Politicizing Churches Harms both Church and State
Cleveland County Democrats Cornbread & Beans Luncheon
by Dr. Bruce Prescott
August 6, 2004
On behalf of Americans United and Mainstream Baptists thank you for the opportunity to speak to Cleveland County Democrats. Both of the organizations I represent are non-profit organizations and we do not endorse political parties or candidates. We have members that are very active in the work of both the Democratic and the Republican parties. Some of members of Americans United are in the Libertarian party and I suspect some are members of the Green party.
So, what I have to say is not something that is a partisan political issue. I am speaking about issues that have to do with the Constitution of the United States. It is of profound importance to every citizen of our country.
I wish a Republican organization would give me an opportunity to speak to them about these issues. I’ve never received an invitation from one of them. Libertarians have heard me and the Sierra Club has invited me to speak to them next month – which is probably as close as you can get to the Green Party. But Republicans still seem to be afraid of alienating the radical religious fringe on the right.
Having said that, let me begin by saying, I am alarmed at what is happening to the First Amendment in this country.
More than any other group, my Baptist forefathers were responsible for getting the First Amendment added to the Constitution. In 1787 Baptists in Virginia, James Madison’s home state, refused to adopt the constitution until it guaranteed religious liberty for everyone and freedom of conscience for all citizens. Madison thought the absence of religious tests to hold public office was adequate to guarantee freedom of religion. Baptists wanted the guarantee of religious liberty made explicit. So, until Madison agreed to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, they threatened to elect John Leland, their leading evangelist and spokesperson, to the Virginia Assembly – that would have denied Madison a seat at the convention where his home state would discuss ratifying the Constitution that he had written for the entire nation. That is why a number of informed and respected historians say that separation of church and state is the Baptist legacy to the history of Western Civilization.
It is a legacy that many of my uninformed and misdirected Baptist brethren are now working to undo. Many Baptists are at the forefront of the Radical Religious Right. That movement, which includes more than just Baptists, is methodically working – step by step – to discard the First Amendment and make the United States a theocratic kingdom.
They won’t tell you that they are creating a theocratic kingdom. If they did that, you would comprehend what they are trying to do and you might be motivated to rise up and try to stop them. Instead, they describe what they are doing in pious terms that sound good and make you feel fine and lull you into a false sense of ease and security.
It is the same Orwellian double-talk that politicians — in both parties — are using to get whatever they want. They don’t tell you that they are passing legislation to open preserved forests to the logging industry, they call it a “Healthy Forest Initiative.” They don’t tell you that they are giving corporations and billionaires a free ride, they call it “tax relief.” They don’t tell you that they are preserving huge, unregulated monopolies for drug companies, they call it a “prescription drug benefit.” And Radical Right politicians are not going to tell you that they intend to make the United State a theocracy, they are telling you that America has always been a “Christian Nation.” It resonates with Christian experience, it makes the majority feel good, and if some still feel a little uneasy about what this means for persons of minority faith, they have a preacher on every TV, radio and street corner of the nation telling you that if our country fails to observe every jot and title of biblical law we will suffer the fate of Sodom and Gommorah.
I’m not telling you anything that many of you don’t already know. Every place I go I find that I am preaching to someone who is in the choir. I’m just concerned that the choir of people who are willing to stand up for church-state separation is far too small. This ought to be a bi-partisan issue where all Americans can stand side-by-side in the choir and sing together. That used to be the case.
My father-in-law was a lifelong Republican and, being a Baptist minister, he was also a strong and vocal advocate for separation of church and state. My father is a lifelong Democrat, and being a public school teacher, he knew that it would be a violation of public trust for him to try to pray with or proselytize the impressionable young children from religiously diverse backgrounds who came to his classroom. My father and my father-in-law didn’t agree much on politics, but at least they could agree on the value of the First Amendment. Today there are not enough people familiar with the First Amendment to realize that we are being lied to, manipulated and misled by people that have been entrusted with positions of great power and grave responsibility.
All it took to undermine the First Amendment was a handful of ego-driven, megalomaniac media ministers who blamed separation of church and state for every change that grieved the hearts of racists and bigots — whenever, that is, they weren’t begging for funds to broadcast more of their railings. No respectable minister of the Christian gospel would go on the airwaves and beg for money. Now, three decades after broadcasters began selling their public service time to the highest bidder and opened the airwaves to these shameless beggar preachers, both political parties are prepared to sacrifice America’s first freedom on their altar.
Religious liberty for everyone — not just Christians — is our first freedom. It’s the first freedom because it is the bedrock foundation upon which every other form of freedom rests. It secures our right to a free conscience and protects the rights of minorities. If you can strip away the right of any minority to worship as they please, to be free from indoctrination into someone else’s religion, and to be exempt from paying taxes to support someone else’s faith, then you can undermine any other right that minorities enjoy in our society.
Respect by the majority for the principle of church-state separation has deteriorated to a level that is unprecedented in our nation’s history. It has moved us dangerously close to a tipping point from which no one knows how we will recover.
I’m not just engaging in some wild, apocalyptic preacher-talk when I say this. I really mean it. We are living at a defining moment in the history of our nation and our world. Already, after pushing their agenda for more than a quarter of a century, the Radical Religious Right has taken the gloves off and they are beginning to fight bare fisted.
