The temptation of religious leaders to become obsessed with political power and influence is older than the Christian Scriptures. Among many others, Rev. Billy Graham warned pastors and prelates to be judicious in the manner in which they interact with political leaders.
Speaking from painful experience, Rev. Graham reproves himself for often having become too cozy with political leaders. He appreciates the array of compromises which often come from such coziness.
Rev. Graham’s insight is part of a broader debate concerning the relationship between church and state. The cliché that the church should stay out of politics begs many questions, some of which may be answered in distinctions often ignored in thought and action.
The separation of church and state does not mean the separation of the church from the broader society, of which both church and state are integral parts. How they relate to each other within that context is the real issue.
Such separation does not mean isolation. Instead, it provides a framework for cooperation, protecting against both theocratic impulses and the state discriminating against religious communities.
While many recall and recite the reference in the Constitution’s preamble of the country’s Christian heritage, that reference is more of an acknowledgement and celebration of this heritage.
That poetry does not have the force of law found in the constitutional prose protecting religious freedom, which buttresses and safeguards the principle of the separation of church and state.
Politics is often narrowly defined as a contest waged by political parties. Of course, it is much broader than that, including matters of ultimate concern such as issues of death and life. Politics, broadly speaking, also involves society wrestling with the ethical dimensions of public policy.
As the church works to “penetrate and perfect the temporal sphere with the spirit of the Gospel”, it must also transcend the partisan politics of the day. How does a pastor, overly identified with a political party, speak to a congregation with authority, integrity and balance without appearing to have a conflict of interest?
Unflinchingly, intelligently and with prudence, the church must speak to the ethical dimensions of issues in the political realm from capital punishment to poverty. But it should not become a cheering squad or adjunct to any political party, also avoiding the appearance of partisanship.
In the leaked US Embassy cable from WikiLeaks, a prominent Bahamian religious leader is described as a political heavyweight. This is not the way a pastor should wish to appear in the eyes of domestic opinion or of a foreign government. It is more preferable to be considered a moral heavyweight or a prophetic voice, not the handmaiden of Pharaoh.
Religious leaders should inform consciences, not tell congregants how to vote in an election or a referendum, but for exceptional cases. Religious leaders should counsel political leaders, but should not attend, as partisans, political events such as national conventions.
Religious leaders should cooperate with the state in the promotion of the common good, but refrain from donating money, travel or other material support to political parties for partisan purposes.
A self-aggrandizing religious leader who pompously meddles in the political realm as a boastful powerbroker diminishes his or her moral authority and integrity, also sullying that of his church community.
When the traditional white of a religious leader’s collar morphs into red, yellow or some other partisan colour, he or she has breached the necessary boundaries between church and state.
The principle of separation of church and state is not singularly about the relationship between the two. As importantly, it protects the integrity of both and the unique identity and roles of each. Which all make for a moral predicament for ordained ministers who seek political office.
That predicament has often been classically highlighted in the life of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, including in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons”. In the 16th century Wolsey served at the same time as a prince of the church and as a state official as Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor.
At the heart of Bolt’s play is the layman Thomas More’s moral struggle between serving his God and his king on a matter of great conscience. We have come a long way in the many centuries after More and Wolsey, and the Western Enlightenment and the spread of democracy following reformation and revolution.
Today, after centuries of often bitter experience and extensive moral deliberation, older denominations such as the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches are restrictive with regard to ordained ministers serving in elected office, with the latter being more restrictive.
After Fernando Lugo’s election as the President of Paraguay, the former Roman Catholic Bishop had his status changed to that of a layman by the Vatican. The principle is clear: There should be no question of the moral views of an ordained minister, with never-ending potential conflicts of interest and divided loyalties inherent in partisan politics.
The conflict was dramatized in the 1987 general election when Anglican priest Fr. Addison Turnquest ran as a Free National Movement candidate. With the cleric often campaigning in full and flowing clerical garb, the clashing symbols of the cross and the FNM torch was jarring.
In addition to his church’s attempt to end the controversial candidacy, the FNM should have done likewise. Both church and political leaders will want to consider more seriously the pitfalls, conflicts of interest, and potential charges of preferential treatment arising from running ordained ministers for political office.
As our democracy and electoral practices continue to evolve, political leaders might advance various democratic and ethical norms by ending the practice of running ordained ministers for the House of Assembly or appointing them to the Senate. On this point, both major parties have to do some reflecting.
Elected politics is, as it should be, a vigorous contest between partisans with competing ideas and leaders, though such partisanship should not become so extreme as to destroy the possibility of democratic cooperation.
Such political battle, a sort of contact sport, is a civilizing advancement, substituting for negotiating our differences and competing interests through democratic practices and the rule of law rather than through wars and violence.
It is the vocation of a religious leader to speak to the ethical dimensions of the issues of the day and the signs of the times with timeless values and a prophetic spirit.
Pastors risks undercutting those values and diminishing their moral voice if they fail to transcend partisanship and align themselves with one side of the political divide, blurring the lines between what should be rendered unto Caesar and what to render unto God.