A Politics-free zone

Is it possible that we as religious leaders are being seduced by the idea that the state can do for us what we should be doing for ourselves?

William L. Self, DST, is senior pastor of the Johns Creek Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Georgia, United States.

Editor’s note: Religious freedom and the relationship of church and government has been discussed and debated for many years. This article is an adaptation of a sermon preached to a Baptist congregation in the United States. It is our belief that religious leaders throughout the world of all faiths will benefit from this message.

Jesus said, “ ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ ” (Luke 4:18, 19, NIV).

“Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28, KJV).

When you get up and go to church, you do so knowing that you were not compelled because of any government decree. You go, knowing that the liturgy, the sermon, the theology, and the music were not dictated by any governmental authority. Religious freedom includes much of this description.

Because many Christians don’t remember, this freedom lies in danger as a result. We have forgotten our history. We have listened to the media. We have paid attention to the loudest voices and, because of that, we have removed the ancient landmarks. Every time I preach on the separation of church and state and religious liberty, I find people getting upset. There are two things people shouldn’t deal with if they want to be liked: religion and politics.

I deal with both of them here.

The “milk” of the Word

Perhaps, because we are so used to having it here in America, many Christians are forgetting religious liberty. Yet of all things for which we need to be reminded, religious liberty stands uppermost. Evangelicals, who traditionally have prospered from the separation of church and state, now call for the abolition of church and state. Secularists (those who have no religious background at all and take their cues from the culture) are defending religious liberty and the separation of church and state most vigorously.

George Truett, a Baptist statesman, in 1920, speaking on the Capitol steps of the meeting of the Baptist World Alliance, said that religious liberty is one of the great contributions that the New World made. We live in a day when many Christians no longer understand that.

One preacher tells of a time when he was a small boy, going with his grandfather to the funeral of an old and battered pioneer preacher in the mountains of Virginia. As the boy stood there, looking into the casket, he saw a gnarled, battered old man whose hands were filled with scars. After the funeral, he tugged at the coat of his grandfather and said, “Explain to me about the scars on the preacher’s hands.” The grandfather responded, “Son, those scars are there because that man stood up for religious liberty when the rest of those around him wouldn’t. He was jailed for preaching the gospel without a license from the state. When they put him in jail, he would not shut up. So he stuck his arms through the bars of the prison and preached to those on the outside. The guards, trying to shut him up, stood underneath those windows with knives, trying to cut his hands so he would pull his hands back inside the windows of the jail. He bore those scars all his life as a badge of courage for religious liberty.”

In 1614 Thomas Helwys in England organized a little Baptist church on the principle of freely proclaiming the gospel without government interference. He was jailed for that. Later in 1617 John Merton was jailed for the same thing—for preaching the gospel. When he was put in jail, they took away his writing paper. Every day when his food was delivered, he received a small container of milk covered with paper to keep it from spilling. He saved the paper, took an old pen that he had smuggled into the prison, and began to write with the milk on that paper. The paper was taken out of the prison because no one knew anything was written on it, but his friends knew something had to be there. So they held the paper over a candle and the milk ink turned brown, and they read the writings of this great Baptist preacher about religious liberty. In 1686 the Religious Toleration Act was passed in England, primarily because of the work of English Baptists who had held up the principle of religious liberty.

We are told that in 1789 John Leland was a crusty Baptist preacher and leader in Virginia. Baptists were not very well liked in Virginia; they were the underclass, the back culture, the backwoods uneducated people. But they knew that they had the right under God to speak out for their convictions. And they had a lot of them, too. That’s why James Madison, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, came to John Leland and said, “We have created a Constitution for the colonies, but we know it must be ratified by Virginia, and it will not be ratified in this state unless the Baptists support it.”

John Leland read it and said, “We neither guarantee in this Constitution the freedom of religion nor the freedom of speech.”

James Madison replied, “If you support it, we’ll give you the First Amendment.” The Bill of Rights, then, came about because of John Leland. James Madison honored his word and the First Amendment, the guarantee of freedom of religion, was created. The Baptist contribution to the American culture includes this First Amendment. Years later as Chief Justice Hughes was laying the cornerstone of the Religious Liberty Memorial in Washington, D.C., he said, “All faiths and sects are debtors to Baptists for religious liberty.”

Historical lessons

The church-state struggle is nothing new. The three Hebrew lads were thrown in the fiery furnace over a religious freedom issue. Daniel was placed in the lions’ den over a religious liberty issue. In 2 Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all through the Minor Prophets, we read strong words from these writers: “Do not make alliances with evil government.” In the New Testament we have some interesting things that many Christians have a tendency, in recent times, to fluff over—a coalition of church and state that crucified Jesus Christ. Rome and the Christian faith had always been at odds. John was there on the Isle of Patmos because the Roman government couldn’t control what he was saying.

