Religion and politics. Two subjects people say should never be brought up in polite conversation. Religion and politics. When either is mentioned arguments are bound to follow. Tempers will flare and people will loose all manner of dignity and composure. Religion and politics. I think it’s safe to say where two or three are gathered in the name of either of these subjects a heated debate will surely follow. Dignified Christians can behave like raving lunatics when topics such as the inherency of Scripture, abortion and gay marriage are mentioned. Stately politicians can banter back or forth like rowdy school kids on subjects such as health care reform, disaster relief and tax cuts.
This morning I’m going to take a chance, go against conventional wisdom, and address both topics in the same sermon: Religion and politics. Now, if you’re hoping I’m going to tell you where you should stand on the hot button issues of our day, you will be sorely disappointed. I believe that people of faith have diverse opinions on lots of topics. We do not have to agree with one another all the time, but we are called to love one another.
Luther said it best in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment in his Small Catechism: “We are to love and fear God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
So instead of telling you what to think, I want to provide you with a theological framework that will help you to to draw your own conclusions about the relationship between religion and politics. In an age where righteous indignation and demonization of others can happen in a millisecond, critical thinking is needed now more than ever.
So let’s get started. As we ponder the relationship between religion and politics there are three basic models we can follow. These models were proposed by H. Richard Niebuhr, who is considered to be one of the most important Christian theological ethicists in 20th century America. In 1950 we wrote a ground-breaking book entitled Christ and Culture, I still haven’t found anything else that explains the topic better. According to Niebuhr, there are three models that can be used when we think about the relationship between religion and politics.
The first model is that religion and politics completely overlap. This choice is practiced by people whose sermons sound more like political speeches than the good news of Jesus Christ. Whose ministries are centered on issues of political action rather than spiritual growth and ministering to the poor.
Those who see religion and politics as completely overlapping generally share the belief that America is a Christian nation, and was founded on Christian principles. Because of this it has special status in the eyes of God. America is seen as the new Israel where the bad things that are happening to us, such as the recent hurricanes and wildfires, are due to our disobedience of God’s commands. They see these things as God’s judgment on our nation and believe that if we repent of our evil ways God will bless us and our nation will prosper once again.
Although there are some good things that are a byproduct of this viewpoint, such a strong commitment to working on the problems our nation faces, there are several dangers as well. The first of these dangers is that those who see religion and politics as completely overlapping are generally intolerant of people whose viewpoints are different from theirs. They equate their opinions with God’s opinions. This is a very dangerous supposition to make.
The second danger is that those who subscribe to this viewpoint usually have a theology that is centered on works rather than on grace: If we follow God’s laws, God will bless us as a nation. If we don’t, God will punish us. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is Old Testament centered and is contrary to our New Testament understanding that God is a God of love and mercy who loves us in spite of our sins and seeks to save us when we have lost our way.
The second model is that religion and politics are completely separate. Those who subscribe to this point of view see the world as evil and unredeemable. The general attitude is to pull away from the rest of the world and create your own society with your own rules and regulations. It’s sort of an “us against them” mentality where preservation of the group is to be maintained at all costs.
The dangers in this viewpoint are obvious. And we have seen the kind of destruction that can happen in these types of groups when imperfect people try to create a perfect society. Surprise! Surprise! It doesn’t work and death and destruction are usually the result.
Needless to say, I don’t believe Christians should subscribe to this point of view. I have never seen any of these groups amount to any good except for the Amish. However, if you look at their society they are not completely separate from the rest of the world. They interact with the community at large. They pay taxes and obey the laws of the United States. In essence, they are not truly separate from the rest of the world. Therefore, they don’t really belong in this category even though we might think they do.
The third model is that religion and politics are held in tension with one another. In other words, there are some areas where the two overlap and some areas where they do not. I believe, this is the kind of relationship that should exist between religion and politics. It is a choice that is supported by Scripture as well as our Lutheran heritage. It is the only logical choice for us to make as Christians. What I’d like to do this morning is spend the remainder of my time convincing you that this is the case.
Let’s start with Scripture. Today’s gospel lesson explores the issue of the relationship between religion and politics. It’s context is first century Israel where Jews struggled with the issue of how much they could engage Greek culture and Roman authority and still be considered faithful Jews.
