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5/12/2005

 

praise the Lord and pass the ballots!



on this week's fox news sunday, arnold schwarzenegger was asked if religion should play a roll in policy making. arnold conceded that a person's religious views shape their outlook and that consequently it's not always possible to avoid conflating the two, but that a politician should do his best to avoid it. it's a land of many faiths and all that.

i've never had much trouble with religion factoring into a politician's decision making. it's absurd to suppose that something so intimately involved in constructing the character and moral framework of an individual should or even could be discarded when it came time to make the most important decisions of all. besides, religion is a known factor. if i'm running as a conservative Christian, people know what to expect. if they share my views, they'll vote for me, if they don't, they won't. if i get voted in, i have an obligation to govern in accordance with the will of my constituency as long as that will doesn't conflict with the constitution or the greater good of the country as a whole.

far more problematic to me has been the extent to which politics should play a roll in religion, in Christianity in particular. Christ talked about a lot of things, but He seldom spoke on politics. on one of the few occasions where He was directly confronted on a political issue, paying taxes to the roman conquerors, His answer was simply "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." it's hard to appreciate how stunning this answer must have been to Jesus' contemporaries. the roman occupation was the most controversial issue of the day, something akin to the tensions currently felt in palestine or those in beirut at the height of the syrian/lebanese conflict. it seems apathetic, almost flip, but really it's a statement of priority: for the Christian, the ultimate concern isn't the struggles that matter only in the temporal, but those that shape eternity. we should therefore live in peace with civil authority to whatever extent possible and concentrate on doing the Lord's work.

but the application of Jesus' simple proverb to church policy is a study that could fill volumes. for instance, rome forced the issue shortly after Christ's death by requiring Christians to pay their respects to rome's gods as well as their own. along with the rest of the pantheon, caesar was considered a god, and failure to worship was akin to treason. but although the Christians were willing to pay their taxes and carry a roman soldier's gear the extra mile, they could not kneel before a false god. the early church thus employed civil disobedience, resisting peacefully unto the point of horrific public executions.

if nothing else, tyranny brings clarity. if we imagine Jesus' proverb as a sliding scale with God's business on one end and caesar's on the other, it's obvious that a suffering church has no opportunity to engage in anything beyond God's work--which has a lot to do with the paradoxical strength and expansion of persecuted congregations. the situation under roman rule was not at all dissimilar to that of the church in sudan or china today, and like the first century church, these modern versions flourish in times of persecution. but what about churches in a democracy? there's the amish extreme of completely disengaging from society, or the jesse jackson extreme where religion becomes a facade for political activism. where does the church find a balance?

the debate was renewed a few days ago when rev. chan chandler booted nine members from his church--some of them deacons--allegedly for backing john kerry in the last presidential election. chandler called on his flock to "repent or resign" over the matter of voting for pro-abortion politicians, although no one beyond the Christian media has reported that chandler made similar demands with respect to two pro-abortion republican politicians as well. the issue for chandler was a moral one, not a partisan one.

judging by the tenor of the news coverage, the media has already passed a stern judgment on chandler, who has since resigned if not repented for his sins. was justice served?

if those of you on the left could stifle your reflexive "yes," for a moment, i'd ask you to consider some previous examples of politics from the pulpit. the fabled underground railroad of the civil war was built and maintained largely by Christians opposed to slavery, and the civil rights struggles of the twentieth century were forged at the pulpits before they were fought in the streets. i very seriously doubt anyone would today fault a sixties preacher in a black church for expelling members who openly supported jim crow democrats.

the heart of the matter is whether a clergyman is acting on behalf of God or caesar. is his opposition to a particular candidate motivated by his willingness to see a certain political party advanced for that party's own sake, or is he simply attempting to discharge his duty to provide spiritual leadership on the moral issues of the day? while chandler does not deny that he condemned certain candidates, including kerry, by name, he insists he never endorsed any. that's a small but very meaningful distinction (and no, not just for tax purposes), and it suggests to me that chandler had his priorities straight when he spoke out against pro-abortion politicians--even if he was over-zealous in his handling of those who supported them. and that's a judgment, by the way, that i'm not willing to make. if a Christian stubbornly supports pro-abortion politicians, that might be an indication of just the sort of spiritual problems that could warrant a separation from the church--not necessarily, but it's definitely a troubling signal.

the amish render unto God but not unto caesar, and jesse jackson is the flipside. was chan chandler paying all of his dues? difficult to judge from reportage alone, but if what i've read is accurate then my best guess is that he was. a church's tax exempt status is dependent upon not engaging in overt politicking (which is blatant hypocrisy with the left taking far more advantage than the chan chandler's of the world could ever hope to--look at liberal black churches) but politics is the major moral battleground and a certain level of involvement is unavoidable if the church is going to remain morally relevant. i question the practice of singling out politicians by name since it's not the responsibility of the clergy to politically inform the congregation. still, i've heard my pastor say from the pulpit that he believes a Christian should not support a pro-abortion politician while not naming names, and i have no problem with that whatsoever.

locdog lives at the corner of politics and religion