A Response to Political Attacks on my Faith

Isaiah 58:2-10; Matthew 7:21-23; Matthew 25:31-40; Romans 14:1, 4, 10

Rev. Doug Van Doren


Today is the first Sunday of Lent, the season of reflection and repentance as we journey with Jesus toward the cross.  I very much struggled with whether to deal with the topic suggested by this morning's sermon or to stick with the usual first Sunday of Lent passage - Jesus in the wilderness.  I guess if there is a connection with that passage and the sermon for today, it is that we are in the midst of a political cycle, and that always feels very much like a wilderness experience to me, except it lasts a lot longer than 40 days!

My other reluctance is that I don't want to politicize worship.  This is a place where we generally want to get away from all that partisan political wrangling.  I am also very aware that the church, as a non-profit organization, cannot engage in partisan politics.  That is, endorsing a particular party or candidate.  (Though it is interesting to note that Presidential Candidate, Rick Santorum spoke just recently at a mega-church in Georgia and I doubt that it was devoid of politics!)  However, a few weeks ago during Questions For the Pastor, we talked about how to respond, and that we need to respond, when the legitimacy of our religious perspective is denied and when other religious perspectives act like they are the only ones. So I think it is only appropriate and certainly within our rights as a church to respond to the recent attacks on our faith perspective by Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum. And besides, I'm mad!

I find it fascinating that those like Mr. Santorum who attack the validity of Christian perspectives different from their own, have pointed the finger at President Obama, for allegedly tearing down the separation of Church and State.  The President is "trampling on a constitutional right."  "It is imposing his ideology on a group of people expressing their theology, their moral code," was Santorum's cry. This because of an administration ruling, since altered, that religious institutions serving the public, functioning as, and competing against, secular institutions had to provide birth control coverage.  The loudest cry came from Catholic hospitals, an overwhelming majority of whose employees are not Catholic, and of those that are and are of childbearing age, 68% use artificial birth control!  Who is seeking to impose their religious convictions on whom!

I find it hard to imagine that even Mr. Santorum would outwardly attack another faith group, even Mr. Romney's faith as Church of the Latter Day Saints.  Maybe it is because other Christian perspectives, especially long-established, main-stream Protestants, are seen as a real threat.  Tom Davis, a UCC clergy, pointed out in a recent article that in conflicts in America, the side with the sacred symbols is favored over secular ideas. He writes, "So [Santorum] is making an exclusive claim on the sacred.  He was implying that only the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical churches like the Southern Baptists can claim the sacred.  But if mainstream Protestants also represent the sacred and they are on the side of gay rights, marriage equality, and pro-choice positions, then they must be discredited. President Obama's church, [our] church, the United Church of Christ, cannot be a real church.  It has to be 'gone from the world of Christianity.'"

If we are legitimate, we are a threat to their exclusivist claim on Christianity and on their vision of a theocracy dictated by a narrow interpretation of Christianity and the Scripture.  I think it is this, not Muslim Sharia Law, that we ought to be concerned about!  Let us not kid ourselves.  These are culture wars.  And Mr. Santorum seems to have ex-communicated from Christianity upwards of 45 million mainstream Protestants along with President Obama, who has been involved with our denomination, the United Church of Christ, since the 1980s.  In his most recent statements, Mr. Santorum said that "President Barack Obama undermines the United States' 'Judeo-Christian values' through his implementation of his policies." Santorum told the crowd at the Ohio Christian Alliance that the President's beliefs are based on "some phony theology," and "not based on the Bible."  These statements were made specifically against President Obama, but several speeches delivered by Santorum in 2008 offer insight into how he delineates between "real" theology (one "based on the Bible" in his opinion) and Obama's "phony" theology.  Following his speech at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, Santorum dismissed those Christians who do not hold an inerrant view of scripture as being "a liberal something but not a Christian."  He went on to say, "We look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it." I think if he applied the same yardstick to the Catholic Church he'd have to come to the same conclusion.

This kind of attack on another's faith for political gain is simply wrong. It is both anti-American and anti-Christian.  It threatens religious liberty.  I am convinced that those who scream the loudest about supposed attacks on the separation of Church and State really want the State to do their bidding, to promote their place in society.

The Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ is among a diverse coalition of major national religious organizations that issued what they entitled, "Religion in Political Campaigns - An Interfaith Statement of Principles."  In part, the statement says, "Candidates for public office are, of course, free to worship as they choose.  And they should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters, commenting about their own religious beliefs, explaining, if they wish to do so, how those beliefs shape their policy perspectives, and how they would balance the principles of their faith with their obligation to defend the Constitution if the two ever came into conflict.  There is a point, however, where an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.  Appealing to voters along religious lines is divisive.  It is contrary to the American ideal of including all Americans in the political process, regardless of whether they are members of large and powerful religious groups, religious minorities, or subscribe to no faith tradition." The statement goes on to call upon all candidates to:

         "Attempt to fulfill the promise of America by seeking to serve and be responsive to the full range of constituents, irrespective of their religion.

         Conduct their campaigns without appeals, overt or implicit, for support based upon religion.

         Reject appeals or messages to voters that reflect religious prejudice, bias, or stereotyping.

         Engage in vigorous debate on important and disputed issues, without deliberately encouraging division in the electorate along religious lines, or between voters who characterize themselves as religious and voters who do not."

It is important and appropriate for us to respond to Mr. Santorum's attacks on President Obama's faith and on mainstream Protestantism on the basis that such tactics have no legitimate place in American politics.  I think it is more important, however, not simply to decry this tactic, but to use it as an opportunity to defend, and to define, our faith.  It is our opportunity to articulate what we believe and the culture we believe would be pleasing in God's sight.

You see, we have been at this a while!  We do not take a back seat to anyone in this regard.  We, the United Church of Christ, trace our roots to the first permanent Christian settlers on these shores.  We have come to this place that some call a Liberal or Progressive faith through long experience, through deep and prayerful study of the Scripture, through rigorous engagement with societal structures, through communion with fellow Christians of great diversity, and through ongoing prayer.  Don't let anyone tell you that our beliefs don't have deep, strong Biblical roots.  We have come to this place, not in spite of the Scriptures, but because of them.

We hear in the Scriptures about a God who cares for the whole creation: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof."  (Psalm 24:1)  We hear of a God who sets up a covenant, a partnership with the people to be stewards, not rapists of the earth.  Mr. Santorum says that President Obama-and all of us who see the Scripture in a similar way-puts the