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God Squad: Churches' political involvement

What is your view on politics and the church? Our church held a special service recently to rally and support church members planning to attend a political protest at our state legislature. They will protest new or proposed laws they view as hurting the poor. While I am all in favor of churches performing activities that serve the poor directly, such as providing food, shelter and clothing, I'm uncomfortable with this level of involvement in political activities, even if it serves a good cause.

-- D., Chapel Hill, N.C.

I think all pious and civic-minded people would agree that there are two values that must be balanced here, and they're both included in the brilliant First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." As interpreted by generations of court rulings, and as it makes clear in its simple meaning, the two values are the "Establishment Clause" and the "Free Exercise Clause." The establishment clause prohibits the government from creating a state religion for America by favoring one religion over another religion, or by making religious tests for citizenship. The free exercise clause guarantees that religious citizens will not be prohibited from practicing their religion, and that includes petitioning the government to correct social evils and injustices.

What you and your church must do is respect the limits set by these two clauses and the values they represent. I don't see how petitioning the government to help the poor violates either clause.

You're not asking that only poor Christians be helped, but you are asking that poor people be helped. What your church is doing seems to me to be both permissible and laudatory. You are trying to make America a kinder place for those who sleep in the dust.

I do not understand why people resist the right of religious Americans to petition the government. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asked America to end racial discrimination, he was doing it as a Christian American, and I don't remember a single person complaining at the time that he was violating the establishment clause of the Constitution or doing violence to the separation of church and state because he was a pastor making this claim.

However, when American Christians and others petition for the rights of the unborn, many people who supported the Rev. King suddenly balk and complain that this is not permissible for religious people to make such a petition. Religious Americans have the same right to seek change in our laws as those who are not religious, and it does not matter if those changes are seen as liberal or conservative.

There is, however, one caution I would raise for religious Americans seeking change: It is not helpful to the public debate over our laws and values to quote Scripture as a reason to make the changes they seek. If feeding the poor is right or wrong and if protecting the unborn is right or wrong, it must be determined by publicly accessible reasons, and sacred texts are not publicly accessible. They are only compelling to those who believe they are sacred.

Our public arguments can come from our faith, but they cannot be couched in the language of faith. The issues are justice and equal protection under the law, not what Matthew had to say about how "one who serves the least among us is like one who serves me." Another caution: I know that when I preach in my synagogue I'm preaching to both Democrats and Republicans. I know that my task is to make everyone feel connected, welcomed and affirmed. If I preach nakedly political sermons, I risk dividing my flock. Therefore, I have never preached a sermon urging my congregants to vote for one or another candidate for public office.

Despite its danger to our tax-exempt status, advocating for one candidate over another is just spiritually wrong and furthers the debilitating political polarization in our society. Debating moral issues in the public square is another matter. If our faith is just about lighting candles on holidays, it's a desiccated and spiritually impoverished faith.

My advice to you is to join your fellow church members, not just in the pews, but also in the streets. Private charity is good, but not a replacement for compassionate public policy. We live in a broken world, and we must all seek ways to help make it whole.

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