Friday, November 11, 2005

Church & State

The IRS is challenging the tax-exempt status of an Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, in response to a sermon delivered there the Sunday prior to the 2004 election.   The preacher was frank in his criticism of the B*sh administration, and of the Iraq invasion in particular.   However, he emphasized that each congregant should search his or her own conscience when they reached the voting booth. At no time did he explicitly encourage them to vote for, or against, a particular candidate.

Hear the story from NPR.

This article from the Christian Post also offers details about the sermon.   The article goes on to say that the IRS received a number of complaints about (primarily evangelical) churches in which the minister explicitly endorsed President B*sh.   So far as I know, no action has been taken in response to those complaints. There were a number of evangelical churches which gave their mailing lists to the re-election campaign, which would seem a blatant overstep.

If indeed no action has been taken, then there is an obvious and frightening double-standard here. Legal action by the IRS can have a definite "chilling effect."

Last night, NPR aired letters in response to the past week's stories.   One letter in response to this particular story caught my attention: it was from a woman who argued that the IRS action was appropriate, that politics had no place whatsoever in the pulpit.  

Part of her argument was that, just as government should stay out of religion, religion should stay out of government.   I agree with a narrow interpretation of that statement. In other words, the government should not legislate religion, and religious organizations must be cautious regarding enmeshment with government programs or policies.

The listener also said that church is where she went to develop her private relationship with God, and so far as she was concerned, the minister's function was to facilitate that relationship.   At no point should the "outside world" impinge on this private relationship.

This "Me and You, God" point of view of religion is common.   In fact, there was a time I felt the same way.   Indeed, there are some Sundays I still feel this way. But I think this view misses an important point.

This sort of faith is the equivalent of instant coffee or a frozen dinner. It lacks substance.   It's easy to feel all holy in the relative security of your comfortable pew, and then go into the world and argue with your neighbor, or shun the homeless. This is an unchallenged faith, which seems to me watered-down and bloodless.

For me, church serves at least two purposes: it empowers me to live my faith the rest of the week; and it provides a safe environment in which to interact with a wide variety of people, similar to the wide variety I will meet in my daily life.  

And sometimes that means political issues will be engaged.   Caring for the destitute will often seem like a political act in a society that wants to pretend no one is destitute.   Or that people become destitute by choice, or through laziness.   Speaking out to protect God's creation will also seem like a political act.

And, remember this: the crucifixion was a political act.   Jesus was perceived to be a threat to the religious authorities, who were collaborating with their Roman rulers.   Although he avoided explicit political statements, many of his statements were perceived as a political threat.   For example, saying the Law was made for man rather than the reverse, was a direct challenge to the Pharisees, for this implied they should be out of work – for their main "job" was interpreting and enforcing Torah law.

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