For some, religion and politics go hand in hand


Keeping religion out of politics is a nearly preposterous idea in this political year. But what about the flip side - can politics be kept out of religion?

When it comes to Christianity, says Milligan College professor David Roberts, the answer is absolutely not.

"With some religions it may not only be possible but characteristic to separate life into segments that never interrelate," he said. "With Christianity it is impossible.

The totality of life is affected by one's faith, or it is not genuinely Christian. That is clearly seen in Jesus' ministry and teachings. There was no segmentation of life into sacred and secular realms.

"Life must be lived consistently to follow Jesus, at all times and in all places, whether political or otherwise."

The faithful tend to let their spirituality guide their entire lives, so it may be reasoned that morality, religion and politics cannot be separated.

"The term 'political issue' may be the question to a lot of the latter: It is not basically political, but moral and religious; it has merely become politicized in recent times," Roberts said.

Fred Norris, an Emmanuel School of Religion professor, said those basic biblical issues penetrate even the church itself.

"It is not always the case that a particular verse or chapter has a direct command on how to deal with a political issue.

But hospitals, care for widows and orphans, and places for the homeless in the early centuries of Christianity were not governmental programs.

"On occasion, we Christians have lost our sense of responsibility because we leave such concerns to corporations and government.

What do we do with church buildings all week? Why do we accept non-taxable status if we do not use our resources for the community?" he said.

A church's tax-exempt status is a major reason why, when discussing politics from the pulpit, many pastors stick to the issues as opposed to the candidates.

"There are certain restrictions placed on churches and other organizations that receive tax-exempt status from the government that they may not actively participate in partisan politics," said Phil Kenneson, another Milligan professor.

"In other words, a minister is not allowed to stand up on Sunday morning in the sermon and say, 'If you're a real Christian, you're not allowed to vote for candidate X.'

Crossroads United Methodist Pastor Mark Fleenor said he doubts his congregation ever would want it that way. "I have not been asked by parishioners my political thoughts or views, and I have not offered them," he said.

"In my reasoning, that tells me my parishioners either do not care about my political views or prefer the church and church leaders not get involved."

In fact, Fleenor said, the last time he discussed a political issue in church was more than five years ago at Munsey United Methodist when he was a pastor there.

The church held a community information meeting about the lottery, he said. "I would rather the church in most instances distance itself from political agendas and what may seem like any outright affiliation with a political party or candidate," he said.

Father Charlie Burton of St. Dominic's Catholic Church said he too steers clear of politicizing. "To bring up names, I don't think they would want us to do that.

I don't think they mind when we discuss issues," he said of his congregation. "We would remind our people of gospel issues such as care of the poor and the environment," he added.

"We would preach against things that promote bigotry or bias whether that would be cultural or religious.

We tend to let our parishioners make up their minds in good conscience. ... When we find that there is a law that we consider immoral, we would feel compelled to speak out against it."

Kenneson said it is a church's right to speak out on political issues. If the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association can take political stances, he said, why shouldn't churches?

"They're another voice within society that arguably ought to be heard," he said. Norris agreed.

"The gospel of Jesus Christ calls Christians to stand against oppression, all kinds of evil," he said. "Sometimes that means we must act."

Copyright February 10, 2004 Kingsport Times-News.