Last weekend, The Agora, an occasional event put on by Connect Andrews with the purpose of facilitating intelligent conversation with disagreeing sides, focused on the topic of church and state. The foundational question of the debate was “Should Adventists be involved in the political process?” While the two main speakers wrestled with this topic, it was clear that the audience that filled Newbold Auditorium was teeming with opinions on this matter. When the moderator called an ending to the event, many were left with unanswered, or not wholly satisfied questions, including myself. It’s a tough issue. When it comes to separating church and state, the truth is that it should be done, but it cannot be done.
The church and the state are irrevocably intertwined in our nation, no less today than at its founding. There has never been a president to hold any other religious affiliation but Christianity. On Friday, Donald Trump put his right hand on the Lincoln Bible and proclaimed that he would “faithfully” execute the responsibilities of President. Surrounded by ministers, and being prayed over by a bishop, reverends and a rabbi, the new leader of America accepted his post. From school children pledging “One nation under God” to Lee Greenwood Singing “God Bless the U.S.A.,” the Judeo-Christian deity is woven throughout our national identity.
On the flip side of this is the way government has threaded its way through the fabric of religion. Looking at the structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the influence of American government is glaringly obvious. From the General Conference President, to the divisions, unions and conferences that mimic the federal, state and town governing structure, church mirrors state.
A key element to many of the questions spoken at the Agora was debate over whether an individual could, or should, separate their convictions from how they participate in politics. I would posit that we must, that it is imperative to see the difference between a personal worldview and a set of laws that governs a diverse group of people. While my beliefs and convictions will unavoidably influence the way I view leadership and legislation, I am wholly aware that when I support and vote for something, that it will affect the lives of people who do not share my ideologies.
In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address, he engages with the topics of religion and morality and proposes that they support one another, and exclude no one. “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct.” A man of faith himself, our first president was not prescribing that we assign our beliefs upon all people, but suggesting that morality informed by faith can be beneficial to the nation. Harmony was of the utmost importance to Washington, but is remarkable lacking in our present day.
No group of people are homogenous. Take the issue of abortion. There are pro-choice Christians, as well as pro-life nonbelievers. While someone’s moral beliefs may be supported by their spiritual convictions, the two are not exclusive. Our melting pot of a nation is filled with many belief systems, certainly more than were present on the red, white and blue stage of the inauguration. These differing faiths must coexist under the same mantle of governances set forth by our legislators, executives and votes. All people who participate in politics must remember that the laws of the land affect more than those who share their worldview. It is common decency that should drive people to seek out fairness to all in their political views. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Do right by your nation. Do right by your faith.