Archive for October 7th, 2017

Justice Has No Religion

October 7, 2017

This is the talk I gave at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. For those who read it, if you are familiar with my writings and/or sermons, some of it may sound familiar as I gleaned from previous writings from my blog, sermons that touched on the topic, as well as new writing to create this presentation. It was an honor to have shared this with those in attendance.

Justice Has No Religion.

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. I suspect that is true for a lot of things, it certainly is for me. Though I did not recognize it at the time, my high school government teacher somehow planted a seed or a burning ember in my subconscious or my heart and soul around the notion of politics. Ironically, I only had one semester of Ms. Davis as the result of receiving an F from the other government teacher in our school which then required me to take two government classes at the same time so I could graduate, thus my joining her class. It’s a long story, you are free to ask me about it sometime but I suspect this talk is going to be long enough without that addition.

As I remember it was somewhere in my early to mid-twenties I began finding my way back to the library and my reading addiction really began and found itself focused on the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy. I do not know how many books I have read on his life and times, or the number of speeches I have read, I used to have a whole collection of VCR tapes of television programs and purchased documentaries about his life and death. In terms of our topic tonight I have long been drawn to his speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, September 12, 1960 addressing their concerns, of all things, about his religion. In his encounter there he spoke, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President, should they be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell their parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no [one] is denied public office merely because [their] religion differs from the President who might appoint [them] or the people who might elect [them].”

As TruDee and I became more and more involved in our local church I started lay speaking, filling in for vacationing preachers. Everywhere I went I was invited to consider the ordained ministry. My answer was always an emphatic “Not Interested!” As my journey continued my own pastor would ask me about ministry and he would receive the same response.

At the encouragement of TruDee I decided to begin work on a college degree and started taking some night classes as we could afford them and as I had time. Word got back to my pastor who one day asked, “So, Kent, what are you going to do with your degree when you get it?” I replied, “Well, actually I have considered public service, perhaps even politics.” His response, “Oh, perfect, like I’ve been saying you need to go into the ministry, there is a lot of politics in the church!” Well, the call, college, seminary, ordination and the rest is history!

I have long been interested in, a student of, and an active voice for equality and social justice. I have preached sermons, led studies, counseled, and had perhaps hundreds of conversations on equality, inclusion, welcome, and justice. My position on various social justice and equality perspectives are well known among those who know me, or even know of me.

I have been a part of events that have, I believe, fanned that flame that was planted long ago in an eighteen-year-old. I was inspired by the Rev. Dr. Tex Sample, a longtime friend and past seminary professor, who spoke of many of the liberal/progressive persuasion, me included, who “know all the positions and none of the moves.” we’ll leave it at that for now, let’s just say, based on my experience, we do not plan and organize well, I have some thoughts on that, but I’ll save that for another time.

Some years back I was invited to speak to a committee hearing on a bill in Topeka. I had never done that before and was terrified, but my interest and draw to the political caused me to say yes. The bill, in my opinion was an atrocious bill that was an affront to the concept of Thomas Jefferson’s comments on the First Amendment regarding separation of church and state, not to mention an offense to anyone who takes religious freedom seriously.

Jefferson wrote – “Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”

I sat in the chamber that day and listened to the explanation of the bill, I listened to those who supported it, and was able to listen to a few who opposed the bill. The Committee ran over time and it was postponed until the next morning before I could speak. I was disappointed.

What I walked away with that day as I listened to some who were speaking, they saw absolutely no issue with the crossing of a boundary of separation of church and state. I listened as some spoke on behalf of “the church” and “Christians,” and “religion” as if there is only one valid perspective and understanding of those terms. I found myself wanting to stand up and say, “No! You are not speaking for “all” of Christendom, you are only speaking for a “part!” Amid all of this I realized that I was weary. Weary of the powers that be who would claim to speak for all of us and I have long been frustrated by our media, government, and other venues that seem to only acknowledge and draw input from one particular view, religion, and theology as if that is the only one that matters.

Michael Austin, in his book, “That’s Not What They Meant!” writes – “The founders [of our nation] were secularists at best. Some Deists, some Christians, or Unitarians… and from all this religious diversity emerged a fairly coherent Founding compromise: America would be an officially secular nation that would vigorously protect everybody’s freedom of worship and belief. Unlike most European nations, which officially preferred their state churches and occasionally tolerated others. America would offer its citizens actual religious liberty, which meant those of any religion, or no religion at all, would be free to participate fully in the political community.” Unfortunately, I believe, many in our country have forgotten this… though there are still some of us who honor and hold to the ideals of our founders and beginnings.

I am a political junky, perhaps not to the extent of many, such as my younger son who is much more engaged than I, but I have long loved to read about, see, study, and watch the political process unfold. It is an interesting place to be as a clergy person who is staunchly committed to the separation of church and state. I often find myself dancing with that line between my own opinion, political passion, and my role as pastor and religious leader in the church I serve and the broader community and world. But, for the most part I think I do well the dance along that line staying true to our founders and their passion for a freedom of and from religious privilege in our government, while honoring the diverse expression of religious and non-religious belief and practice in our country.

