Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 5:43-48
Happy Independence Day weekend, complete with flags and patriotic hymns here in church. I imagine some of us today will think it’s completely natural to have a church service celebrating our nation; and some of us likely will feel it goes too far, violating the spirit of the separation of church and state. I think this is a good time to wrestle with that a bit and ask what Jesus might have to say about church and state, faith and politics.
If I asked how many of you think politics and religion should mix, my hunch is that very few hands would go up. We’re wary of it, and for good reason. One of the forces drawing Europeans to the New World was a desire for freedom from established churches (which was us, by the way, in England). We still reject being told what to believe or having a religion’s practices enshrined in law. Though when they’re “our” practices, sometimes it’s harder to see the problem. When I was growing up in Springfield, Missouri, the Sunday “blue laws” were still in force, ensuring that shoppers observed the Christian Sabbath whether they wanted to or not. But over time, we came to see the law probably shouldn’t tell us whose holy day merits special protection.
So religion and politics typically don’t mix so well. But what about faith and politics? Senator and priest Jack Danforth wrote a book by that name several years ago, a book that resonates just as powerfully in our present political season – maybe even more so. Danforth argues that faith must inform our politics, both its content and its practice. He calls Christians to claim our high calling as reconcilers, not dividers, as we govern our nation. He calls us to use God’s command to love as “the standard by which we measure everything we do” in politics and government. And he cautions us not to baptize specific positions but humbly recognize that God’s truth is bigger than human policies.1
So what does it mean to be people of faith who are also called to the ministry of self-government? Every week here, we confess the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives and the sovereignty of God over every other power and principality. If that is true, I think it’s impossible to say that our faith and our politics can’t mix. Our faith must mix with every element of our lives, from how we spend our money, to what we watch on TV, to how we pay our employees, to whether we recycle. If the lordship of Jesus Christ has something to say about what I do with my trash, it probably has something to say about what I do with my vote. So especially in an election year, when the one thing everyone can agree is that the stakes are incredibly high, how are we called to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and engaged, passionate citizens of these United States?
For me, the intersecting point between Christian faith and American democracy is love. If you boil down the Old and New Testaments, as well as 2,000 years of theological reflection on them, you find discipleship captured in three imperative statements: Love God, love neighbor, love one another. Everything else is commentary.
By the same token, I believe love is also the fulfillment of America’s best self. I believe love is our highest national aspiration, even though neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution includes that word. We use other words for love in political life: Equality. Self-determination. Justice. Freedom. Each of those values is a facet of the diamond of love. When we treat all people as having been created equal – that’s an act of love. When we maximize opportunity for life, liberty, and happiness, especially for those who lack it – that’s an act of love. When we hold all people to the same standard under the law, regardless of race or ethnicity or class or sexual identity, or anything else – that’s an act of love. When we expand the boundaries of freedom … now that’s certainly an act of love, as well as being the American story in microcosm. Starting with white, male landowners, our boundaries of freedom have been expanding for 240 years now, to poorer people, and to people of color, and to women, and to LGBT people. Pushing back those boundaries of freedom is an act of love. In fact, as Mtr. Anne Hutcherson preached last week, St. Paul says that the point of freedom is to build love: “[D]o not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,” Paul says, “but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:1,13-14)
So both our Christian and American identities call us to love. But how do we put that into effect in politics and policy? You can’t pass a bill requiring people to treat each other with kindness and mercy. You can’t amend the Constitution to outlaw original sin. So where do Christian love, and good government, intersect?
This is probably not the only answer, but I think it’s a good one: The intersection is the practice of dignity. In our Baptismal Covenant – our job description for loving God, loving neighbor, and loving one another – we promise to “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). Practicing dignity looks like advancing people’s God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – no matter how vigorously we might disagree with those people. Practicing dignity looks like respecting the wisdom and insights we gain from people whose experience is vastly different from ours. Practicing dignity looks like governing based on the truth that every person is made in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions.
Of course, practicing dignity is most challenging – and therefore most clearly a mark of Christian love – when the person in front of you is a stranger, or even worse, an enemy. It’s no accident that the readings for the Church’s feast of Independence Day speak to us about the darker corners of our hearts that most keep us from being our best selves.
As the people of Israel are about to come into the promised land, Moses reminds them what it will take to live out their covenant with God in the land the Lord is giving them. Moses says, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, mighty and awesome, who … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger, for you were strangers” once yourselves in the land from which God has delivered you (Deut 10:17-19). It’s a good message for a nation of immigrants to remember.
And as if loving the stranger isn’t hard enough, Jesus ratchets up the call, commanding – not suggesting but commanding – that we love the most unlovable: those who wish us harm. “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45). That is practicing dignity to the Nth degree; but at least in God’s eyes, it’s not an option. Strangers and enemies are facts of life. Love them anyway. You don’t have to admire them, God says, but you must treat them with dignity.
So as I stand here precariously in the pulpit in this election year, I would argue that the practice of dignity is where the wall between faith and politics melts away. As we evaluate candidates for public office, and as we consider their policy proposals, I pray we’ll ask this question: Do they enhance dignity? We can bemoan incivility in public discourse (and rightly so), and we can challenge leaders who grandstand and demagogue, riding the hobby horse of divisiveness. But you and I are the American democracy, and we bear the burden to make the choice for dignity. We bear the obligation to keep pushing back the boundaries of love. We bear the responsibility to raise up leaders like St. Andrew's own Audrey Langworthy, who was profiled in last week’s Messenger as an example of someone who has lived out the Baptismal Covenant in her life of public service. I want to leave you today with her words, a great example of the intersection of faith and politics. Audrey said, “[Growing up,] contributing to the community was our way of life. As a legislator, the opportunity to help hundreds of people who toiled with state bureaucracies became a great challenge and a rewarding motivation.” She continued, “My faith, though quiet, has been the bedrock of my life. I believe that the teachings of our faith demand, if we are able and with God's help, that we serve others as we travel life’s road.”
There is dignity, the place where faith and politics meet.