Of Politics and Partisanship


The word politics comes from the Greek word Polis which in the early stages of its etymology meant “fortified city.” For Plato however the word took on a much more rich meaning. For Plato the polis was the city state which reflected an ideal way of human living; even the architecture of the polis reflected for him and his philosophical school the forms of heaven. For those of you who know a little of Platonic thought, you’ll remember that his philosophy held that all visible forms of earth were but reflections of eternal forms of the divine realm. (one can readily see in Christian lore that the idea that Jesus was God in earth has its roots to a great extent in Platonic thought) So the polis was an outward and visible sign in earth of how the very gods themselves lived in harmony. This philosophy is delineated in Plato’s masterwork, The Republic, whose original title was Justice. Plato’s work was a treatise and reflection on the question: How then shall we live together justly? For the Greeks, this required lifelong study and discourse towards an enlightened practice of living as community into our God-likeness. So to be human is to be political, that our lives’ work is to live ideally and practically for the good of the whole.

Michelle Obama raised eyebrows at a recent conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church when she stated that there is no better place to discuss the political issues of our day than in the church, of course raising the hackles of the doctrine of the separation of church and state; but the doctrine of church and state has to do not with influence, but with intrusive control. The doctrine states that government cannot exert control of churches, and that churches cannot exercise institutional control of government. So to say that the church has nothing to say about the political issues that face the common good of our society is I think an abdication of our responsibility as people of faith. In that regard I agree with Mrs. Obama….as people of faith we should be studious and enlightened concerning the issues of the day….and vocal….and involved…We are the ones who are charged with changing the world for the better…that’s political, just as the gospels have a decided political edge…The gist of her speech largely challenged her audience to be engaged and involved, and for goodness’ sake…to vote.

Being political as church people, however, doesn’t mean that the church is to be partisan. Because of the rich diversity of our faith communities across denominational lines, it means that we respect a person’s right to vote their conscience for the candidate of their choice. The rub for us, of course, is deciding which candidate or party, or independent for that matter, represents best the vision of the teachings of Jesus, and all candidates to some extent always fall short of that ideal, and to complicate matters that ideal requires constant interpretation. So we respect differing opinions as to the means towards gospel ends. The point I want to make is this: that the nation’s business, the world’s business, and such business is best described as political in the Platonic sense of the word….that the business of the greater good has everything to do with our enlightened knowledge, discourse and influence as to the well being and dignity of the human community…the gospels compel us to such a noble vocation, just as Plato compelled the citizenry of ancient Greece. As unseemly as the partisan discourse is these days…the attack ads…the vast power of corporate influence….the skirting of real, present issues….Ours is still to be an intelligent, gracious and enlightened voice for the good….and that takes hard work, humility and respect….so be involved; your work and your voice may ramify more than you know.


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Ashton Hill
July 15th, 2012

In my continuing effort to focus on our points of agreement rather than disagreement, please let me say that I agree with Mrs. Obama’s quote above.

The so-called doctrine of separation of church and state is yet another fabrication of our judicial system and is not stated in the Constitution of the United States of America. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This initially was referred to as the “anti-establishment clause,” and its intent was exactly what the language said.

I believe it was Justice Hugo Black of Alabama who first coined the expression “separation of church and state” in one of his post-FDR opinions, thus vesting aggressive, affirmative powers to what had been a limiting Constitutional provision up to that point in time. I suppose it is the people who have controlled the law schools and news publishing industries since that time who have influenced us to forget that our Federal Government’s power was limited by the ANTI-establishment clause and morphed it into whatever the common perception is today.

From my perspective the original language of the First Amendment bears little resemblence to the existing concept first hatched by Mr. Justice Black. Hence, our First Lady might have been criticized for saying something the Constitution’s drafters would have applaued.

It’s been a long weekend so I hope this makes some sense.

Peter Wilson
July 25th, 2012

In his 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut on the occasion of their being persecuted by the Congregationalist majority there, Thomas Jefferson wrote that there should be a “wall of separation between church and state.” This predates whatever Mr. Justice Black might have written on the subject by over one hundred years. Mr. Jefferson, as was the case with most of the Founders, was a deist, not a Christian. In fact, Jefferson wrote a version of the New Testament that eliminated all reference to miracles and supernatural events. When asked for what he would most like to be remembered, this author of the Declaration of Independence said he wanted to be remembered only for two things: establishing the University of Virginia and authoring the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom (1786). While the phrase “separation of church and state” appears only in Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists and not in the US Constitution, both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment could not be more clear: the state (Congress) can give neither legal sanction nor legal preference to any religion (or denomination) over another, nor can the state (Congress) prohibit people from religious practice or expression, with some notable exceptions (animal or human sacrifices, for instance).

The Church is called and empowered by God through Word and Sacrament to offer the gift of prophetic witness to and for the world. It is part of our sacramental ministry of intercessary prayer. While church and state should be separated, as indeed they are under the 1st Amendment, the Church still embraces its noble and prophetic vocation to call all institutions, including the state, to embrace their true vocations. In the end, the true vocation of all institutions, including the state, is to serve humanity by seeking and serving the common good. From a Christian perspective, this is what we mean in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “…on earth as it is in heaven.” So it is perfectly reasonable for a Christian to support the separation of church and state on the one hand, and to offer public and constructive critique of public policy on the other, especially when the public’s trustees, our elected and appointed representatives in government, forget that they represent and serve ALL people and not just the privileged and powerful.

Therefore, I hope that we will continue to build up a wall of separation between church and state. Additionally, I hope the Church will continue through its prophetic witness to encourage leaders in government of whatever religious or philosophical background to serve all of humanity and to cry foul when they don’t.

John Switzer, PhD
August 14th, 2012

Jim, thanks for an excellent post on the nature of the church’s call to NOT be partisan. Well said! Within her walls the church includes Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, constitutionalists and every blend in between. We simply must–by our call as Christians–be a community that respects our dialogue across our differences. Above all, we must remain engaged in that dialogue! There is no great honor in “agreeing to disagree.” The honor is found in our efforts to remain in conversation despite our disagreements.

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