Reducing the Church to Politics

I have often read that a serious problem which occurs when church and state are so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable.   People who are marginalized by the state or oppressed by the state or whose consciences are troubled by the deeds of the state, have no where to turn to seek solace and refuge when the church is in complete sync with the state. And often the church ends up submitting to the state on many issues.

Some claim this is why in America “traditional” Christianity is on the decline, and why people instead turn to New Age religions or embrace spirituality instead of religion.  These alternatives allow them to see life and the nation freed from the government or politically correct view point.  Official or traditional religion ends up sounding so much like the state that people begin to look for a spiritual alternative. So Ted Peters wrote in his 1991 book,  THE COSMIC SELF: A PENETRATING LOOK AT TODAY’S NEW AGE MOVEMENT :

While church leaders have been occupying themselves with the world of secular politics, millions of people have begun to turn once again to religion. They are embarking on a spiritual quest: they want to find the source and meaning of their existence; to regain a sense of transcendent divinity; and to find a way to integrate human beings with one another, with nature, and with the whole of reality….’

At root the human potential movement is seeking a new cosmology, a new grounding for reality. The key to this new cosmology is the innate connection between self and world. It seeks to overcome the dualism of modern mind that separates subject and object, the humanities from the sciences.’   (as quoted by George Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe, Kindle Location 138-142)

At the exact same time that denomination and church leaders try to leverage their power through influencing the voting habits of their constituents, the people in the pew find themselves turned off by the political bent of religion and seek to find a spirituality that is not so conformed to or determined by the news or nationalistic trends.  An other worldly dimension is what many are seeking from religion – not a church which embeds them more in this world, but which brings them into contact with the boundlessness of the divine life.

Something for American Christians to consider as we into a presidential campaign year.  Politicians love it if we conform en masse to their message or support them or their party as if it were the church.   And in so doing they often are shaping the religious messages and spiritual beliefs of those following the political leader.    The politician’s goal is to get elected.    The goal of any political party is to get their candidates elected.  Are they willing to bend and shape and even mislead in order to get voters to get on their bandwagons?  Certainly.  Are they happy if they can capture Christian denominations en masse to vote their way?  Ecstatic.  It makes their job easy.  They create an illusion that they are empowering the voters when in fact they are taking the power away from the voter and putting it in a political party or ideology.  They make an appeal to the religious nature of voters, but then will embed those beliefs in their secular ideology and goals.

Christians need to read and study the Gospel carefully about Christ’s own attitude toward political power.  The early Church did not rely on political power to get its message to the world.  It relied on the membership living the Gospel and remaining faithful to the teachings of Christ.

We Christian should never hand over our votes en masse to any candidate.  Make them work for every vote, and hold them to their promises.  There is power in withholding endorsements.  The politicians have to pay more attention to those whose votes they want to win.

RussianbishopsAnd we can remember that when the church is too cozy with any political party or ideology, in America at least, we will lose some adherents to all kinds of independent spiritualities.  Some really are looking to the Church to proclaim the Good News of God’s kingdom and to offer a spiritual vision of reality rather than simply trying to get people to conform to a political agenda.

Of course the other extreme is to be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good as Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have quipped.  The issue for the church is to be a light to the world, which we cannot be if we allow ourselves to be identified with any political ideology.  We are not called to be disinterested in democratic elections, but we must always remember the goals of a political party are not the goals of the Church.  We must always be wise to the fact that politicians will use us to their advantage if we let them.  And they hope that we believe they will carry out the will of God whether or not they can even say what that will is.

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4 thoughts on “Reducing the Church to Politics

    1. Fr. Ted

      “Christians” can. My thought is we would be wiser to withhold endorsing anyone and make the candidates work for our votes. It seems to me that when a demographic goes en masse for a candidate the candidate can pay less attention to that demographic as their votes are assured. I think “Christians” would get more bang for their buck by withholding endorsements and making the candidates have to cater their promised policies to our wishes. Never let them assume they have our votes. We lose power and influence when we do that as the elected officials can assume our support even if they drift away from our ideas or their promises.

      Another issue of course is that “Christians” are a very diverse group – Catholic, evangelical, mainstream Protestant, have divergent views on countless issues. To assume there is one “Christian” viewpoint is not real, though perhaps convenient for the media and campaign organizations. We Orthodox are a tiny minority in the mix. Who represents our theological interests? We like to say we are neither Catholic or Protestant or perhaps we are both since some claim we are Catholic and evangelical, but in any case our different point of view is not likely to be represented by many candidates – mostly because they are unaware of our existence.

      Our power comes, in my estimation, not when candidates can assume our support, but when they have to work for them.

  1. guy

    Father Ted,

    I appreciate your sentiments here. I often wonder though why more Orthodox clergy/writers don’t warn against political involvement altogether. It seems obvious to me anyway that there are a host of potential spiritual dangers to getting involved in politics. Maybe I’m mistaken about that, but I’m always surprised to meet Christians who seem to take it as an unquestioned assumption that Christians should be active participants in American politics.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I really don’t know why more don’t warn against it, but I’ve heard that in some traditional Orthodox countries the clergy are told by hierarchs to stay out of politics. I think in Romania the clergy are warned against even speaking publicly on political issues – at least so I was told.

      I think worse than clergy involving themselves in politics is when they bring the secular politics into the church. The partisan thinking which so divides the nation then divides the church members. Somehow we have to be the church to all people, whatever their politics.

      Of course, on the other hand, we are to be a light to the world and the salt of the earth, which for some means addressing political, social and contemporary issues. There is always in that the temptation and danger that clericalism will cause clergy to think they have a mandate to impose their views on the laity. Jesus picked tax collectors and anti-government zealots to be part of the Twelve. He apparently thought the Church could encompass opposing political views.

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