As for the politics of our day, I have colleagues and friends who tell me the discussion of politics has no place in the church, or at the Thanksgiving table either. If by that they mean partisan, political party politics in the church, I wholeheartedly agree! Honoring Jefferson and our constitutional ideals, is to refrain from talking about Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green Party, Libertarian, etc., it should not happen!  But if by that we mean politics in any sense of the word, I disagree. Jesus was deeply political, a fierce critic of the oppressive political structures in his day in the church and in the government. I really struggle sometimes with what to say while dancing that line of separation of church and state.

But it’s important for all of us, to dance that line… because… this is not just about politics, it is about people’s lives and livelihoods.

When I listen with those who have been the victims of sexual assault and comments made, objectifying women, that have fueled and normalized that kind of talk and abuse, and it brings all of that experience back for them. We must speak!

When I listen with those who are lesbian, gay, trans-gender, and bi-sexual who fear for their livelihood and their marriage and family because their rights have been promised to be reversed.                                                                   We must speak!

When I listen with immigrants and parents who are of a different color and national origin who have to comfort their children the morning after an election because their children feared they would be sent away.     We must speak!

When I listen to a government that would rather guarantee the right to purchase and bear any kind of firearm and deny the right to healthcare for all.  We must speak.

When I listen as those who are disabled fear they will be mocked and chided even more than they have been in the past.                                                                We must speak!

When I listen with persons of color victims of racism, still rampant in our society and culture, who want to peacefully kneel and exercise their right of freedom of speech in protest of the treatment of persons of color, and who are made to feel less than simply because of the color of their skin. We must speak!

When I sit in the Mosque and pray with my Muslim friends, brothers, and sisters and listen to their stories. Stories of hate filled language, suspicious looks, vandalism against their place of worship, and fear of their neighbors.       We must speak!

I read the newspapers and listen to the news and read comments on social media… lord have mercy!  I hear those who do not want to rock the boat… that we need to give the current administration and legislature a chance… that we need unity not division and I say this…

We may need unity… But never unity at the expense of humanity.

We may need unity … But never unity with a system that governs by fear.

We may need unity… But never unity with rights for just a few.

We may need unity… But never unity with oppression and hate.

We may need unity… But never a unity with a politic of intimidation and privilege.

Because in the USA we should believe in the politics of hope not intimidation.

Because in the USA we should believe in the politics of compassion not bigotry.

Because in the USA we should believe in the politics of inclusion not exclusion.

We should believe in the politics of the rights and humanity of ALL not just a few.

We should believe in the politics that we are all of value regardless of the religion or lack thereof we practice or not, not the politics of who is in and who is out.

In the politics of the human race not racism.

In the politics of welcome not locked doors.

In the politics of justice for all not just the few.

A politics of kindness not threat.

Because in the USA we should believe in the politics of humility not arrogance.

Because in the USA we should believe in the politics of Love not fear!

Perhaps all this to say, there is definitely a connection for me between my faith and my work in the political realm. My understanding of the Christian Faith, my understanding of the teachings of Jesus compels me to speak to and work for social justice across the spectrum of the issues we encounter, and especially I think of the current environment and atmosphere in our country not only in the political world, but for me in the world of the church and in general. However, it is something totally different for me to stand on Sunday morning in the context of my faith community and frame my comments in a Christian way and make connections with social justice and the teachings of Jesus, THAT is different than my standing in a hearing room at the capital in Topeka to speak on a particular piece of legislation.

When I am in the halls of government, while my faith continues to inform what I believe and what I say, if my words and actions do not promote the common good for all, religious and non-religious alike, if my words and actions are grounded only in the belief of the Christian faith to the exclusion and limitation of others, I have crossed that line of Separation of Church and State and breached and offended our founding and constitutional ideals. This is the premise of my statement, “Justice has No Religion.” Justice is blind so to speak. If my work in the capital, at the county commission, or the city council is not equally beneficial for the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, Agnostic, Atheist, general population of our nation, I have breached and offended the principles of our nation’s constitution. Justice has No Religion!

So, I would say the line of separation of church and state is absolute, and should so remain! To speak of civil rights, social justice, equality for all in the eyes of the law, should always promote the common good of all our population. What has become known as the religious right, especially some particular strains of that religious, creates a blurring at best, and outright breach of the ideals held by Thomas Jefferson and decades of law and precedent protecting that separation.

I would say, religious or not, we have a mandate to speak up for those who are targeted in our country, anyone who is belittled or diminished, to stand up to and against any policy and legislation that is privileged over and against others. These are not religious issues, these are human rights and social justice issues… and even more… these are not issues at all… these are people’s lives and livelihoods that are at risk. This organization, Americans United, the ACLU, NAACP, and others who day in and day out work to ensure and hold accountable our nation are crucial to its survival in the form intended by our founders. Do not be silent… the country… all of us… need you.  Thank you.

Advertisements