Anyone who has read this column even for a short period of time knows I am an ardent proponent of the separation of church and state. Not only am I convinced this is what the founders fully intended in the First Amendment of the Constitution, but I am also convinced it is what Jesus had in mind with his words about rendering unto Caesar and God. Keeping the state from promoting religion and keeping religion from trying run the country is good civics and good theology.
However, separating church from state does not mean that our public life should be void of faith. There is a time-honored role for faith to play in our public life. Since the days of the biblical prophets, the voice of faith has called for justice and peace in our common existence.
Many times these prophets had no official standing. One of them, Amos, even says as much. He was a member of the laity. But a passion for the poor drove him to express his angry displeasure with the way the goods of the community were distributed. He spoke to the marketplace about corrupt practices that cheated the poor from their wages. He spoke to corrupt judges about their complicity in the failure of justice. And he spoke to the community at large about their covenant responsibility to their neighbors.
Faith communities still have this opportunity, and this responsibility.
For instance, it should be people of faith at the forefront of the call for health-care reform. When Jesus says on Judgment Day, “I was sick and you did not take care of me,” what will we say? We didn’t want government-run health care so we just let 35 million people do without it?
Likewise it should be people of faith leading the charge to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. There may have been initial legitimacy to the war in Afghanistan. And if we had kept our focus and pursued those responsible for 9/11, that war could have been completed some time ago. But our presence in Iraq is entirely without merit. We were lied to about the causes, lied to again when the initial lies were found out and finally dismissed as if our viewpoint didn’t matter.
When Jesus told us to love our enemies, he didn’t mean we should love them to death.
People of faith also have a vital role in what has come to exist in our political life. The best word I can come up with to describe what our politics has become is hyper-partisanship.
It is fairly obvious that the central concern of many politicians is no longer serving the common good, but rather of advancing partisan power. It’s not about governing in any meaningful sense, but only about being in power.
People of faith need to assert their considerable influence not to deepen this divide but to heal it. We should be the ones who call those in power to remember they serve all citizens, not just the ones who vote for them. The resources of our communities belong to all the people, not just the ones whose party is in charge.
If Amos were around these days, he would have much to talk about. And one of the things he would say might sound something like this: How is it that so many followers of Jesus concentrated in one country can’t do a better job securing justice and peace for everyone, and especially for the least of these in our midst?
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
A retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published five books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).