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The Skinny on the Role of Church and State

Every political campaign season, the issue of Church and State comes up in conversation, especially when you are a Pastor. Every four years I feel compelled to consider anew the controversial subject that makes church members lobby to get me to commit to Fox News or MSNBC, and then tell me that whatever I hear I need to keep to myself, or I will be breaking an article of law first uttered by the seventeenth century founder of the First Baptist Church in America.

Warnings to continue political silence are seemingly reinforced by the principle founder of the Declaration of Independence. It was Thomas Jefferson who declared that they should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus "building a wall of separation between Church and State." Unfortunately, people are quick to pick up on the "wall of separation language," and miss the "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" part.

In looking to both understand and explain this complicated, centuries-old concept, I turned to an all-knowing place called Wikipedia. Wikipedia often gets a bad rap because it was developed outside a formal academic process, and could be changed by anyone feeding false information. Through the years, caring people have dedicated themselves to making Wikipedia a consistently stable and accurate reference. Here is what Wikipedia says about the Separation of Church and State: "Three central concepts were derived from the 1st Amendment which became America's doctrine for church-state separation: no coercion in religious matters, no expectation to support a religion against one's will, and religious liberty encompasses all religions. In sum, citizens are free to embrace or reject a faith, any support for religion - financial or physical - must be voluntary, and all religions are equal in the eyes of the law with no special preference or favoritism."

The rationale for the Separation of Church and State affirms religious liberty and no religious favoritism. Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers wanted to make sure the Church did not become one with the state, or that one religious faith is not given beneficial treatment over another religion. This did not mean those in the Church cannot speak to matters of justice and other political matters. I strike it rich again with another quote from Wikipedia: "His 1967 article analyzes the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy: 'Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word 'God' at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension.'" The political realm should not ignore the Church, nor should the Church ignore politics. There are certain boundaries, but striving to speak out for justice and transformative change is a religious imperative, and that type of lasting change can only occur through political systems.

As people of faith, committed to the Christian Church, do not be afraid to have your faith influence your politics. Nor should the Church fail to speak out in matters affecting God's children. Pray for the wisdom to know how to faithfully influence our political system, and our political system to properly address the prophetic voice of the Church.