Text: Matthew 22:17-21; Acts 22:25-29; & Matthew 5:3-13
- Selections from Democracy by Leonard Cohen
- Selections from the US Constitution and The Declaration of Independence
At this very hour, all across this nation, people gathered in places of worship just like this one are standing to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Likewise, many of them will then pledge their allegiance to the Christian flag. As a child, that didn’t seem all that odd to me. In the small church I grew up in, every day of Vacation Bible School began with saying the pledge allegiance to both the American and Christian flags. If the thought of that makes you a bit edgy, it’s for a good reason. The mixing or blurring of lines between church and state is something that should make us edgy if not downright uncomfortable, especially as Baptists.
Historically, Baptists have been supporters and defenders of the separation of church and state. In particular, many radical Anabaptist movements, sensitized by the persecution they suffered under both Protestant and Catholic authorities, held that the state should not under any circumstances interfere in religious affairs, and vice-versa. One of the earliest calls for separation came from Thomas Helwys, the founder of the first Baptist Church in England.In his last written work, A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity, he penned a note inside the cover of a single copy that was intended for King James. Whether the king received it or not is disputed, but Helwys was later arrested and placed in Newgate Prison. The words that got him in trouble were as follows:
The king is a mortal man and not God, therefore has no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual lords over them. If the king has authority to make spiritual lords and laws, then he is an immortal God and not a mortal man. O king, be not seduced by deceivers to sin against God whom you ought to obey…
Another formal plea for separation of church and state in England, called Religious Peace: or a Plea for Liberty of Conscience was written to King James by a London citizen named Leonard Busher, a man later identified as an Anabaptist. In 1868 the renowned Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon perhaps best summed up the separationist Baptist stand saying:
Which shall we wonder at most, the endurance of the faithful or the cruelty of their tormentors? Is it not proven beyond all dispute that there is no limit to the enormities which men will commit when they are once persuaded that they are keepers of other men’s consciences? To spread religion by any means, and to crush heresy by all means is the practical inference from the doctrine that one man may control another’s religion. Given the duty of a state to foster some one form of faith, and by the sure inductions of our nature slowly but certainly persecution will occur. To prevent for ever the possibility of Papists roasting Protestants, Anglicans hanging Romish priests, and Puritans flogging Quakers, let every form of state-churchism be utterly abolished, and the remembrance of the long curse which it has cast upon the world be blotted out for ever.
American Baptists, our brand of Baptists, also claim as a forebear Roger Williams, who, having suffered persecution for his religious liberty, fled Massachusetts Colony in order to establish a haven for religious liberty at Providence Plantation, now Rhode Island.
So, you might ask, in light of this brief and incomplete history lesson, why I have chosen as my sermon title: Faith and Democracy: Is There A Common Denominator? What does this day in the life of our country, a day when we celebrate the independence of our nation with picnics and fireworks, have to do with our faith and the practice of our faith? Perhaps the greatest mistake we make is to equate the two – to buy into the notion that to be American is to be Christian. Let me say emphatically, that is not my assertion. If anything, our identification as Americans (or any nationality) can compete with and even overshadow our identity as Christians, causing us to overlook the real and damaging shortcomings of our nation or even our ideals of democracy. No, my reason for choosing this topic and this title is not to conflate democracy and faith.
For sure, it is not a time nor is it appropriate to tout our democracy as the only way to truth and justice. If anything, we would do well to make this day a day of confession where we acknowledge those places where we have fallen short both as civil citizens and as citizens of God’s realm in promoting justice for all. No, my reason for choosing this topic is not to say how great the United States of America and democracy is.
No, my reason for preaching on this topic is simple: as citizens of this nation, we must continue to protect the principle of the separation of church and state (which has become somewhat vulnerable in our country), and as individual people of faith we must not ignore our role and our responsibility when it comes to politics and political activism. There is a common denominator between faith and democracy; and now, maybe more than any other time in our history, we would do well to have a clear understanding of what it is.
Democracy and the Christian faith, as distinct and disparate as they are, are founded on two common principles: equality and freedom. In democracy, these principles are reflected in the ideal that all citizens are equal before the law and have equal access to power. In the Christian faith these two principles are grounded in the truth that all people are created in the image of God and that through God’s grace in Christ Jesus, all are free—or to quote Paul, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) Equality and freedom are the common denominators of our faith and our democracy.
In his poem Democracy, Leonard Cohen writes, “Democracy is coming to the USA…from the fires of the homeless, from the ashes of the gay…it’s coming from the sorrow in the street, the holy places where the races meet…from the wells of disappointment where the women kneel to pray for the grace of God in the desert here and the desert far away…It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and of the worst. It’s here they got the range and the machinery for change and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.”
It’s here they got the spiritual thirst. I’ve thought a lot about that line and I’ve wondered if we,as Americans, really do have the spiritual thirst? The thirst of our faith that says that the child who lives on East Lenoir Street deserves the same education as the child who lives on Country Club Drive. The thirst of our faith that says the man or woman who collects our trash is as important to our community as the professor that teaches environmental ecology at the university. The thirst of our faith that says that the undocumented high school graduate deserves a chance to go to college just as the 18 year old who was born at Rex Hospital. The thirst of our faith that literally says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and who are meek and merciful, those who are pure in heart and the peacemakers…for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Do we have the spiritual thirst to support, defend, and uphold a democracy where the equality and freedom of all people are the cornerstones of the foundation? Shall our political activism be a result of our Christian principles of equality and freedom—that all people are created in the image of God and that in Christ we are all free—rather than being rooted in our nationalistic pride that wrongly asserts that America is the greatest and the best?
Democracy is coming; it is not here. It is a process and we have miles to go. The realm of God is coming; it is not fully here. It, too, is a process and we have miles to go. But this I believe: the Christian faith teaches that everyone has a place at the table and that all are equal and free—male and female, rich and poor, straight and gay, black and white and brown, documented and undocumented, believer and yes, even the unbeliever.
Faith and Democracy: the ultimate common denominator is that everyone has a place— all are equal and all are free to follow their conscience. Shall our fight for justice in the world be a result of our principles of faith rather than our nostalgia for picnics and fireworks?