The First Amendment provision defining the separation of church and state stands as one of this country’s most valuable contributions to civilization. It allows everyone to worship; it forces no one to worship; it entertains diversity of faith; and it keeps the government to the secular business of governing for the welfare of its people. It is genius in a few simple phrases that limits the power of Congress in making laws respecting speech, faith, and other expressions of thought. The success of the doctrine has served as a model for developing countries as they sought ways to govern effectively in spite of deep religious divisions in their societies.
There is no constitutional provision that limits the expression of political views in religious services or within any of a church’s activities. That would contradict the free exercise clause. But, alas, there is the problem of taxation.
Churches that express political views or endorse candidates become subject to the federal income tax. And their donors, cannot deduct their gifts from taxable income. The rationale for the deduction recognizes the spiritual nature of the church and extends the favor of immunity from taxation only that far but not so far as any interest the church may express in influencing policy or in choosing the government. And, true or not, churches behave as though their institutional lives depended on being exempt from paying taxes and eligible for having their donors receive deductions.
The avoidance of politics has a practical benefit for churches in that it allows congregants to co-exist more peacefully with one another – liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat – than they would if sermons regularly confronted partisans with the guilt their positions and votes on public policy should earn for them.
The unfortunate consequence is that we leave our youth less well-equipped to be citizens than they would be if we discussed with them the translation of faith into action through social policy. We limit our discussions to practices of piety, proper personal behavior, and mission work that can effectively address only small problems or large problems but only with limited reach.
The church does a good job of teaching youth about love, generosity and prayer but it fails when it comes to translating these values into the making of social policies that would give them something they could grasp as a way of achieving the Kindom of God.
The United Methodist Church has tried to address the problem through the adoption and periodic updating of a set of Social Principles. They are not part of the doctrine of faith but, rather, the result of prayerful consideration of the world’s problems in a carefully structured polity that balances the views of clergy with those of the laity in crafting advice to the members on how Christians, Methodists specifically, should approach social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental issues in ways that are consistent with scripture and the United Methodist articles of faith.
While the church makes no attempt to impose these positions on any member, I have always found them to be a good place to begin my own analysis of issues. Much thought and prayer have gone into carefully crafting statements to capture what the United Methodist polity accepts as the requirement of faith for personal action in the public arena. Frequently, I reject the polity’s advice but never without an appreciation for the spirit and the process by which it was constructed and offered.
Occasionally, an issue that has been treated in the Social Principles achieves such a level of spiritual urgency and consensus that the General Conference of the church feels it must be addressed in the church’s own governing constitution. The General Conference of 2016 proposed an amendment to establish gender equality in the United Methodist Church. However, they fell slightly short of the two-thirds vote of the annual conferences to ratify them. So a happy Mother’s Day to the women of the United Methodist Church from the world church.
It would be easy to lay the blame for failure on some of the African conferences where the place of women in society is vastly different from the evolving practices in Europe and America. However, the 68 votes (out of just over 47,000 votes cast) needed to achieve the 2/3 majority could have easily been had in the Texas Conference which voted against the key amendment 633 to 360.
It is easier to understand and accept the unanimity of those conferences such as Central Congo, Central and Southern Nigeria, Liberia, and Zimbabwe in voting against equality for women in the church than it is to accept the failure of our own conference to provide leadership. Sixty-eight of our brothers and sisters in the Texas Conference could have made a difference for United Methodist women all over the world. Their votes would have pushed the worldwide total over the needed 2/3 majority. We failed them and we failed ourselves.
Perhaps those middle-aged and elderly Methodists in our conference who voted against equality for women in the work of our church would have benefited from a discussion of the issue in a worshipful setting when they were teenagers. But we kept a polite silence then and we continue keeping it today.
And that is the purpose of this series of commentary under the heading of “Our Bitter Legacy.” This is not Facebook, it’s not MYF (that’s Methodist Youth Fellowship for you youngsters), and I could only wish for a tax exemption; so, we can talk about things that matter.
I invite anyone interested in the discussion the imperatives one’s faith has for one’s politics to join me here as this heading appears from time to time.