Separation of Church and State
I was so honored and excited to learn this week that I have been selected as an official delegate at the UCC National Synod, which is going to be held next summer in Indianapolis. It's going to be the very first in-person, national gathering of the United Church of Christ since before the pandemic.
The last in-person national Synod was held in Milwaukee back in 2019. And you may remember that our church council moderator, Peter Mueller, who's here with his grandson, and his grandma, Kathleen Mueller, attended that Synod in Milwaukee, as representatives from our church. At that Synod in 2019, so many really cool things happened. It was at that national Synod that the United Church of Christ became the very first Christian denomination to openly endorse the Green New Deal, which will greatly help the environment, which is, you know, one of the passions of our church. It was at that Synod that a group left the convention center, and walked over to the Milwaukee Planned Parenthood office in order to bless their good work, and to reaffirm our denomination’s longstanding history of supporting a woman's reproductive choice. And it was also at that Synod that 500 people left the convention center and took to the streets of downtown Milwaukee, to protest the harsh and inhumane treatment of migrants and children in cages at our nation's border detention centers.
Now, some of you may say, ‘That all sounds very political, and we as a church should stay out of politics. I mean, after all, we have separation of church and state, right?’
Well, because this is July 4 weekend, and in light of the recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion and climate and prayer, I thought this would be a really good time for us to talk about what the separation of church and state actually means.
For us as churches, what it means is that we cannot from the pulpit, openly endorse a particular political party, or a particular political candidate. We are forbidden from doing that. And yet, it's interesting, you know, from time to time I watch these church shows on TV, these evangelical televangelists, and I have seen on their shows that they openly endorse certain political parties and candidates and bash other ones, right on their own TV shows, which are broadcast to millions of people.
I don't know how as tax-free churches, they get away with that, but they do.
But we are forbidden from doing so. That said, we are allowed to speak out against our nation's leaders and politicians, when they endorse and promote policies that are inhumane and that harm people. Because that's what Jesus did. Jesus spoke out against the leaders of his day, he called them hypocrites to their faces. That's why Jesus became an enemy of the state. And it's why they needed to silence him.
Jesus was trying to establish a new world order, a new kingdom. We in the progressive church refer to it as a Kin-dom. Because Jesus wasn't trying to establish a monarchy, a kingdom where he sat on the throne with the crown. We like the word kin-dom, because he was establishing a world where all are kin, were all of us are one, a world of peace, love, justice, and freedom for everyone.
Now, of course, we're celebrating freedom this weekend. It is what our founders came here to do. They were fleeing England, which had a king, they were fleeing a monarchy. And they were fleeing the Church of England, which was aligned with the monarchy, Church and State was one.
They came here to found something different. Those pilgrims were our UCC Congregationalist ancestors, and they established a beautiful declaration of their independence, which said that all people had three inalienable rights – rights which can't be taken away, there are the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Which means in the United States, you can live how you want to live, love how you want to love, express yourself how you want to express yourself, worship how you want to worship, and do whatever it is that makes you happy.
Now, we know that our founding fathers were not perfect people, they owned slaves, and they treated women as second-class citizens. So yes, they held this vision, but they didn't fully live it out. And in our nation's history, we haven't fully lived it out. But we have made progress, just in our lifetimes.
You know, I don't consider myself to be that old. But just in my lifetime, there were parts in this country where black people had to drink from separate water fountains and sit at the back of the bus. That was in my lifetime. In my lifetime, women in this country could not establish a credit card in their own name. And they were expected to stay home and have kids. And in my lifetime, gay people had to live in the closet or face arrest. That's just in my lifetime.
And yet, look what's happened in that short period of time. We have had civil rights, we've had women's liberation, we've had marriage equality. And why did all of those things happen?
Because people were brave.
They were brave enough to live their truth, and to speak the truth. You know, we say land of the free, home of the brave. And often our minds go to those who bravely went off to war. But it's also the land of the free because of the brave people who spoke their truth, and put their own lives at risk for doing so.
And that's why I find it so strange that people in this country who claim to be the most patriotic, are often the ones who want to restrict freedoms from people. They don't want to expand them. In fact, they want to deny freedoms to anybody who's different from them, who's not Christian, or white, or heterosexual.
So the so-called patriots, they want to ban people from entering this country because they're of a different race or a different religion. They want to establish certain religious freedom laws, which gives them legal right to discriminate against gay people, that their business can legally refuse service to someone because they're gay, or deny housing or employment to a transgender person. And they get to do that in the name of their religion that their religion forbids them from doing so.
And these so called patriots, they want the 10 commandments up in public courthouses. They want nativity sets out in public squares during Christmas, and they want prayer in public school. But what they forget is that America is a nation of people who have freedom, people who are free to worship how they want to worship, they could be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and they can be atheists too. They have that freedom.
