(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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As we know, the first amendment to the US constitution states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In a letter to a Baptist group in 1801, Thomas Jefferson laid out what has come to be the bedrock interpretation of the first amendment. He wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other – for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should… [build] a wall of separation between Church & State.”
That last phrase has been enshrined in American constitutional law. It’s been cited in numerous Supreme Court cases as the basis for protecting the religious freedoms of people, and government freedom from religious influence.
We know that Jefferson was far from a perfect man. His hypocrisy as a slaveholder who coined the words “all men are created equal” is well known. Despite that, Jefferson was a founding father who deeply believed in democracy. His liberal spirituality is also well known. He rewrote the Bible’s New Testament by deleting large sections describing supernatural miracles. Like many of us, he believed the essential truths found in the Bible are not mythological stories, but are instead ideals of Jesus regarding forgiveness, non-violence, sacrificial love, compassion, and humility.
With regard to Church and State issues, Jefferson also drew upon Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus was asked by a group of religious elites whether it was right for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman government, he spoke one of his most well-known teachings. The elites, wanting to have Jesus arrested by the Romans, hoped to trick him into saying Jews should not pay taxes to Rome. He answered their challenge by famously teaching, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. In other words, don’t combine actions like paying taxes and maintaining public roads with spiritual opinions.
This founding principle is nevertheless still a controversial one. If we live in a free society in which all of us have the right to express our beliefs about spirituality, then how do we not mix those thoughts with matters regarding civic government? Politicians beginning with George Washington have spoken about their supposed faith in God and have often called the nation to pray for its safety and well-being. And many contemporary religious leaders regularly speak out about political issues and politicians too. Despite being a nation which believes in a wall of separation between Church and State, that wall often seems more like a thin curtain.
For us as a spiritual congregation and for me as its minister, there are clear rules about the wall of separation. The Johnson amendment, which was added to the United States tax code in 1954, is the most famous rule governing church actions. It forbids any tax-free group from participating in, or intervening in, directly or indirectly, any political campaign on behalf of, or against, any candidate for public office.
The intent of the law, which was not controversial when it passed, was intended to define – particularly for churches and their leaders – the wall of separation. It is a simple rule. If religious organizations wish to continue enjoying the immense benefit of not paying taxes, then they must not support or oppose any political candidate, political party, or organization that does the same. As a quick aside, I estimate that in the sixty years that at least part of this congregation has existed, our total savings from not paying Federal, State, local, property, and sales taxes would amount to at least one million dollars. And we are just one of about half a million places of worship in the US.
This rule we must follow raises an issue that often comes up. Many ministers, including me, have spoken about subjects they believe are spiritual but which also have political implications. For instance, I believe and I’ve spoke about from the pulpit that healthcare should be affordable and available to every person. Affordable healthcare is, for me, a spiritual human right. Also stating that belief are many politicians. And there are many others who oppose it. Have I, as a result, violated the Johnson law forbidding ministerial politics? Some people could assert that I’ve implied political support for candidates who believe as I do – and that I’ve equally implied political opposition to candidates who do not believe the same.
This idea of implied political support by churches is one that remains controversial and which courts have often considered. In US history, however, no legal action has ever been taken against a place of worship based on such implied statements – primarily because a minister may or may not be implying anything. If you, in listening to my statement on healthcare, make assumptions about which candidate to support or oppose, that is your personal interpretation.
Other churches and ministers have gone much farther. For instance, a minister might say that affordable healthcare is a spiritual right. And then he or she will follow up by saying candidate Joe Smith also believes affordable healthcare is a spiritual right. No actual words are said to vote for Joe Smith, but the implication is very strong.
Ministers have also said a specific politician’s actions are spiritually unjust – while naming that politician. I did that on one occasion and a member here suggested I not do it again. I agree. While it could be considered legal since I did not advocate voting against that politician, I nevertheless named her or him and perhaps indirectly intervened in politics. In the future, I will instead say an action is just or unjust without naming a politician.
The point of my message today is to suggest general principles how this congregation, and us as church members and leaders, can ethically combine spirituality with politics. As a foundational statement, I believe the angry and often hateful political disunity and polarization in our nation is evil and wrong. And I believe most people, including me, are responsible for that. I have wrongly demeaned political opponents and I’ve questioned their motives. I’ve done that despite it being a spiritual value held by all world religions to practice peace and love to all others by remembering our common human bonds. All people have, as I’ve often pointed out, 99.9% of the same genetic DNA. I also believe every single human being seeks the same needs in life – to have needs for food and shelter met, along with higher needs of healthcare, education, freedom, happiness, and life purpose also met. Every American is thus united in profoundly spiritual, biological, and aspirational ways. It is wrong, therefore, to essentially be angry at and divided from our closely related human sisters and brothers.
My objective determination about what all people want gets at what I believe ought to be spiritual politics. We must value the worth and dignity of every person – which includes their opinions. For me, I believe it is both spiritual AND political to want every person to have their basic needs met. In other words, to have justice for all.
