Church-State Relations: A Current Hot Topic

From the Gettysburg PO
Church-State Relations: A Current Hot Topic
by President Michael L. Cooper-White

The recent convergence of several high-profile issues makes this an especially propitious time for some reflection on church-state relations.  In declaring 2012 the “year of the Bible,” Pennsylvania legislators have created a “sticky wicket” on which players of all faith convictions find themselves prone to slip and slide.  (NOTE: The term “sticky wicket” has its origin in describing a cricket field rendered muddy by heavy precipitation.)  While many of us for whom the Bible is “source and norm of proclamation, faith and life,” as it is described in the ELCA constitution, might instinctively tend to applaud such a declaration, we do well to pause and ponder how we would feel if the Koran or another sacred text were so declared in a future book-of-the-year declaration. 

In response to pregnancy prevention provisions included in national health care legislation, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops have rushed in to claim such insurance coverage violates freedom of religion.  In brief, their stance seems to be, “Because our church opposes birth control, forcing Catholics into a plan that offers free access to morally objectionable measures and medications violates our conscience.”  Similar objections have long been raised by pacifists opposed to a portion of their taxes being used to build and buy weapons and field armies that wield deadly force against human beings.   Over the years, some clergy have sought an exemption from social security coverage on the basis of a “conscience clause,” a stance I will confess I have never fully understood.   How can one oppose on moral grounds a program that has lifted millions of people out of poverty and guaranteed at least a minimal level of financial support for countless senior citizens?  I fully grasp how one can debate the strategic wisdom of this federally-mandated approach versus other modes of creating a net to save so many from falling into poverty.  But the rationale for arguing that it is immoral eludes me. 

Political campaigns, especially national presidential ones, inevitably raise issues and rankle many in the populace when candidates’ religious affiliations and positions on moral issues come into play.  Amidst the current primary season, one need not look far to find anti-Mormon, anti-Christian or other discriminatory attitudes and actions.   The current crop of candidates seem to relish calling into question whether their opponents are indeed “true believers” whose perspectives are congruent with God’s will for the world. 
While churches and their leaders have wide latitude to discuss public issues and candidates’ positions on them, as not-for-profit tax-exempt entities, we must avoid specific candidate “endorsements” or partisan politicking while fulfilling an ecclesial role.  Clergy who wish to actively support a particular political party or candidate must do a delicate dance to avoid offending parishioners of an opposing persuasion, as well as to stop short of crossing a line that could jeopardize a congregation’s tax-free status.  In brief, one must be very careful to distinguish when I am speaking and acting as Pastor Cooper-White versus Citizen Michael. 

In our book on Church Administration, coauthor Robert Bacher and I include a section on church-state relations, entitled “Navigating the Boundary Waters.”  In that brief treatment, we attempt to lay out a few overarching principles we hope will help colleagues who find themselves in these confusing currents.  For those who believe there is an absolute “wall of separation” between the Church and government, we point out that members of a church, synagogue or mosque on fire or besieged by burglars are likely to call the police or fire department, thereby invoking state authorities’ assistance.  Addressing others tempted to hide behind First Amendment protections in committing discrimination that would be illegal in other arenas, we issue a reminder that the Church ought to exceed civil society in striving for fair, just and equitable treatment of all God’s beloved children (and that means everyone). 

As we are surrounded on all sides in the current season by fellow citizens debating these critical issues, it is especially important that persons called to public ministry engage in theological reflection.  While subject to differing interpretations, as we know so well, Scripture has much to offer in such passages as Romans 13 (juxtaposed with Revelation 13), and Jesus’ response when queried about the relationship between God and Caesar.  We are inheritors of a rich theological tradition, with signposts offered by those like Augustine, Calvin and Luther, who have reflected deeply on the nature of “two kingdoms,” and the Christian’s role with one foot in the civitas Dei and the other in the city of this world. 

As always, I am eager to hear from others of you who are reflecting on these important matters.  How do you navigate these swirling and complex boundary waters?  What issues are being raised by those among whom you serve and how are you addressing their concerns and anxieties?  In what burning issues or pressing problems is your congregation or other community of the faithful involved?  How do you foster lively debate and discussion of controversial issues that stop short of destructive conflict? 


Posted: 2/13/2012 10:52:21 PM by John Spangler | with 0 comments

From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office

by Michael L. Cooper-White

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Church-State Relations: A Current Hot Topic
by President Michael Cooper-White