Separation of church and state is the bedrock of the rich and varied religious life of the United States. Developed countries that have state sponsored churches have much less participation than the US which does not have state sponsored religion. We have found that freedom of religion has fostered dynamic and engaged religious participation.
While mandated by the Constitution, separation of church and state has still proven a thorny issue, sometimes difficult to enforce and define. There are different ways of construing religious freedom and no government support of religion as we have seen recently in the debates about health care. People are religious and the same people are citizens so keeping things in separate spheres can be hard. Then there is the challenge of applying the concept of separation of church and state to all religions equally. So while this constitutional separation is fundamentally good for religion as well as society as a whole, it can be complicated to sort out.
In Bible times, our concept of separation of church and state was unknown. Religion and government were merged. Religion offered the framework for society and kept the community together. There was basically one system. So in the Bible, religion is government and government is religion. If one kingdom overtakes another, there is a new governmental system as well as a new religion imposed. The Roman Empire maintained its power and authority through required religious devotion to the Emperor as a god. The religious state defined social values and relationships. It dictated morals and mores. So everything religious had social/political implications and vice versa.
In Psalm 118, we see many references to this combined infusion of religion and state. As the psalm begins, the writer demands: “Let Israel say. . .” Israel was a social/political/religious entity. There is a reference to princes. Again, what we would see as governmental authority. Then the writer declares, “All nations surrounded me.” There is a clear sense of threat to the community. With the help of God, this threat to the nation by another nation is put down. Even here in this psalm, before we get to any more historical books in the Bible, there is very much a combining of religion and politics.
While we endorse separation of church and state in today’s world, we are still confronted with the challenge of integrating our religious values into our lives as citizens. And this has political implications, or it should have political implications. For instance, one of the strongest ethical imperatives in scripture is concern for the plight of those made poor. We see this in the Hebrew scriptures as well as in the teachings of Jesus. As Christians we are ethically obligated to be concerned about those made poor. That concern will then be reflected in our participation in society as citizens. We may not agree on the best way to eliminate poverty, but this should be a common concern of all Christians. And it should influence how we vote. We should want to vote for candidates that we feel are concerned with addressing the issue of poverty in our country. We should be voting our values, as we say in the UCC.
I know some people say they don’t like to mix politics and religion, but it is mixed on every page of the Bible, given that there was no division between the two as we have today. And our religion should influence and impact every aspect of our lives, including our citizenship and our participation in society and our voting. The church should not advocate for specific candidates or parties, but it should advocate for certain values and then for specific initiatives which embody those values. If you aren’t willing to entertain a lively dialogue about politics and religion, then you may not want to open your Bible!
Our faith teaches us to live compassion and generosity. It teaches us concern for others and a commitment to peace. May we learn to live these values more deeply in our individual lives. May we also express these values in society at large and work to make our world a place where everyone experiences justice and peace and compassion. This is the dominion of God that Jesus shows us. Amen.