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The press has taken note of the phenomenon and has written extensively on the subject. TIME magazine once did a cover story on "The Faith Factor"(1) and asked "Just how devout do Americans want their president to be?"
President Obama's personal faith has never been a secret, even though there are still some die-hards who want to accuse him of being a closet Muslim. He is not. Hillary has been an active United Methodist since her teen years. She has been a Sunday School Teacher and a Lay Speaker. She says it was her faith and the wise and caring counsel of the youth pastor who had so influenced her early life that got her through the Lewinski mess. The Donald says he is a Presbyterian, but in a speech to the students at the ultra-conservative Liberty University, he quoted a short Bible verse which he said came from "One Corinthians," a gaff that probably only he in that room did not get. Yes, he says he is a Presbyterian. But he has also said some other things that have gotten on tape that sound like no Presbyterian I have ever known, and I AM a Presbyterian.
The relationship between religion and politics this year has an added dimension that in previous generations would never have been a factor - Muslim-Americans, some 7-million of them. In the election of 2000, Muslim Americans overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush, but polls now indicate that this year they are likely to vote in another diirection.
Religion and politics. But what about this "line between church and state?" How do we as citizens of the United States as well as citizens of God's kingdom handle that? The easiest response would be to stay scrupulously away from anything "political" at all. With that caveat, I wonder whether keeping religion and politics separate is possible. For that matter, I wonder whether it is desirable. I wonder if it is faithful. The witness of the prophets of old would say no.
Consider this week's lesson from Isaiah. It begins with a superscription that places the prophet in a particular historical and political context - Jerusalem "in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah;" in other words, throughout most of the second half of the eighth century BCE. Little is known of Isaiah's life, but we can surmise a bit from some of the narratives of his actions. He apparently was a political "insider" with access (if not decisive influence) in the power centers of Judah.
We jump down to verse 10 and the prophet's contemptuous invitation: "Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!" Sodom? Gomorrah? Those two cities had been turned to toast long before and were thus names automatically associated with judgment - similar to the derisive tone that we sometimes use when describing something as a Las Vegas or San Francisco.
Now Isaiah quotes God directly: "The multitude of your sacrifices - what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats." Then God turns thumbs down on fancy religious processions - "this trampling of my courts." Forget the extra commitment offerings and the fragrant incense, the special services of worship and celebration. "I cannot bear your evil assemblies," God says. Perhaps the most radical announcement of all comes when God even rejects prayer: "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen." A few years ago, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist told his people and a watching world that God does not hear the prayer of a Jew. He was wrong about that, but here we encounter the plain word that there are indeed some prayers to which God will turn a deaf ear. Why? "Your hands are full of blood." This is the ancient equivalent of a throughly modern concern - don't sow your wild oats for six days, then come in on the seventh and pray for a crop failure. Your walk should match your talk.
Fortunately, those harsh words are not the last words. God continues, "Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." These are more than general instructions - the admonitions about seeking justice mean to care for the powerless members of the society: the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. This would be good stuff if one of our major parties would include it as part of their platform. After all, it has been more than fifty years since anyone asked us to consider, not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country.
The tone shifts with verse 18. In the wonderful language of the old King James Version in which so many of us were nourished, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." If anyone wonders how political THAT is, simply recall that it was one of the most favorite expressions of one of our generation's most consummate politicians, Lyndon Baines Johnson. God is pleading for a turnaround and an outcome other than judgment. Do it and be blessed; don't and "be devoured." Well.
Religion and politics. As old as the ancient prophets; as modern as tomorrow's newspaper. In my estimation, it is impossible to keep them separate and, frankly, anyone who says so understands neither religion nor politics. Both have to do with not only deeply held convictions but the way we live our lives. In other words, as the title of one of my books has it, As We Believe, So We Behave. Certainly, what we believe SHOULD determine how we vote. Isaiah's message is simply this: Don't you DARE separate religion and politics! Well, now.
I have recently enjoyed the late William Sloane Coffin's Credo, a collection of some of the more remarkable writings of this passionate, prophetic pastor whose life has been dedicated to issues of social justice and national morality. He writes,
The separation of church and state is a sound doctrine, but it points to an organizational separation. It is not designed to separate Christians from their politics. For our faith certainly should inform our common life, as well as our personal, more private lives.(2)Our natural tendency as Americans is to shy away from any melding of religion and politics. Actually, that is impossible. However, we CAN and SHOULD stay away from any blend of religion and PARTISAN politics. That would be a horrible mistake, and one to be avoided at all costs.
One final word. For those of you who are feeling fed up with the whole process and would just as soon hibernate until Wednesday, here is a tidbit to ponder. In 1842 an Indiana farmer nearly forgot to vote, but as it turned out the candidate he voted for as his state representative, Madison Marsh, won by one vote. In those days state legislators elected U.S. senators, and the next year, on the sixth ballot, and after changing his vote, Marsh cast the deciding vote for Edward Hannegan as senator from the state of Indiana. In 1846, when the U.S. Senate was sharply divided over whether to declare war on Mexico, Senator Hannegan was absent at the time. He was called into the chambers, and he cast the deciding vote for war. Consider how that one Indiana farmer's almost forgotten vote changed history, given that California became the possession of the U.S. as a result of that war.(3)
"Come, now, let us reason together..." We can talk about ANYTHING here in this sacred space...even religion and politics. After all, we are brothers and sisters, and regardless of our disagreements (and they will always come), we remember who is ultimately in charge. And THAT makes all the difference. As you come to the Table, remember you are loved. I would add, I would say, "See you at the voting booth," but I have already voted. And one more thing, no matter how you vote, I will still love you on November 9th. God bless you, and God bless America.
1. 6/21/04, pp. 26-33
6. William Sloane Coffin, Credo, (Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox, 2004), p. 69
7. Rick Beyer, The Greatest Stories Never Told: 100 tales from history to astonish, bewilder, & stupefy, (New York : HarperResource, 2003)