Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On Public Displays of Piety

My little adopted hometown of Longview is garnering some serious press right now because the City Council has for many years invited clergy in the Kelso-Longview Ministerial Assocation (of which I am a member) to provide the opening invocation to all of their public council meetings.

Until now.

The leadership of the ministers' association was asked to make the invocations non-sectarian, which is to say to remove any exclusively Christian language and references to Jesus Christ.  In response, the association respectfully notified the council that they could no longer perform the invocation because they were being asked to stray from their core convictions as Christian pastors (a good summary of this story can be found in our local paper; the article is, I think, fair-minded in presenting both sides of the issue at hand--this is not a black-and-white sort of kerkuffle).

The story has been picked  up by news networks in Seattle and Portland as well as in Washington, D.C. because of the appearance of the stifling of religious speech.

And I get it--if I were to perform the invocation at a meeting myself, I would want to be able to invoke the name and presence of Jesus Christ.  I'm a Christian--He's who I believe in.  But I'm also not entirely on board with that take because it is incomplete--yes, religious speech is being stifled, but only government-sanctioned religious speech.  As a pastor in Longview, I am still free to say nearly anything I want on behalf of congregation (save for political endorsements, which would lose us our tax-exempt status, plus things like incitements to violence that aren't covered by the First Amendment).  I just can't say it on behalf of the city council.

And honestly, that's okay by me.  I am perfectly fine with people using religious ethics in policymaking.  In fact, I think they should.  Even though my theology is more orthodox, I am a political liberal precisely because I believe the Bible instructs me--and instructs our policy leaders--to care for the poor and the oppressed and the outcast.  I would be the world's biggest hypocrite if I denied my opposite numbers the ability to do the same on the issues they cared about.

But I am also a political liberal because I believe that ever since disestablishment--the removing of the church from any state apparatus (which is precisely what gives us the First Amendment protections of freedom of religious expression in the first place)--the government has had to step in to the void the church once had.  The church has lost great amounts of landed wealth since the medieval days of feudalism and mercantilism and could do more at that time, relatively speaking, for the abject poor.  Which means our government has had to step in to fill that breach with programs like Social Security, Medicare, EBT, and Medicaid (and honestly, we could be doing more).

Today, many churches are struggling simply to keep their doors open, never mind do mission on the same levels we once had.  And I'm not denying that there are other reasons for this--mismanagement, a complacency in not seeking to evangelize, etc.--but part of the cost of our freedom of religious expression means the absence of any universal financial backing for our mission and justice work.

Yet still, we try to publicly display our piety in governmental settings, even though the government is ostensibly non-sectarian.  We stamp God's name on Caesar's coins, we say His name in our pledge to a material flag, and we invoke His presence at governmental functions.

Yes, Paul in Romans commands us to be subject to our political authorities.  But that does not mean we should become the republic's priests, offering our presence as some sort theological stamp to whatever business is being done (full disclosure: which is why I myself have never offered the invocation at such a meeting, despite being invited to do so along with all the other ministers at the association meetings).  When I need to speak up about our government, whether to praise it or criticize it, I believe my words might mean more when I am seen apart from the government I am praising or criticizing.

Indeed, Scripture makes me wonder whether we are seeking the presence of God in our government in the wrong ways.

Instead of seeking God's presence in the public prayers we make--prayers that are arguably at odds with Scripture per Matthew 6--what if we were to seek God's presence in the public POLICY we make?  What if we actually used public policy to do that which God says is pleasing in His sight--to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him? (Micah 6:8)

Would the world look any different?

My prayer is that it would.

Yours in Christ,

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