Given that fact, wise spirituality also tells me that some suffering, while not desired, is sadly inevitable. Some people get diseases and some do not. Some are affected by natural disasters, and some are not. Some people go bankrupt and struggle financially, and some do not. We must try to eliminate all suffering but fully achieving that goal is unlikely.
A spiritual approach to politics therefore says that while some people inevitably suffer no matter what we do, we can nevertheless aspire for as many people as possible to not suffer and to enjoy reasonable well-being and happiness. Spiritually, I believe people ought to also show extra concern to those who suffer – the sick, the other-abled, the ones affected by calamities not of their intentional making.
Spiritual politics then tells us that for governments to insure reasonable happiness to the greatest number of people, they have three choices: 1) to politically act to provide basic needs for all, 2) to not act in doing that, or 3) to go slow in doing that. Since people freely and rightly disagree on how to provide happiness to the greatest number of people, spiritual politics tells me the third option, to proceed carefully and with caution in taking any political action, is the best way to build unity. It allows time for everyone to consider the pros and cons of a political action. And time helps to diminish fear, adds clarity to discussions, and helps increase knowledge and informed opinions.
If I had to condense my view of spiritual politics into one phrase, spiritual politics has a liberal goal for everybody to have their basic needs met – while pursuing that goal with a careful approach. For example, spiritual politics for me wants healthcare for everyone but it advises a prudent and methodical way in how to achieve that – all in order to allow time for informed, calm, civil, and respectful discussion.
This gets at the heart of why I believe there is so much disunity, hate and anger in our politics. All Americans want basic needs and happiness for all. We disagree on how to achieve providing basic needs for all and so we have division. This is where spiritual values must come into play. Since all Americans essentially want the same thing, we must be deliberate, informed, listening, respectful, and willing to collaborate in deciding how to achieve common goals of basic well-being for all. Respectful discussion and intentional listening to one another takes time and is never easy. It is also challenging to accept ideas different from our own. But if we keep our eyes on the ultimate prize of economic and social justice for all, I believe spiritually minded people can lead the way in how to do that with greater unity. We, as spiritual people, must model cooperation, listening, gentleness, and respect in our politics.
Foundational to that approach is, for me, selflessness and humility. I must sublimate my ideas into the wide diversity of ideas and allow the larger body politic to find consensus. Using the example of affordable healthcare being a basic need of all people, some want the government to provide it. Others want the private sector to provide it. Both sides, therefore, cannot have their way adopted – so each must accept a combination of opinion – perhaps in the case of healthcare a mix of government and privately provided insurance – or a gradual timetable to achieve a level where virtually all Americans have affordable healthcare. By keeping our eyes on the prize, and not getting sidetracked by opposing different opinions, we can stay focussed on the shared joy of reaching affordable healthcare for all.
That is, of course, a very difficult proposition given that our nation has 350 million citizens with each having their opinion. And there will always be some who do not act with humility, but act instead with words of division, greed, anger, arrogance, or hate. But spiritual people, of which I include all of us, must not accept or use those tactics. We can lead the way in seeking justice by using spiritually just methods. To use a beautiful phrase, “When they go low, we must go high.”
I suggest there are a five agreements one must accept in order to be political in a spiritual way.
First, spiritually political people agree in the commonality of everyone and that there are basic needs every person should have fulfilled. It is the role of government to make sure those needs are met and, as spiritual people, we have a moral duty to advocate for them. But, spiritual people and communities must categorically resist the temptation to support or oppose politicians. The ways of politicians are often messy, but the ways of spiritual people should be pure.
Second, one must acknowledge that the world is imperfect and suffering will likely never be entirely eliminated – even as we must work to alleviate it. Spiritual people can dream big but must also be practical.
Third, a spiritually political church and people must humble themselves so that selflessness is a regularly practiced attitude especially with regard to opinions. “My way or the highway” is not a humble attitude. “My way is just one of many possible ways” is selfless and humble.
Fourth, spiritually political people should be willing to acknowledge that it takes time to build consensus through the use of respectful and humble discussion. They must accept that as urgent as achieving justice is, it will never be fully accepted unless a vast majority of people agree on how it is achieved.
Fifth, I believe spiritually political churches and people should never lose sight of the goal of universal justice and well-being. That means they remain focused but nevertheless joyful, kind, and peaceful.
Whether one is a deeply conservative person, or a passionate liberal, we want the same things. We want peace. We want reasonable well-being for all. We want an end to human suffering. We want an America that is safe and economically strong enough to provide for as many people as possible. But, spiritual people also want to achieve these goals in ways that adhere to not only their values, but the timeless values of most world religions. The political ways that our nation uses to attain national well-being must be spiritual in nature – framed by kindness, bathed in a cooperative spirit, and energized by a humility.
I wish you each much peace and joy.