The Next America: The Winter Sermon Series

As Christians, and as citizens, we have a responsibility to make this country the best it can be.

Still, every so often I receive an email that states: “The church shouldn’t dabble in politics.”

On one level, I agree. Politics is a messy business. When ministers endorse a political party or a political candidate, they place their faith in an imperfect vessel. Sooner or later, every political figure and movement will betray the values they aspire to.

This should give us pause. As the catechism reminds us, God alone deserves our unqualified allegiance and devotion.

Some take their concerns about religion and politics a step further. They express dismay whenever ministers address an issue that’s being discussed on the evening news. They suggest that whenever politicians are debating something, clergy ought to stay quiet.

Our tradition begs to differ. The Good Book encourages Christians to wrestle faithfully with the issues of the day. In Jeremiah‘s time, the prophet spoke pointedly about society’s treatment of widows and foreign nationals. In Jesus’ time, our Lord fielded questions regarding whether people of faith should be obedient to a government they despised. Jesus also criticized local norms for capital punishment and spoke out about the wider society’s treatment of the poor. In our time, preachers are witnessing debates over everything from border security to the minimum wage and asking themselves which path our country should take.

Still, some object: “What about the separation of church and state?”

Good question! This phrase is often employed to suggest that religious people ought to keep their perspectives about public policy, legislation and the moral direction of the country under wraps. Yet, ironically, the United States’ Constitution intends something very different.

The words “separation between church and state” first occur in this nation’s political discourse in a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to an association of Baptist ministers in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802. In this letter, Jefferson assures a group of pastors that the newly formed United States will be different (less controlling, less oppressive) than the European countries many of them recently fled. He promises that the government will not undertake to tell people what religion they should or should not exercise.

This “separation” is inscribed in the “Establishment” and “Free Exercise” clauses of the Constitution. It explicitly prevents the government from trying to establish or influence people’s faith. It does not muzzle religious figures when it comes to public discourse. On the contrary, it protects the right of the faithful to speak out.

That’s a good thing, because there is another way to look at this issue. It goes like this: The important issues—issues that matter deeply to individuals in this society—are never simply political. Hot topics also have legal, ethical, medical, economic and spiritual ramifications. If we are to make progress dealing with our most conflicted and challenging issues, we must consider them from all angles.

In short, honest and gracious reflection from a faith-based spiritual and moral platform must be part of the conversation.

This winter, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is going to engage some of the issues that our fellow citizens are debating around conference tables and kitchen tables across this country. We are going to take on issues (many suggested by you) that we believe will be important as this country and (and the entire world) move into the future. Your clergy are going to do our best to bring the resources of our faith into dialogue with some of society’s biggest challenges.

Once the sermon series gets underway, we will schedule a series of “Further Thoughts” sessions following the 11 am service. They will provide an opportunity for you to share your views, reflect on the sermon, and raise more questions. They will model the sort of honest and gracious dialogue we think this country needs to move forward. Look for these sessions to be announced in the Sunday bulletin and on fapc.org.

I am confident that these encounters will grow our faith and help to advance a vital conversation that stretches far beyond the walls of Fifth and 55th.