I have often been told that politics and religion do not mix.
I wonder if those who say this truly understand religion or politics… or the first amendment of the constitution itself.
I admit that I come at this from a biased perspective. I have served at the American Cathedral in Paris and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, both of which had pseudo-establishment and proudly patriotic roles. I have led funerals at Arlington Cemetery, taught preaching to military chaplains, and played the Star Spangled Banner and Stars and Stripes Forever more times than I can count. In my ministry, I have lived overseas twice and traveled extensively. In every case have been treated not just as a representative of the church but of the United States as well. As divided and different as we seem to ourselves, it’s hard to believe that the rest of the world sees us all as pretty much the same… and understands better than we do that particularly for Americans the separation between sacred and secular is a false divide. Religion should not be partisan and no church should support one particular candidate. We need to remember, however, that “church” is not so much an institution as it is a people: a people who have promised to live out their beliefs in their lives not just one hour on Sunday, but 24/7, in their places of work and play, in their families, in their homes, and in the world where they live. As people of faith, our beliefs and values define how we structure our lives, make our decisions, and interact with others each. To not speak with the voice of faith is to deny who we are and the one in whose image we were made, and cede that voice and that faith to others.
This has come up this week in the controversy within the Episcopal Church over the role of the National Cathedral in providing a prayer service the morning after the Inauguration and the National Cathedral Choir singing at the Inauguration itself. The Presiding Bishop and Bishop of Washington have written eloquently on this subject and the debate – carried on the Episcopal Cafe – continues with strong feelings on all sides. With biblical mandates to pray for our leaders (1 Tim 2.2), to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us (Matt 5:44), it is hard to justify not having the prayer service (or praying for the president during our own services) regardless of what perspective one might hold. But is the singing of the Cathedral Choir at the Inauguration an act of supporting positions and behaviors that are contrary to the baptismal covenant and basic Christian beliefs? Is it a betrayal of the neediest among us… or is it a chance to stay at the table so their voices will heard? Could it be an opportunity to rise above politics and bring a moment of prayer, of beauty, and of true spirituality to an event where those things will be hard to find? Could it be a chance to ask God to be with our nation at a time it needs God the most? These are challenging questions for challenging times. While our answers might differ, what is clear from all this is that what the church does matters, perhaps more than we thought.
In its essence, Christianity is not a private but a public religion, meant to be lived both in community and in the wider community of the public square. Jesus did not come to create one more spiritual option from which people could choose. He came to usher in the Kingdom of God that would transform the world itself. He was killed because he spoke and lived a truth that threatened the political and religious power structures of his day. He was raised to show that the Kingdom he proclaimed would last forever – long after those others were gone.
People say that religion and politics don’t mix. I’m not sure Jesus would agree.