do unto others
Last night I went to see a debate on church-state issues between the Reverend Rick Scarborough and the Reverend Barry Lynn. Scarborough, for those of you not familiar with his friendship with Tom DeLay and other prominent leaders on the religious right, is a pastor from the Houston suburbs who runs an organization called Vision America. Vision America is a conservative organization that encourages pastors and congregations to get actively involved in politics. Lynn is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. You can probably guess what his organization does. Lynn is also a board member for the ACLU. The debate was sponsored by the U.T. University Democrats, and was moderated by a professor who studies the sociology of religion.
The debate was well-organized and pretty straightforward. The reverends sit at opposite ends of the debate over the proper role of religion in society, and they debated a predictable series of issues, including whether the constitution mandates a wall of separation between church and state, the so-called "War on Christmas," whether theocracy is as much of a danger to democracy in a predominantly Christian country as it is perceived to be in some Islamic societies, and other hot button issues like prayer in schools and the appropriateness of military officials making statements about the morality of homosexuality.
Most of the time, it seemed as though they were talking past one another. Scarborough gave his personal testimony and said that he believes pastors should be allowed to endorse candidates from the pulpit and still maintain their church's tax-exempt status. Lynn debunked myths and argued that the fact that Christians are the majority in the U.S. is not sufficient reason to enact laws on the basis of a particular religion. These men both know and appear to respect one another, and they both understood that nothing they said would change the other's mind. But it was a stark reminder (which Lynn commented on) of just how far apart the two sides in this battle are. Scarborough and Lynn might as well have been speaking different languages to different audiences on different planets.
None of this was particularly surprising, and it wasn't terribly interesting either, other than for the experience of getting to see these men who are so often quoted in the press. Like most of the audience, I long ago made up my mind about the appropriate role of religion in government, and no dose of Scarborough's brand of political Christianity was going to incline me otherwise. My question wasn't picked as one to be answered; directed at Scarborough, it asked how church leaders can speak the truth to power when they are so close to those in power that they risk losing their prophetic voice.
What struck me most about the evening, though, was something Scarborough said towards the end of the debate. In answering one of the audience questions, he said that he thought the separation of church and state is, on a certain level, an impossibility. Noting that the American government is supposed to be of, by, and for the people, he pointed out the difficulty inherent in separating one part of a person's identity from another. "I am the state," Scarborough said, and although he didn't mean it in the Louis XIV sense, I immediately sat up in my seat and thought, "No, you aren't." "I am also the church," he said. And you can't separate me into two parts.
After the debate ended, after the applause subsided, after an angry athiest yelled his question to the crowd, after I waited to get out of the room and had walked halfway across campus back to my car, it hit me why this bothered so much. Scarborough, I think, has bought into the thoroughly American notion of individualism much more than I have. Not that I am not as individualistic and self-centered as the next American; I am. I want to protect my rights and liberties to do as I choose and to make decisions for myself just as much as anyone else in our society does. I am, for better or for worse, an individualistic American.
But I don't carry as much of that ideal into my patriotism or my faith as, apparently, people like Reverend Scarborough do. For I cannot view the church, the bride and body of Christ, as just me. The church is a body of believers who bear one anothers' burdens, laugh and weep together, and love one another as we love ourselves. I am not the church. We are the church.
(Kenyan theologian John Mbiti put this beautifully in his discussion of African societies and what their view of community and individualism brings to the church. He wrote, "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am." Just as identity in many African cultures is so tied up in the group's identity that to speak of the individual as we do in America doesn't really make sense, so the church does not exist unless Christians are joined together, and Christians do not really exist as such outside the church.)
The same is true of the state. I teach my students that the beauty of the American democracy is that no one - no matter how rich or powerful or intelligent or beautiful he or she may be - is above the law. No one. Our democracy works because we treat everyone the same, because an individual doesn't get to determine policy and procedure on a whim. Our democracy works because we participate, because we hold our elected officials accountable to the law and to the voters, and because we do our best not to oppress those whose views are not shared by the majority. The state is not me, it is us. The state is not "I, the person." It is "we, the people."
Scarborough's comments last night helped me to better understand the divide our country faces over the church-state issue. In his view, he cannot separate his personal politics from his personal faith. In a sense, I cannot do that either. But I can treat others as I hope they would treat me, were the situation reversed, by not standing by while religious leaders try to recreate the government in their own image. I can insist that government be fair to persons of all religious persuasions (and of none at all), whether they agree with me or not. I can point to Europe, to the corrupting influence that the co-mingling of church and state has on each, to the nearly-dead state churches of so many countries. I can suggest that this is part of what Jesus meant when he taught us to render "unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar's, and to God what is God's."
Most of all, I can recognize that "we the people" and "we the church" are not one and the same. May God grant us the grace to tread lightly, to listen carefully, and always, always to walk in humility with the Lord our God. Amen.