By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not require the separation of religion and politics, it only prohibits government from establishing (or promoting) any religion. On the other hand, Christian morality must be applied to our politics, or our faith is as dead as a body without the spirit. (see James 2:14-26).
Jesus never mentioned morality in politics since democracy was irrelevant to his time and place; but his moral teachings are relevant to the stewardship of democracy in our time and place, and his teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors--including our neighbors of other races and religions--as we love ourselves.
The greatest challenge for American democracy is balancing individual wants and rights with providing for the common good. In America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture, we love what we want for ourselves and often ignore the needs of others. As as result, American Christianity emphasizes Jesus as our personal savior who provides us personal salvation, and our politics reflect our religious preferences for personal wants at the expense of the needs of others.
The moral teachings of Jesus on self-denial and sacrificial love were never popular. To make Christianity popular church leaders subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to belief in exclusivist church doctrines and creeds. The latter provided cheap grace and salvation without the cost of discipleship. In the fourth century Constantine initiated an unholy alliance between Christianity and worldly power when he made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire.
In the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century Martin Luther emphasized grace and faith (sola fide) as essentials for salvation and denigrated Christian morality. The religious wars that followed did not end until The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Then the Enlightenment introduced democracy and the political sovereignty of man to replace the divine right to rule and political sovereignty of God. But democracy did not bring Christian morality to politics.
Martin Luther’s concept of two kingdoms separated God’s kingdom from worldly kingdoms and Christian obligations from those of politics. Robert Jeffress recently revived Luther’s two kingdom concept when he asserted that “individuals are called biblically to be kind and caring, but not governments.” He absolved those white Christians who supported Donald Trump and his Republican minions from the need to apply Christian morality to their politics.
President Trump reversed his policy to separate children from parents seeking political asylum by Executive Order after a firestorm of public criticism, which included some church officials, that the policy was immoral. But in red states where the vast majority of white Christians support Trump and his Republican minions, the silence of church pulpits on this and other immoral policies of the Trump administration indicates a corruption of Christian morality.
Michael Gerson has chided pastors for ignoring their “moral duty to oppose the dehumanization of migrants” and suggested a sermon that acknowledges political differences, but emphasizes “a common belief with unavoidably public consequences: Christians are to love their neighbor, and everyone is their neighbor.” John Pavlovitch has gone further and suggested that “if your church is silent [on moral issues] this week, you may want to leave it.”
The Lord’s Prayer begins with the petition that “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It mandates that Christians bring God’s kingdom of light and love to worldly kingdoms beset by darkness and hate, and it requires the Christian stewardship of democracy to promote a politics of reconciliation based on the altruistic teachings of Jesus that are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor.
American democracy is threatened by racial and partisan political polarization. Over 70% of Americans consider themselves Christians, but most of them voted for Donald Trump, who is antithetical to Christian morality. Those who ignore the teachings of Jesus in their politics are hypocrites. Unless and until the church makes Christian morality a priority in politics, the church will continue to decline and ultimately be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Paul Chaffee cited Robert Jeffress’ two kingdoms theology, and Jeffress’ assertion that “President Trump is not only on the right side of history; he is on the right side of God.” See
Chafee also noted the tactics of right-wing Christian evangelicals who are promoting a form of American Christian nationalism that would “use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.” It is a form of “Christian” morality at odds with the teachings of Jesus and promoted as the free exercise of religion. See https://interfaith-observer.squarespace.com/journal-articles/2018/6/14/and-the-enemy-is-interfaith. See also, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/26/opinion/project-blitz-christian-nationalists.html.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to support the President Trump’s policy of separating children from parents seeking asylum as a law “ordained by God.” It was taken out of context (see Romans 12 and Romans 13:9-10) and history has proven it to be wrong. It should be noted, however, that the law does not require such separation. It is Trump administration policy and can be remedied by Executive Order without changing the law--as it was. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/06/14/jeff-sessions-points-to-the-bible-in-defense-of-separating-immigrant-families/?utm_term=.7142ffedfb46&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1. See also https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-executive-end-family-separation-at-border-immigration-today-2018-06-20.
Father James Martin has asserted that blindly following the law is not “biblical” and described the Trump policy to separate children from parents seeking asylum as unjust law: See https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/06/15/father-james-martin-blindly-following-law-not-biblical.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe of the United Methodist Church has denounced the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” and the separation of children from parents seeking political asylum, and condemned Session’s use of Paul’s letter to the Romans to justify that immoral policy as a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel. See
https://www.umcjustice.org/news-and-stories/a-shocking-violation-of-the-spirit-of-the-gospel-697. Unfortunately such pronouncements are rarely made in the pulpits of white UMC churches.
The United Methodist News Service reported “More than 600 United Methodist clergy and laity say they are bringing church law charges against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a fellow United Methodist, over a zero tolerance U.S. immigration policy — a policy that includes separating children from parents apprehended for crossing into the U.S. illegally. ...Specifically, the group accuses him of ...separating young children from their parents and holding them in mass incarceration facilities; immorality; racial discrimination and ‘dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrines’ of The United Methodist Church.” See http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/church-charges-brought-against-sessions
After suggesting a sermon on the morality of immigration policies, Michael Gerson explained that “The proper role of Christians in politics is not to Christianize America; it is to demonstrate Christian values in the public realm. This was the spirit of the abolitionist movement, of the charitable and legal response to the human costs of the Industrial Revolution, and of the civil rights movement. This commitment does not lead toward a single party or ideology, but it does trace the outlines of an agenda: defending the rule of law, protecting minorities from discrimination and harm, fighting against trafficking and preventable suffering abroad, standing up for the rights of the disabled and vulnerable, shielding children from exploitation and abuse. ...If effective resistance happens at all, it will come from values-based, religiously motivated conservatives who can no longer stomach the moral putridity of Trumpism.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-case-study-in-the-proper-role-of-christians-in-politics/2018/06/21/39acd0bc-7578-11e8-b4b7-308400242c2e_story.html?utm_term=.16dc73b6b43b&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1
John Pavlovitz has gone further than Michael Gerson in criticising pastors and churches that are silent on matters of Christian morality in politics, especially on immigration. He has written If your church is silent this week, you may want to leave it. See https://johnpavlovitz.com/ (June 19, 2018)
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