Separation of Church & State? Why Religious Voices Matter

bill-of-rightsI hear it in almost every congregation I visit: “We’re not sure it’s our role to get involved in advocating on issues. You know, separation of church and state.”

To these anxious congregation members, I can easily explain the facts and related details (see note below), usually ending with an earnest appeal for them to get involved and advocate on issues like health care, childhood hunger and global warming. But often, it’s clear that they are not convinced. It’s not that they don’t believe me; it’s that the facts about the “separation of church and state” are not their actual source of concern.

The real concern is a fear of controversy. It’s understandable; many religious communities are struggling just to hold on to the membership (and accompanying assets) that they have. Controversy could lead to division and dissent, and might cause some people to leave. Best to stay quiet and make a nice, friendly, safe place for harried, over-stressed, stretched-too-thin members to connect with God and community… and leave the political struggles of the day to others. 

But is that what our religious traditions actually teach—that we should create comfortable islands of retreat in the midst of a tumultuous world?

In the Jewish tradition, we find this teaching:

If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land… But if he sits in his home and says to himself, ‘What have the affairs of society to do with me?… Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!’—if he does this, he overthrows the world.

Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2

Our Western, post-Enlightenment selves tend to interpret a “person of learning” as being someone with a secular education, probably a judge or a lawyer. But what’s referred to here is Jewish learning, religious learning. So what this passage really says is: “If a person of religious learning sits at home and says to herself, ‘Why should I trouble myself with political issues? Let me just live in peace!’—if she does this, she overthrows the world.”

Now I’ll grant that Judaism, like Islam, is a way of life. Its teachings offer guidance on pretty much any question or situation imaginable, all of it grounded in Torah. Not all religions go into as much detail about the minutia of individual, family and community life as Judaism does. But all religions offer wisdom about these subjects—often, deep and ancient and finely tuned wisdom, transmitted and honed through centuries or even millennia. That’s part of what religion is all about, and why it’s so valuable, why it exists all over the world and for as far back as we can go in history—religion is a guide to living in good relationship with other people, with nature and with the Divine, by whatever name(s) we know It.

In the Civil Rights movement, it was the deep religious wisdom of the Christian tradition that guided Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There is no way to imagine what that movement would have been like without his religiously grounded teaching and leadership. Similarly, our public discourse today is severely impoverished when those with religious learning remain silent.

Thankfully, many religious leaders are engaged and active, applying the ancient wisdom of their traditions to current public conversations around issues like state and national budget priorities, criminal justice, immigration, health care and environmental protections. I just have to wonder, though, how things would be different if more people of religious learning were willing to step forward and speak out, calling for compassion, love of neighbor, humility, hospitality and service—the core values taught by so many of our traditions.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words ring as true today as they did forty years ago: “We shall have to repent in this generation,” he said, “not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” So please, people of religious learning, participate in public affairs and lend some stability to the land. I know it’s easier and safer to stay safely and quietly behind church or synagogue or mosque or monastery walls. But this world desperately needs the compassion and wisdom that shines in our religious traditions. Please share it.


Note: The commonly-referred to “separation of church and state” is an idea that comes from the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which essentially restricts the state from establishing a religion. It does not, however, restrict religious people or groups from actively participating in our democracy. In order to maintain tax-exempt status, religious organizations may not use their influence to promote one candidate over another—but they can absolutely be involved in advocating on issues.


This post originally appeared on State of Formation. Photo used courtesy of david_jones via Flickr Creative Commons.

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