A Place for Religion in Politics? Kent’s Perspective

The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

Not to get to ‘wonky’ but as a life-long American Baptist the principle of ‘separation of church and state’ is rooted in my tradition. It was a Baptist named James Leland a delegate to the Continental Congress who was instrumental in lobbying James Madison to include in the First Amendment this separation of church and state.

Leland as a Baptist had experienced persecution in Virginia (which in the 1700’s had a state sponsored church, the Church of England). He knew what it was like to be marginalized because of his faith. He drew upon a Baptist principle going back to the separatist movement in England in the early 1600’s that no King or Bishop could determine the conscience of an individual, to believe or not believe in a God or gods.

In practice this principle is continually at risk. Human nature seems predisposed to acquire power.

In the last 40 years we’ve seen the melding of the religious right with political conservatism. The religious and political right cherry pick a few issues to galvanize support and advance their cause i.e. nationalism, capitalism, strong military, anti-abortion, traditional marriage. An example is the merging of the Moral Majority led by Rev. Jerry Falwell and the candidacy of Ronald Reagan for President in 1980.

Donald Trump’s erratic candidacy has split the religious right. Which is a good thing.

Religious leaders who seek to impose their religious beliefs through political power undermine the First Amendment and the freedom it is intended to protect (freedom to believe or not believe as one’s conscience leads).

Joe, my co-writer makes a good point: ‘The danger lies in which faith has the most sway…what happens when the majority religion changes?’ My Baptist tradition teaches me to be wary of those in authority, particularly a government who would seek to tell me how to think or practice my faith.

As a Baptist I absolutely believe that my atheist buddy Joe has the right to not believe in or practice any religion. I also grant Joe the right to be a Yankee fan (as wrong-headed as that may be). We each deserve the freedom to follow our conscience.

It pains me that many who claim the Baptist name seek to undermine the First Amendment. Jerry Falwell and now his son, Jerry Jr the President of Liberty University (both Baptists) relentlessly strove and strive to co-opt the Republican party so as to impose their mix of religious and political views on the rest of us.

Is there a place for religion in politics? Yes.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Baptist pastor led the civil rights movement resulting in the Voting Rights Act and the end of legal segregation. His movement was rooted in his Christian faith. He lobbied government to pass laws. He said ‘the church is to be the conscience of the state’.

As a citizen and as a pastor I too believe that my faith compels me to speak my faith-based values into the political arena i.e. racial and economic justice, rights of women, health care for all, advocacy for the poor.

People on the theological continuum, all faith traditions should have the freedom to voice and advocate for their beliefs and perspectives. The freedom we don’t have is to co-opt the political process so as to take freedom of faith and conscience away from others.

Putting one’s faith into practice while allowing room for others to believe differently brings a creative tension. So it goes in a democracy.

John Leland knew what it was like to be in the minority. He knew what it was like to have the majority limit his options and to impose a penalty for being different. As a result he championed the First Amendment where people have the freedom to believe or not believe, to practice their faith as their conscience dictates. Without the government interfering.

Be ware of anyone or any authority, who would seek to water-down or take away such freedom.


About Kent Harrop

I am bi-coastal...I was raised in New England (Rhode Island) and for twenty years 1994 - 2014 served as pastor of First Baptist Church McMinnville, Oregon. In May 2014 I moved with my wife Tricia back to New England and serve on a team of ministers at the First Baptist Church in Beverly, Massachusetts. I love the beauty and geographic breadth of Oregon and the north shore of Massachusetts. A growing edge for me is the integration of the contemplative and prophetic life. Tricia and I enjoy gardening, camping and kayaking on rivers and ocean. We have two grown daughters who are strong, smart and adventurous. The purpose of the blog is to explore the relationship between faith and the wider culture. The views expressed here are my own.
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