Political Column — Religion, Politics, and an Invocation
I don’t fall into a clear category in politics. Nor do I in religion. This tends to make people uncomfortable because they can’t classify me. To know what I think you have to ask me, or listen to me, or read what I have written. In my pursuit of meaning and understanding I have found truth in all party lines and religious creeds, some better, some worse, but never the whole or exclusive truth untainted by the limitations of human nature. So I remain, in whatever group I participate, an independent thinker; sourcing my own material, drawing my own conclusions.
I have relatives and friends that are preachers, pastors, and ministers. I’ve been to services with Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, non-denominational Christians, Anglicans, Mormons, Greek Orthodox, and Messianic Jews. I’ve been to a Quaker meeting in a Reformed seminary. I’ve had students that are Muslims and Taoists, friends that are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and Knights Templar. I’ve talked about comparative religion with priests and atheists. Two of my favorite theologians are Lutheran, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve studied the ’95 Theses’ of Martin Luther, read the ‘Pacem in Terris’ encyclical of Pope John the 23rd, the ‘Constitution of Medina’ from Muhammad, Greek mythology from Ovid, puzzled over the Vedas and Upanishads from India, listened to Native American creation stories, reveled at the Viking adventures in the ‘Volsungs’, and continue to deepen my study of Buddhism.
Last month the board discussed adding an invocation to the agenda, which hasn’t occurred in many years. This brings up issues of partisan politics and partisan religion. The most divisive subjects in human history. Factions develop, in-groups and out-groups form, group thinking takes hold, and most organizations in politics, religion, or business destroy themselves from within through infighting.
The United States has a history of religious freedom and a separation of church and state, both good things, but almost no one looks into why or how that occurred. Morality and laws are emergent properties of social interaction across time. Values discovered, codified, and passed down over many generations of hard experience. Four names stick out in the history of religious freedom and toleration in the US: Roger Williams, William Penn, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson.
Roger Williams apprenticed for Sir Edward Coke in England (who wrote the 1628 Petition of Right, which is where four of the American Bill of Rights come from). He left the Church of England and became a Puritan chaplain. Then in 1631 he left England. In Boston, Salem, and Plymouth he got into various troubles with the churches. Many people think the Puritans were for religious freedom. In general they were for their own religious freedom, not other’s. Williams was for freedom. So he was banished for heresy. He lived with some Native Americans and then founded Providence Plantations, and later Rhode Island, providing for liberty of conscience and the separation of religion and civil affairs. That’s where our idea of the separation of church and state comes from. Williams promoted it to protect the church from becoming corrupted by politics.
There was nowhere Quakers could go and not be persecuted, other than Rhode Island. So they started acquiring land and ended up with New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. William Penn created a very unique constitution for Pennsylvania that included religious freedom. The Quaker constitutions had a big influence on the Founding Fathers.
From Roger Williams and William Penn we can see the growth of religious freedom in the northern colonies. The southern colony of Virginia however was the most powerful, and different Protestant factions had been vying for control. In 1785 James Madison made the case for religious liberty in his ‘Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments’. In 1786 Thomas Jefferson wrote ‘The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom’. The US Constitution was passed in 1789 which included protection from religious exclusion in Article 6, and the First Amendment was passed in 1791. Most of the Founding Fathers were Anglican, Presbyterian, Deist, and Freemason, and all of the first Presidents were strong supporters of religious freedom.
This is the very short version of religious freedom and the separation of church and state in US history, and brings us back to the idea of an invocation at township meetings. George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all supported religious liberty, but none thought that a free society could stand without moral people, and all doubted if a group of people could maintain strong morals without some kind of foundation of religious belief. Washington famously talked about this in his farewell address, written by Madison and Hamilton. Jefferson adapted his own version of the Bible. It’s a worthy and difficult challenge that confronts each individual person with the chance for the attainment of meaning.
I decided to draw from two sources, the Declaration of Independence and the Michigan State Constitution in writing the invocation that I gave this month. “We are gathered here under the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, earnestly desiring to secure the blessings of freedom undiminished to ourselves and our posterity, with the guidance of Providence and the Supreme Judge of the World.”
I’m sure others give invocations that are more partisan and denominational, which results in the inevitable controversies with the accompanying power struggles that are inherent in politics, which then influence the church in a negative manner, just as Williams spoke against. But the invocation that I gave is very much in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, and I think sets a strong foundation moving forward. For we need fallible people with good intentions to bring forward the successful morals and laws of the past into the present, with an understanding of where they came from, and why our structures exist, so that we can honor the past to make a better tomorrow.