Reverend Questions Church and State Entanglement

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times entitled “Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock,” (Jul 30, A1, A21). It tells how Rev. Gregory A. Boyd of the Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently gave a series of sermons that essentially argued against coupling politics and religion. Or more specifically, the Republican Party from Christianity. What makes this story interesting is that Woodland Hills is an evangelical megachurch with more than 6,000 congregants.

According to the Times:

“He said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.”

This anecdote sounds like the stuff of fiction. Yet, we infidels have known for quite some time now that jingoism and nationalistic propaganda has followed closely behind the religious conservative movement. And evangelicals have been successful at taking over whole institutions. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has been all but taken over by evangelical Christians with predictable results: cadets who did not attend chapel after dinner were officially segregated and referred to as “heathens” [link].

One could be impolite and see a creeping fascism in all of this. For his part, Boyd thinks there are “Christians on both the left and the right who had turned politics and patriotism into idolatry.” He goes on to say:

“America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

I am sorry to tell you,” he continued, “that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.”

And perhaps that’s the best way to put it if you’re coming from a Christian perspective rather than a secular one. After all, Jesus was a social prophet concerned with the kingdom of God rather than the world. For hundreds of years Christians have understood Jesus’s famous dictum to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” as an ambivalence toward empire and secular power (Mk. 12:13-17). Although it’s unclear in this passage — after all Jesus was evading a riddle put to him by his enemies — it’s possible that Jesus was wise enough to understand that linking the fortunes of the devout to that of the state was a double-edged sword. If the empire crumbles, then the Church’s credibility goes down with it.

The Catholic Church learned this lesson the hard way. After the election of the new Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the Vatican was eager to enter into negotiations with Hitler’s new government. Led by Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII in 1939) the Vatican saw in Hitler a strong antidote against Communism. The result was the Reichskonkordat, a treaty signed in 1933 in which among other things the Church agreed that its bishops in Germany would swear an oath of allegiance to the state and the state would raise taxes to support the church. This agreement is now considered by historians to have greatly enhanced the prestige of Hitler in the international community.

Pacelli was either horribly naive about Hitler’s intent or himself anti-Semitic depending upon whom you believe. But the point here is that entanglement with the state can often backfire on believers. It looks to me like Boyd has the wisdom to see that the evangelical community has gone too far in conflating the church with the state.