Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Please, No Party Line in Church

By now, you've probably heard about East Waynesville Baptist church in North Carolina, which reportedly voted to oust nine members who were guilty of supporting John Kerry for president. (Many accounts of the incident have been published; here's one from the Washington Post.)

Naturally, everyone has an opinion about the story. (One of the better ones came from our friend Ian Mason, who queried, "When did church turn into an episode of Survivor? I wonder if they had to eat bugs and whatnot." Personally I'd be hard-pressed to choose between eating bugs and voting for George W. Bush.) Apologists on the right are claiming that the truth about the incident has been covered up or distorted by the liberal media, implying that the exiled Democrats did something to deserve being voted off the island.

But regardless of the actual details of what happened, the controversy illustrates beautifully why the separation of church and state is necessary, not only to protect the non-religious from zealotry, but to protect religion itself.

If the adoption by churches of political positions becomes a routine practice, it's inevitable that joining a church will itself become a political act. And over time, if the trend persists, religious denominations will be increasingly transformed into affiliates of political organizations or parties, becoming pawns in the power struggles among various factions and interest groups. To put it mildly, this is not what churches are supposed to be like.

I don't mean to imply that churches today are politics-free zones. Like all human organizations, churches have always had their own forms of internal politics. And various denominations have often exhibited specific political leanings due to the social and economic characteristics of their members as well as historical and cultural factors. (For example, Quakers tend to be liberal because of their pacifist and anti-authoritarian heritage, while Mormons lean conservative.) But traditionally most churches have recognized an ideal of political neutrality. And though church leaders may have failed to live up to that ideal, its existence has helped keep churches from becoming overtly partisan.

The erosion of this ideal is disturbing for many reasons. For instance, one of the crucial social functions of churches is to bring together people who otherwise wouldn't be likely to meet--people of different ages, classes, social backgrounds, educational levels, ethnicities, and political attitudes. Admittedly, most churches do only a mediocre job of achieving this kind of openness and diversity; Christian churches in most parts of the US, for example, tend to be racially homogeneous. But at the church I attend in an affluent Westchester suburb, those in the pews on any given Sunday are certainly more varied in their income levels, occupations, interests, and political orientations than the people you'd find at a typical cocktail party or kids' birthday celebration in our town. The people we rub elbows with at church are different from the ones we habitually invite into our homes.

This is a good thing: The Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to be inclusive, and an open-door church that invites anyone to join gives us an opportunity to practice what we preach. Getting along with people who are very different from me--but whom my faith identifies as my brothers and sisters--isn't always easy, but that's part of the point.

If churches turn into exclusive political caucuses where only like-minded people are welcome, this aspect of their ministry will be largely destroyed--and with it an important part of their spiritual function. So, yes, I worry about politics being colonized by religion . . . but the reverse may be even worse.
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