You read about it in the newspapers and watch it on your television every day:
If there is anything new about this theocratic agenda it is how far it has pushed to politicize churches in the last six weeks alone. If you need documentation, just visit our website at www.auok.org. Every weekday I post links to current stories from around the country that deal with church and state issues. Major stories about unprecedented attempts by political campaigns to politicize churches began to explode around the first of July and it seems like there is something new every day.
Politicizing churches – enlisting them as active participants in the campaigns of politicians and political parties – is bad for both church and state. First, let me talk about how it is bad for the church. (Now I’m going to take off my AU hat for a moment and put on my Baptist preacher hat.)
Contrary to what some would have you believe, GOP does not stand for “God’s own Party.” God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. It is blasphemous for any party or candidate to try to wrap the cross in their flag and claim Divine sanction. Jesus told us to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to render to God the things that are Gods.” The principle separating church and state is a Christian biblical principle and it is time that Christians in both parties start observing it.
What could possibly trivialize genuine faith and destroy its credibility more than to create the impression that it can be manipulated to serve the political purposes of the highest bidder? And that is precisely what “Charitable Choice” begun under Clinton and the “Faith-based initiatives” that were expanded by Bush are doing.
What I am saying ought to strike fear in the heart of people of sincere faith more than the threat of harm that any terrorist can do. Our nation can survive attacks like the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and 9/11. We can clear away the ruble, bury the dead, bandage the wounded, grieve for our losses and rebuild again with a stronger sense of community and a greater commitment to justice.
I am not sure society will survive for long without the vital prophetic voices that rise up against social injustice and call on society to do a better job of feeding the poor, caring for the sick, providing for the elderly and disabled, and lifting up the downcast. Nearly all the social advances in this country have been led by a small group of men and women whose faith – whether it was a religious faith or a humanistic faith in the common good of all humanity-- it was faith that gave them the courage and the credibility to stand up and speak out against injustice and to ultimately prevail.
To trivialize faith, to undermine its integrity and destroy its credibility by subjecting it to the machinations of money and the manipulations of secular politics threatens more than physical well-being of a few, it threatens the heart and soul of our entire society. (Now, I’m going to take off my Baptist preacher hat, put on my AU hat and talk about how politicizing churches is bad for the state.)
Politics is the art of compromise and religious convictions are often very uncompromising. When uncompromising religious convictions clash, explosions often occur. Some people think that the twenty-first century will be characterized by a clash of civilizations and wars between religious cultures. Many Southern Baptists and evangelical Christians think 9/11 marked the beginning of a great clash of civilizations and they are fervently reading Bible prophecies looking for signs that will lead to the battle of Armaggedon. They do not hesitate to exert political pressure on the President of the United States to make sure that his policies conform to their interpretations of how Bible prophecies are supposed to unfold. That is why President Bush back off of his criticism of Ariel Sharon when Sharon's policies in the West Bank were undermining our President’s proposals for peace.
We live at a time when the head of a foreign government can change the foreign policy of the world’s only superpower – in literally, a matter of days -- by calling upon Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and a handful of TV preachers.
If that is not enough to alarm you, then this should. We live in a pluralistic democracy. Our nation grants equal rights and promises fair opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to people of vastly different faiths, convictions and beliefs. For two hundred and twenty-five years our country has been spared the political strife and civil wars that have characterized the histories of literally every other land on the face of the earth. But today there are a lot of Christians -- many of them holding high public offices – both in this state and in Washington,D.C. -- who believe that democracy is heresy because, “In the name of toleration, the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions.”
These “Christian Reconstructionists” are patient revolutionaries who fully intend to make America a “Christian Nation” by force of law and/or by force of arms. Right now their agenda, what I have been calling the theocratic agenda, is being worked out slowly – step-by-step – by force of law. Here, in barest form, are the goals that they are trying to achieve. You’ll have to decide for yourselves how much progress you think they have made in advancing their goals and how you will respond to their continuing advances.
Here is Dominion Theology’s blueprint for civil society:
1) Make the ten commandments the law of the land (Could that have anything to do with Roy’s Rock?).
2) Strengthen patriarchically ordered families (Could that have anything to do with opposition to equal rights?).
3) Close the public schools and make parents totally responsible for the education of their children (Could that have anything to do with 'No Child Left Behind' and the push for vouchers and the explosion of home-schooling?).
4) Require “tithes” to ecclesiastical agencies to provide welfare services (Could that have anything to do with 'Charitable Choice' and Faith-based initiatives?).
5) Reduce the role of government to defense of the nation and the defense of property rights (Could that have anything to do with the rhetoric about 'starving the beast' and policies that bankrupt the government with expensive wars while cutting taxes?).
6) Close the prisons – reinstitute slavery as a form of punishment and require capital punishment for all of ancient Israel’s capital offenses – including apostacy, blasphemy, incorrigibility in children, murder, rape, Sabbath breaking, sodomy, and witchcraft.
This last goal is breathtaking in its scope. So, let me conclude by quoting Henry Kissinger’s analysis of how people typically respond to revolutionary powers that do not accept the legitimacy of the existing order:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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