So this isn’t really a proper sermon, folks – I got back from vacation yesterday…! But as I planned this service I found I had a train of thought that seemed to want sharing.
We live in a cultural context in which religion and politics are understood as different things. That division is NOT intrinsic to the nature of things; in the vast majority of human history and cultures, there has been no clear distinction between religion and politics. But the cultural conditions to draw that distinction arose during the Enlightenment and it became a foundational principal of our nation.
There are really good things about the way religion and politics are legally separated in the United States. It makes it possible to be a pluralistic society, in which Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and agnostics and atheists can all help vision and build the common good.
But I think that distinction can trip us up when it tricks us into thinking that religion is a private thing that only belongs in this 90 minutes on a Sunday morning. That it’s somehow inappropriate to have our faith convictions shape our civic and political engagement, and even more inappropriate to TALK about it – either out there or in here.
I believe that it’s not only appropriate to talk about faith in light of politics and vice versa; it’s necessary, in order for us to be truly faithful.
A couple of years ago I shared with you a sermon by one of the great early 20th century preachers, Harry Emerson Fosdick. It’s a powerful sermon; I re-read it about once a year. But there’s one point in particular that I think about often.
Fosdick, writing in the early years of the Great Depression, speaks to those who say that churches, and preachers, should stick to the spiritual needs of individual souls, and leave the social situation to the politicians and the public square. He is convinced that to talk about the Christian gospel as merely individual and not social is “dangerous nonsense” (his words).
But, he says, up to a point, those who criticize talk about political issues in church have a point. Fosdick writes, “If they mean that when people come to church on Sunday, having lived another week in the hurly-burly of the world, their ears tired with boistrous debate, they are seeking something other than a continuation of the secular dispute, then we had better agree with that. The church has lost its function which forgets how deeply people… need spiritual renewal. [Churches] do sometimes continue the secular debate which the newspapers conduct a great deal better through the week.”
Fosdick’s point is this: We as Christians, we as the Church, have to talk about the same issues being discussed in the public square. But we need to talk about them in a different way, not “continue the newspapers’ secular debate.”
The language we use to talk about any of the big issues affecting the common good and the welfare of our neighbors needs to be different from the language used in the newspapers, or in a flyer someone presses into your hand on a street corner, and, please God, it needs to be different from the way people talk about it in the nastier corners of social media.
In the past few months I’ve had conversations with two of our newer households, people who have come to St. Dunstan’s within the past year.
And they’ve both said that one of the things that’s really important about church for them is that it be a place where people who maybe vote differently, or who maybe vote the same way but for different reasons, people driven by different core concerns, people with different understandings of how best to get from where we are now to where we hope to be –
that all those people can be in genuine fellowship.
Nobody silenced. Nobody ashamed.
I’ve heard those conversations as a nudge from the Holy Spirit – a timely nudge in this election year. I hear a call to passionate nonpartisanship. Not to avoiding the issues that are so much on our minds and hearts, but to talking about them here DIFFERENTLY than we talk about them at home, or among our circle of friends who all share our views, or on Facebook where you either FORGET that your racist uncle will read that post, or secretly hope he will and think it serves him right if he gets upset.
When other clergy ask me, So what’s the political leaning at St. Dustan’s?, I say, well, it’s probably about 90% progressive, left, liberal, whatever word you choose. And that means two things.
First, it means that that 10% of folks who see some issues in a different light are really really important, so that we don’t become an echo chamber. So that our political and religious views don’t completely collapse into each other. So that we remember to have a different kind of conversation here.
Second, it means that it can be hard to remember that that 10% is here. It can be hard to hold a space where people can ask questions, share experiences, talk about our deep-seated values and how they have been formed.
A call to passionate nonpartisanship. I’m trying to hold that in my mind and my heart, and now I’m passing it on to you, too.
What does that mean? What does it look like? I think that’s something to be discovered in the doing, to an extent.
It might look like gently encouraging ourselves and each other to talk less about what we’re against – which is far too easy – and more about what we’re for.
It might look like gently encouraging ourselves and each other to listen. To ask each other, Where do faith and life and politics intersect, for you?
I dare to hope that listening and reflection, on our own and others’ experiences and convictions, might actually help us feel less overwhelmed, less despairing. Might actually lead us towards more focused and energized action as God’s people in the world.
And above all, passionate nonpartisanship has to look like coming back to the Gospel, again and again and again. Coming back to what we share as disciples of Jesus Christ. As people called to be ambassadors of God’s reconciling love in the world around us.