Between A.D. 313 and 335, Constantine, the emperor of the Roman Empire, was having trouble with the Christians for they were not established, and they were meeting secretively. They couldn’t advertise their meetings so they made the sign of the fi sh, identifying each other as Christian, so that other Christians would know where the meetings would be held. When the Christians became strong, however, Constantine needed them, and eventually he said that the religion of Rome would be Christian.

One would think this would have been a great victory for the church, but it wasn’t. When the church was adopted by the government, it lost its prophetic voice. The church became wealthy, secularized, powerful, and formally bound in the state and eventually achieving dominance over it, too.

The results have been tragic. For example, the dominance of the church over the state happened between the years of 1077 and 1213. In 1077 Pope Gregory VII was expanding the reach of his papal empire. King Henry IV of France was not cooperating with him. King Henry IV of France needed the support of Rome, and Rome wanted to bring Henry IV to his knees. The pope was at his palace in Canossa in the Alps of northern Italy. The pope required Henry IV to grovel in the snow for three days in sackcloth and ashes while he repented of his attitude toward the pope. After three days the pope granted him an audience, and Henry IV pledged allegiance to the pope.

In 1213, John I of England was in the same situation with Innocent III and could not get the approval of Rome until he declared that England was a fiefdom of the pope in Rome. One struggles to find the gospel message in these incidents.

What about the dominance of the state over the church? A recent example is Nazi Germany. Sermons, Scripture, lessons, biblical interpretation, liturgy were created and given to the German church by the government—the Hitler government. Strangely enough, many in the German churches supported Adolph Hitler because he neither smoked nor drank.

The shift

After the election of John Kennedy in the United States, we didn’t hear much about church-state separation. Oh, but when that talk reappeared! There seemed to be a coalition of angry white, middle-class people, frightened young adults who had momentum and organizational skills. It has not been uncommon in the last 20 years to hear celebrated, noisy preachers say that the doctrine of the separation of church and state is a fallacy and call for its abolition.

And, unfortunately, many people who signed on to that attitude did so simply because they were frustrated with the cultural shifts in the 1960s and 1970s. No longer were we in an America with Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post, apple pie and Chevrolet, sidewalks and shade trees, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and Robert Young. Andy of Mayberry wasn’t around anymore, nor The Partridge Family. We now lived in an America that belonged to Saturday Night Live, People magazine, Jay Leno, and Will & Grace, not to mention The Simpsons.

Something had gone wrong. We “opened the closet” in America, and it seems that everyone came out. Liberated and favored, they wanted to catch up and get even. They wanted to be compensated and supported and affirmed. America had become a living Jerry Springer Show.

I once admired the people who wanted to clamp down on everything and hold it in line. I have felt that way. I was upset when organized prayer was taken out of the public schools and when people pushed for laws that I found repugnant. But then I had to take a second look, step back, and reformulate some of my positions, which weren’t always popular.

Some parishioners have accosted me in the hall and said, “I believe in prayer in the public schools.” I do too—and I don’t think it will ever go away, either. As long as they give math tests, there will be prayer in public schools. But let me ask, Whose prayer do you want? If you live in Salt Lake City, or Miami, or Boston, or Atlanta, whose prayer will it be? We are an international community now. You most likely won’t get a Baptist evangelical prayer in your public schools, at least in many parts of the country.

Before we talk about prayer in public schools, let me ask, What about prayer in the home? Have your children heard you pray? Have they heard you read the Bible? Don’t expect the teachers to do it when you don’t. I don’t like some of the laws being passed, but I know one thing: Jesus makes it clear in the Gospels, particularly in His temptations, that He would not use secular means or power politics to gain a following.

In some countries, revolutions came about because of rising secularism. There was a backlash and they threw out the secular rulers—they said they didn’t want to be that modern. And don’t think it couldn’t happen here. I fear the danger of us turning into such a country more than I fear the problems with rank secularism. I fear that many Christians are being seduced by the idea that the state can do for us what we should be doing for ourselves.

A politics-free zone

We cannot call my church a political recruiting station, but we can call it a politics-free zone. When someone visits my church they do not enter a political rally for right or left or for any political party. Baptists have always believed that we have a right to function in the political arena as individuals, but not to be politicized in our church. I have strong political opinions but, while these opinions come and go, the gospel stands forever.

I recall reading in Billy Graham’s biography that the biggest mistake he ever made was when he publicly supported one candidate for the presidency of the United States. He said he would not do it again.

What, then, shall we do? You may be in the political process, and that’s fine. But understand that His kingdom will last forever; the political process, in contrast, will not. We need good people in politics, but don’t try to turn your church into a political voting precinct.

We are not here for that reason. Unfortunately, many folks, the very ones who have benefited the most from religious freedom, forget that important fact.

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William L. Self, DST, is senior pastor of the Johns Creek Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Georgia, United States.

November 2007

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