On Religion and Politics
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason at St. John’s Episcopal
Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on July 3, 2011.
Tuesday, September 6, 1774, and the Founding Fathers had gathered for the inaugural session of the Continental Congress in
. A motion was made from the floor that the day should begin with a prayer. As John Adams reported in a letter to his wife Abigail, to which we are privy, the motion was vehemently objected to by two men—John Jay of New York and John Rutledge of South Carolina—who were both, it turns out, Episcopalians. Their reason for objecting was that they could not join in the same act of worship with the other delegates because “we were so divided in religious sentiments,” running the gamut of Christian sects. Philadelphia
Had their objection prevailed, political scientists speculate that all American public affairs that have followed since would have been void of any opportunity to commend our common life to God, but it was Sam Adams who spoke up and tipped the hall in favor of prayer.
Sam Adams, a Congregationalist from Massachusetts arose and said he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a virtuous gentleman of any religious persuasion who was at the same time a friend to his country…He moved that Mr. Duché, an Episcopal priest, might be desired to read prayers to the Congress and the motion carried.
Adhering to his Anglican pattern of prayer, Duché read the psalm appointed for that day—the 35th psalm. “Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me...” The delegates were overwhelmed with the connection between Scripture and their current plight as they planned a revolt against their English rulers, knowing full well that they were launching a treasonous project which, if unsuccessful, meant certain death for them all.
But then Duché, diverging from his traditional practice of reading from the Book of Common Prayer, and as Adams recalled, “struck out into an extemporary prayer which filled the bosom of every man present.” In summoning a divine blessing upon their cause for freedom, religion and politics were intermingled that day…and they have been ever since.
And it cuts both ways.
I have always found it curious, and more than a little ironic, that the liturgical calendar of The Episcopal Church provides for no observance of culturally significant holidays such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but then designates Independence Day (July 4th) as a Major Feast Day of the Church!
On this weekend when we remember the origins of our nation, and the nature of freedom which we celebrate, what if we also explored how our Christian Scriptures inform our notions of freedom as well. With that in mind, I’d like to set out three points first:
- First, by way of explanation and disclaimer, I am not standing here in a “bully-pulpit” telling you what to think about freedom or any particular political issue. In our Anglican tradition, my role as a preacher is to offer food for thought rather than force-feeding you one perspective. Use your own God-given gifts of reason and intellect to conclude what is a right course of action in response to the gospel. And you won’t hurt my feelings if you disagree with me.
- A person’s religion informs his politics, or it’s not much of a religion, but that is different than insisting that everyone must follow my religious preferences (which is what John Jay and John Rutledge essentially demanded that first day).
But there is a nuanced distinction to be gained here: When Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need for a wall of “separation between church and state,” historians agree that he did not intend a separation between religion from politics. Jefferson saw the need for religious expression and political expression to be inexorably linked, but only in a way that did not demean others. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence speaks of a “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” “the supreme judge of the world,” and “divine providence.”
Note that none of those references were explicitly Christian (he and his compatriots had ample opportunity to use Christian language, but chose not to). Nevertheless, from the inaugural session of the First Continental Congress to the present day, religious expression has been interwoven with public life—and that is by design of the Founding Fathers.
- Perhaps the fact that Independence Day is a Feast Day in the Church is enough to justify a topical sermon on the historical crossroads of religion and politics, but since the Christian Scriptures, and in particular the letters of St. Paul, also invite us to consider the responsibilities of Christian freedom, it is an exercise worthy of reflection. And besides, nothing resonates with Americans more than talk of freedom, I figure freedom is the theme of the day, and so that is my segue.
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul wrote that twenty centuries ago. But just what does that mean? What did it mean for the early Church? What does it mean for us today, especially given our own notions of freedom that are so deeply seated in the American psyche?
For the early Christians, Paul was imploring them to shuck off anything that burdened them to the point of distracting them from the real matter at hand, which was to love and care for one another in the name of Christ. Nothing else mattered; anything else should be seen as diversions, as yokes of slavery that were not life-giving.
There was real dissension among the early Christians over who must do what to be accepted in the Church. There were ethnic distinctions that were separating them from one another and from the love of Christ Jesus…Those of Jewish heritage had to do more than those of gentile origin—they had to adhere to the law…only Paul was telling them, as a Jew himself, the same thing that Jesus had said: “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Just do it.
There can be no “other” in a Christian community, so don’t bite and consume one another about differences between you; through love become slaves to one another. Let the fruits of the Spirit nourish you so that you can nourish one another with the love of Christ Jesus that burns within you.
That hardly seems controversial, doesn’t it…but hold tight, because it hit home for the early Church who heeded the instruction, it transformed their lives even, and if we take it seriously, I bet it will for us as well.
My friends, I fear that when Americans speak of freedom these days, we largely intend a freedom from obligation to anyone else. I am free to do and say whatever I want, so long as I don’t hurt anyone else…only I am not so sure that much can be done or said anymore that doesn’t affect someone else. It’s a small, small world.
And so I will offer again, for your consideration: A person’s religion informs his politics, or it’s not much of a religion. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Christian freedom comes with an undeniable sense of servanthood; it is not a freedom from responsibility to others; it is not an opportunity for self-indulgence. Christian freedom intends the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—traits that ultimately bear fruit when others experience them as gifts from you.
Hardly controversial when taken as an ancient letter written to other people in a different setting, but is there something here for us to chew on today?
Or is there anything in the scriptures that informs us as religious persons about the very real political issues of poverty, hunger, or war…?
I am reminded of something Abraham Lincoln once told some ministers visiting the White House during the Civil War. He said he was not worried whether God was on his side or not, “for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right… It is my constant anxiety and prayer [however] that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”
It is dangerous to speak of politics and religion in the same conversation. I know it is. Such talk is fraught with chances to demand that we are right while others are wrong, or even worse, to claim that God is on our side. I hope we see the folly in such hubris, common though it may be.
Is there a way, instead, to be guided by the fruits of the Spirit? The way, my friends, begins with prayer.
And so, in our Anglican tradition, let us pray for this nation, for its leaders, for the world and for its citizens, and for the cause of freedom, justice and peace.
Let us use the collect appointed for Independence Day in our Book of Common Prayer. Page 242. Would you join me in saying this prayer.
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.