At the heart of this debate was a tax imposed on them by the Roman government. The Zealots, a Jewish revolutionary group, refused to pay it. They resisted Greek culture and Roman rule and denounced any Jew who associated with Greeks and Romans. The Zealots operated under a model of complete separation of religion and politics, where paying the tax would completely compromise their faith.
In contrast to this, the Sadducees and Herodians paid the tax and openly collaborated with the Roman government. They saw no problem combining their Jewish faith with Greek culture and Roman rule. They operated under a model where religion and politics completely overlapped and to pay the tax was seen as no compromise to their Jewish faith.
It is in this context that the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus the question posed in our gospel lesson: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” In essence the Pharisees and Herodians were asking Jesus to give them his opinion on the relationship between religion and politics.
Their question put Jesus in a very sticky position. If Jesus said YES to paying the tax, he would be denounced as a Roman collaborator and would alienate himself from the poor and oppressed to whom his preaching ministry had been directed. If he said NO to paying the tax, he would have been regarded as a Zealot and condemned as a subversive revolutionary. To answer YES or NO placed Jesus in a very difficult position. This is exactly what the Pharisees and Herodians wanted him.
However, Jesus was more clever than either of these two groups imagined. He told them, “Show me the coin used for the tax…whose head is this, and whose title?” The Pharisees answered, “The Emperor’s” In other words, it was the face of Julius Caesar. Jesus replied, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew then tells us that ‘When they heard this, they were amazed and they left him and went away.”
What Jesus did was completely reframe the question. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted him to choose between the two opposing viewpoints: Complete separation of religion and politics or a complete overlapping of the two. Jesus, however, presented them with a third model where religion and politics are held in tension with one another
“Whose coin is this? Caesars? Then let him have it. Who has claimed your heart, mind and soul? God? Then give them back to God as your thank-offering for all that God has done for you.” Jesus realized that the best relationship between religion and politics is a balance between the two. God can work through a secular government
to accomplish God’s will. We should support that government and participate in it as long as our hearts, minds and souls belong to God. It’s a matter of balance.
This third model which Jesus advocates was also supported by Martin Luther who described the relationship between religion and politics as THE TWO KINGDOMS. Luther believed that God has established two kingdoms: the secular and the spiritual. The secular kingdom is there to preserve our physical, earthly lives. The spiritual kingdom is there to preserve that which is eternal. Christians must live in both Kingdoms and be a citizen of both. They are obligated to the secular kingdom to their external, physical lives. And they are also obligated to the spiritual kingdom to their inward life of conscience and faith.
Luther did not see the secular kingdom as evil. He saw it as “God’s own work, institution and creation.” “Without it,” Luther said, “this life could not endure.” Luther looked for a balance between the two. He recognized that God stands behind both kingdoms, is present in both, and works differently in each. For Luther, the relationship between religion and politics is a matter of balance. The two are held in tension with one another and although they do not completely overlap Christians have a role in both.
This understanding of the relationship between religion and politics is also supported by the ELCA in its 1991 Social Statement “The Church and Society: A Lutheran Perspective.” “The ELCA is called to be a part of the ecumenical Church of Jesus Christ in the context in which God has placed it: a diverse, divided and threatened global society on a beautiful, fragile planet. In faithfulness to its calling this church is committed to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth, in the process and structures of contemporary society.”
The social statement goes on further to say “The Gospel does not take the Church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and to enter more deeply into the world.”
Perhaps it’s clearest statement about the relationship between religion and politics is as follows: “The church must participate in social structures critically for sin is at work in the world. Social structures and process combine life giving and life destroying dynamics, in complex mixtures and varying degrees. The Church, therefore, must unite realism and vision, wisdom and courage, in its social responsibility. It needs to discern when to support and when to confront society’s cultural patterns, values and powers.”
I don’t think I could have stated it any more clearly than that. The Church needs to discern when to support and when to confront society’s cultural patterns, values and powers. It’s quite clear from this social statement that the ELCA supports a model where religion and politics are held in tension with one another. In some areas they overlap. In other areas they do not. It’s a matter of discernment and balance
In closing, I hope that I have been able to give you some new insight regarding the relationship between religion and politics. I encourage all of us to get involved in the political process and make a difference in our lives and in the life of our community. God has given us a great city and a great nation. May we use the gifts and talents God has given us to strengthen and improve both. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 David Eck