Why religion and politics shouldn’t mix

This is one of my favorite topics. I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it for some time now. I don’t have it figured out to my satisfaction, but I came to a new thought this morning, so I figured I should share.

I was pondering the nature of religion and the nature of politics, and I realized they have something inverse in common. The reason religion and politics should not mix is partly due to their relationship to compromise.

Religion in general and Protestant Christianity in particular should not compromise. The philosophical game of religion is played on the field of truth claims.  Negotiating or compromising on truth claims is like kicking field goals for your opponent.  It’s not a good idea.  This is the (very good) reason that people have died for their religious convictions throughout the centuries.

Politics, on the other hand, lives with an entirely different relationship to compromise.  For a politcian, compromise IS the game.  Legislature and governance is all about negotiating between competing interests.  If different interests didn’t exist, governments wouldn’t need to exist, either.  That’s why politics is so easy to criticize, fun to talk about (e.g. ‘Those idiots in [Washington, Sacramento, Madison, Dakar, etc.] wouldn’t know the right thing to do if it bit them on the hand!”), and so demanding of wisdom.  Compromise IS the task of government, and it’s not an easy one.

So every time a pastor asks his congregation to vote a particular way, he is speaking from one realm into another: he is speaking from a position that’s used to wielding divine authority to make absolute truth claims into a realm where issues always have different sides and a single voice bearing the best idea is not guaranteed to make headway.  In politics, strength of conviction falls subservient to the power of coalition.  That’s not a fault of politics; it’s just the nature of politics.  But this pastor is likely to create an unproductive voting bloc.  He’s likely to create or encourage a group of people to take a position they can’t back down from.  In the end, it makes for bad politics and bad blood.

And every time a governmental leader speaks toward the realm of religion, it’s natural (but altogether inappropritate) that he should ask for compromise and ecumenism.  He, who is used to compromise as a way of doing business, naturally expects this from the realm of religion.  And he’s dead wrong.  Religion thrives on truth claims, and asking religious people to deny what they know as truth for some greater good is like asking religion to drink poison.

There are many outworkings of this continued tension between church and state, and they’re likely to be messy.  I can’t claim any kind of special ability to negotiate such perilous waters just because I understand the larger principle.  But I can offer one guiding question for discussion: what can we do to build up a HEALTHY wall of separation ‘twixt the two very important areas?

5 thoughts on “Why religion and politics shouldn’t mix

  1. Sarah Pedersen says:

    I think you’ve fairly well hit the nail on the head and yet just the tip of the iceberg, to use two non-creative catch phrases. But I’m not quite sure a healthy wall can be built, as both camps simultaneously live on both sides of that wall, within the other camp. My metaphors are running away with me, but look forward to reading further thoughts on this topic. Recently listened to an archived “This American Life” about this issue that was similarly fascinating.

  2. JRS says:

    One of the most interesting issues for me, the intersection of religion & politics. This subject consumes many of my thoughts, and incites much good discussion in our home. Great post, great reminder, great thoughts.

    “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” – Madison

    -Jonathan

  3. Penni Johnson says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot, especially now that my son is somewhere between Kuwait and Iraq for the next 9 months or so. How can I as a Mennonite support his involvement from a religious point of view? How can I not! We in religion are meant to bring the gospel to others-I think politics gets sideways when religious groups get in the faces of others with demands-that smacks of being politically involved. The idea of separation of church and state confuses all of us-but how is it possible to be separate? And why do sects and non-Protestant religions expect to be heard, but we Protestants cannot speak out? It’ s no wonder we’re so confused.

    So if we are to build a healthy wall of separation, I think we must continually LIVE like God would have us live; show people Christ through the way we live daily, continually, consistently, religiously in God’s Perfect Name, even-especially- when we are not perfect.

  4. Great thoughts, Penni, Jon and Sarah!

    I must confess, Sarah, that your point stumps me a bit. We do, in fact, live on both sides of the fence. I guess this separation that our nation has struggled with for more than 200 years (as evidenced by the fact that both James Madison and Jon Shinn saw fit to comment on it) would be much simpler if different agents were acting in each sphere.

    I guess the most I can do is choose which will win when the two vie for primacy. I suppose that in the battleground of my own heart, I can declare Jesus victor and hope that if I’m a good churchman, my state will somehow benefit, as well.

    Would that be considered trickle-down apologetics?

    By the way, I discussed this at length with Randall Bowman, an army officer and chaplain, while we were both in uniform. (then) Major Bowman is a smart guy, and his final answer, when I’d pushed as far as I respectfully could, was that he’d follow the dictates of his God over a legally-given order if the two collided. I hope to take my example from him.

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