On Wednesday morning, Southern Baptist missiologist Ed Setzer tweeted the following:
When you mix politics and religion, you get politics.
— Ed Stetzer (@edstetzer) June 12, 2018
This bothered a number of folk. Among them was theologian James K.A. Smith who replied with the following tweet:
This is apolitical quietism that tries to avoid naming the *specificity* of the politics in question.
Imagining religion is apolitical is the *problem*, not the solution. https://t.co/iCX2J0Rjt5
— James K.A. Smith (@james_ka_smith) June 12, 2018
I’m thinking that Setzer and those responding were talking past each other. My take is that he was responding to a certain situation. He was at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, where, Vice President Mike Pence was coming to make a speech. Setzer had his own opinion of the speech and the ideology behind it:
Salvation is not coming on Air Force One.
— Ed Stetzer (@edstetzer) June 13, 2018
So, is politics and religion a bad mix or not?
I think Setzer is 70 percent correct and thirty percent wrong.
Setzer could have phrased this better. Of course, at a basic level, the church is political. It can’t be apolitical in the face of racism or sexism or name any other social sin. When liberation theologians say that God has an option for the poor, it is saying that God chooses sides. God is not sitting on the sidelines.
The church has been political, especially when people are being oppressed for who they are. In the book God’s Politics, Jim Wallis shares a story about former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and what he faced when he and religious leaders involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa:
“The former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu used to famously say, “We are prisoners of hope.” Such a statement might be taken as merely rhetorical or even eccentric if you hadn’t seen Bishop Tutu stare down the notorious South African Security Police when they broke into the Cathedral of St. George’s during his sermon at an ecumenical service. I was there and have preached about the dramatic story of his response more times than I can count. The incident taught me more about the power of hope than any other moment of my life. Desmond Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances. They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make both a statement and a point: Religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid will be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime. After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, the church leader acknowledged their power (“You are powerful, very powerful”) but reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority (“But I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”). Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began…dancing. (What is it about dancing that enacts and embodies the spirit of hope?) We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”
So, yeah the church gets political and it has to. But I don’t think that was what Setzer was getting at. He was more concerned with how the church bows down to Ceasar, meaning how conservative and progressive Christians bow down to the current makeup of American politics.
We often tend to look at the mixing of partisan politics and religion as something that occurs on the right, but progressive politics and religion are also in bed together.
The thing is, the church in America doesn’t really know how to be political without being partisan. What churches in America tend to is ape what happens in Washington or name your state capital. From Sojourner’s on the left to Focus on the Family on the right, we tend are politcally engaged not as the church being the conscience of the society, but as another interest group a political party must deal with.
This is what Setzer is getting at when he says mixing religion and politics means you get politics. It means that what happens is that you become the spiritual wing of the political parties. Instead of transforming politics, we allow politics to transform the church.
This is what Episcopal priest Frederick Schmidt gets at in his latest post observing the different plans being put forth ahead of the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The denomination is trying to find a way to both open up ordination to LGBT Methodists and keep traditionalists in the church. Schmidt thinks that the individualism of the culture, the lack of any kind of ecclesiology or theology of the church is destroying the modern “body of Christ:”
The language of ecclesiology (a theology of the church) has slipped to the margins. Instead, Methodists draw comparisons with Starbucks and talk about the church’s “constitutional” polity, and everyone assumes that whatever needs to be done, it should take the form of national legislation.
This behavior and this way of navigating decisions in the church is now the standard. There is little room for theological deliberation. There is even less room for theological struggle, and there is no room for pastoral care and attention to the individual or community.
That is, in large part, because both by design and by inattention the politics of the culture have invaded and overrun the life of the church as the body of Christ.
That loss of talking about the body of Christ has been evident in the discussion on homosexuality. I can remember back in the mid-90s when churches were really dealing with this issue. When a church was deciding to more publically welcome gays, there was usually a vote and after that hard vote, it was not uncommon to hear a pastor say that they now must attend to healing. They knew there were good God-fearing people on both sides of the issue and that for the body to move forward, attention had to be paid to the losing side.
When the state of Minnesota approved same-sex marriage five years ago, I commented to friends that we must think of the other side who lost. They looked at me as if I had come from Mars. The church no longer was interested in dealing with those who were on the losing end. We have sucumbed to the politics of the now.
Maybe one of the most important things that can happen in these times is for the church to recover its ecclesiology. It is only then we can really recover what it means to be the church political and not the church partisan.