed.
With the image of dysfunction junction planted firmly in my mind, I turn it to faith and politics, while the collective cry of grandparents everywhere echoes that those are the two things one is not supposed to talk about. I plan to talk about the political dimension of Jesus’ message in the next installments of this series, but first I must clear something up from a political science perspective, and here it is:
The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in our official political documents. Media Pundits and Joes Six-Pack alike invoke these five words everyday, but all they serve to do is reduce a much more complicated relationship into a morass of error and misunderstanding. Religion is mentioned exactly once in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” That’s it. That’s all we’ve got. First things first: the amendment deals specifically with congress. Churches can seek to impact the government all they want; the amendment concerns the power of congress, not the curtailment of the voice of the church.
Now, over the years, the Supreme Court has decided myriad cases by interpreting these two clauses of the First Amendment. The court gets involved simply because there is no complete wall of separation between church and state, as much as Thomas Jefferson wanted one. In 1963, the Court set a standard by which the government can indeed infringe on someone’s free exercise of religion as long as the government has a “compelling interest” and the resultant action is the “least restrictive” it can be (Sherbert v. Verner). My constitutional law notes from college have 33 religious cases cited, and those are just the important ones. The court has looked at issues such as school prayer, expulsion for religious motivations for failing to salute the flag, blue laws, drug use in religious ceremonies, wearing of religious symbols on military uniforms, displaying religious imagery on government property, polygamy, school vouchers, tax exemptions…*
All this to say that the government entangles itself in the religious establishment, no matter how much it tries not to. And the religious establishment, especially in the decades since the rise of the religious right, is unafraid to wade into the waters of politics. So, while the “separation of church and state” may be a nice shorthand for keeping us out of the messy business of theocracy, the phrase does not describe how our system functions.
People of faith should not fear to let their religious beliefs guide their political decisions. Rather, inviting God to be a part of your political decisions can lead to a more generous, sensitive engagment among those with whom you disagree. Of course, if invitation is corrupted by a toxic expectation that God is going to rubber stamp everything you decide is right, then this generosity and sensitivity will disappear. A prayerful reflection of the values Jesus teaches and the life he calls us to lead, along with a prayer for a discerning heart, help us to act responsibly and effectively in the political sphere.
With that sticky business about the separation of church and state cleared up, we can turn to the political message of Jesus’ teaching. Stay tuned for the second installment of “The two things you’re not supposed to talk about.”
*It would make for an extra boring post if I went into the actual legal stuff in here, and I’m not qualified to do so anyway. I have a Polical Science degree, not a JD. Suffice to say, the government (usually) tries hard not to break its own rules, but sometimes it does. Most of us just don’t notice most of the time.