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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Religion and Politics

Recently I have received several e-mails and been in direct face to face discussion as well with folks who ask why the Church speaks out on issues such as immigration, the environment, health care,etc. People object to the Church doing this using remarks such as, "What about the separation of Church and state?" or "The clergy should talk about God, help people to pray better but keep politics out of the pulpit." I would like to offer comments on remarks such as these.

First of all there is some myth busting to do. One of the greatest myths used today in everyday language and even on many talk shows and newscasts is the notion that the US constitution establishes separation of Church and state. It does not quite do that and never uses the expression "separation of Church and state". The beginning of the first amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." The purpose of this part of the amendment was to prevent the establishment of a state church or religion or the favoring of one over the other and to allow people of all creeds to assemble in their respective places of worship without harassment and also to freely live out publicly the tenets of their faith. This amendment does not prohibit clergy and other religious leaders from trying to influence society on matters that they believe are in the public interest or public morality. In the 1800's it was the churches, especially some of the protestant churches in the north, who led the campaign against slavery. Today religious leaders speak out on the rights of immigrants, the availability of health care, the injustice of certain wars not by way of trying to impose their religious beliefs on society but because they believe that these things are true for all people. Likewise when they speak out on abortion. Now some people my disagree and sometimes religious leaders may be wrong, but it is their right to speak, the right of free speech, granted later in the same first amendment.

On the other side people get upset when a priest or other clergy person brings some of these issues to the pulpit. They say things like' "Father shouldn't talk about politics. He should stick to the Bible, or Church teaching, etc." The problem here is that the very same Bible speaks on some of these issues that are political. Your priest, minister rabbi has an obligation to address these issues from the pulpit. What cannot be done from the pulpit is to direct people to vote for a certain individual or to belong to a certain party. The general idea is that clergy should speak about political issues when they touch on matters of social morality but not enter into partisan politics.

What the constitution leaves room for from the various religions is that they serve as the conscience, or at least, a conscience for society. Complete separation of Church and state would not allow for that. For those of us who are people of faith we need to do some soul searching when addressing some of these hot button issues and ask whether the Democratic party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party or any particular talk show host or media outlet influences me more on such matters than does my faith.

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