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Should church and state mix?

By Trisha Elliott

Theology and politics make uneasy bedfellows both at the dinner table and in churches — even in social justice-oriented denominations like the United Church.

“In my travels, people often challenge me about the social justice stances of the church, saying faith and politics shouldn’t mix, that the church should stick to teaching the Bible,” says former moderator Very Rev. Gary Paterson in a video produced last February by the United Church, Should the Church Be Involved in Politics? “Ironically, though, it’s precisely because of the Bible that we speak out wherever and whenever we see injustice in the world.”

More recently, the United Church published a Federal Election Kit to help congregations become politically involved. “If we are to continue to imagine and build a just society and a caring world, we must decide which leaders, and their parties, will help us to make that happen,” it says.

The church’s rallying cry is well and good, but whose vision of society and whose sense of justice do we advocate? We are called to help build a better world, but as a denomination we have a hard time building consensus on how to make all that goodness materialize.

Kristopher Norris and Sam Speers, authors of Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church, analyzed the ways in which Presbyterian, Evangelical, Emergent, Mennonite and Baptist churches in the United States both engage and avoid politics. They concluded that the cultural models for political engagement emphasize partisanship. As a result, churches either become partisan or strive to be apolitical.

“Both responses reflect a poor understanding of the church’s political identity,” they write. “We came to believe that this thin conception of politics (held by scholars and ordinary churchgoers alike) profoundly obscures the inherently political character of the church — which is, at its core, a community defined by its allegiance to a new King and its citizenship in a new Kingdom.”

Getting a handle on political theology can help congregations define their own political aims and create a more stable foundation for political activity. This might include reflecting on the relationship between politics and theology, examining the dynamics of power, considering political interpretations of the Bible, and analyzing theological assumptions made by leaders and their policies. Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Elizabeth Phillips is a good orientation to the field of political theology.

In the end, every political perspective boils down to values, and for this reason, politics and theology are in lockstep. Studying political theology would go a long way toward saving the church from knee-jerk responses, as well as the ostrich-like avoidance that plagues so many in its pews. With a little forethought, we may even become intentionally united in our political action.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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