Freedom of religion doesn't mean that you get to enforce your religious beliefs on other Americans who have other beliefs. So if your religion, for example, teaches you that abortion is wrong, you are free to believe that. But you are not free to enforce that belief on other Americans who have other beliefs.
And these public prayer people, what they really want is Christian prayer. I guarantee you that if Muslim football players started bringing their prayer mats onto the field, and chanting to Allah, or if Hindu teachers in public schools started passing out mala beads to their students, and having them join in a mantra, those public prayer people would be up in arms.
America is not a Christian nation. It's not. It was never intended to be. John Adams, the second President of the United States, said the United States of America, in no way, shape or form, is founded on the Christian religion. End quote.
Our founding fathers John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, they were not church-going Christians. Look it up. Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, had well-worn copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy text, and of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy text. But he said he had little use for the Bible. In fact, Thomas Jefferson famously cut up a Bible, he just cut out the words of Jesus, and he pasted them in a blank journal, he threw the rest of the Bible away. That book is known as the Jefferson Bible. That journal, you can see it on display in the Smithsonian.
So why do so many Christians today establish being a good American with being a good Christian?
Well, you know, they say things like, ‘Well, it says, In God, we trust on our currency. And in our Pledge of Allegiance, we say one nation under God.’ Those words were added to our currency and to our pledge in the 1950s. Most of you were alive in the 1950s. It wasn't that long ago. And why were they added then? Because of the McCarthy trials, people were being tried for being unAmerican. And who were those people? Journalists, intellectuals, artists.
It's very important that we remember that history, because right now in America, there are very rich and very powerful Christian lobbyists, who are working very hard to restrict and deny freedoms to people who are not Christian.
Now, we in the United Church of Christ, we are a Christian denomination. When we take to the streets in protest, it's not because we hate our country. As we heard in our words of integration and guidance this morning, it's because we love our country. We love it so much. And we want it to live up to that ideal, that vision that our founders set for us. And yet, we hear from a lot of so-called patriots that being patriotic means saying, America's number one were the greatest. But if you think we're number one, then you think everybody else is below you. beneath you, inferior to you. And that goes against our being created equal. Yes, America is great. Yes, God blesses America, God loves America.
But you know who else God thinks is great? Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia. God thinks they're great. God loves them. God blesses them. God's love knows no borders. All people are God's children. That's what today's Gospel reading is all about.
If you notice, Jesus is sending his disciples out into foreign lands. Because what he wanted them to do was, he wanted them to experience what it was like to be the stranger, to be the other, and to extend peace to people who are foreigners.
Because his whole idea of establishing the kingdom was to tear down the borders and the boundaries which are manmade, and which separate people. Jesus wanted people to see the oneness. Jesus said, ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ And that truth is that we're all one.
So my question for you on this independence weekend is, are you free? Are you really free? Are you free from blind patriotism? Are you free from religious dogma? Are you free from limited thinking about what it means to be a good American? Or what it means to be a real man or a woman? Are you free from what limits you from experiencing life to the full? Jesus wanted us to know that all people are one, and he said once we know that truth, we would experience freedom. Jesus said that, and so did our founders with that beautiful motto that they established for our country. E pluribus unum. It's Latin for Out of many, One. When we know the truth of that oneness, a oneness with one another, regardless of our race, or religion, or or nationality, or sexual orientation or gender, once we really know the truth of that oneness and start living from it, we will be set free and will heal this landsso that we can bring about the kingdom of heaven. a just world for all.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
Rev. Mary Luti, UCC Minister
In my circles, whenever you say something good about America, you have to add an immediate disclaimer. “It's a great country, but…” We oppress people. We support dictators. Our unfettered markets crush the poor. We make careless wars. We spy on everybody in the name of security. We can't wait to frack away the future. When the national anthem's sung at the ball game, it's hard to feel patriotic without our country's flaws elbowing their way into consciousness, messing up the heart-swelling moment. There's no getting around it: it's undeniable and true—we're not what we're cracked up to be. Yet, I love this country wholeheartedly. I don't believe it's naïve or un-prophetic to do so. Scripture says we should—or at least that we should pray for our leaders, a form of love we often neglect. We have to hold our country's feet to the fire of its ideals, but the work of shaping a just society isn't hold-your-nose-work. You can't mend flaws with contempt. You can't bind wounds with disgust. You can't redeem what you don't love. Without love you can only punish and damn. If loving America is unfashionable in your circles, July 4th Weekend is a good time to reclaim the practice. Knowing all you know, love anyway. Love America's originating spirit of fairness and freedom. Love its vision of equality, justice, and full participation. Love its creativity and openness. Love baseball, fireworks, purple mountain majesties, oceans white with foam, maybe even NASCAR. Eat a hot dog today (okay, a veggie dog on a gluten-free roll), wave a flag, drive your Chevy to the levee, cheer the weird floats in the town parade. Fog up when they play the anthem. Love your country. Pray hard for its good. Then get back to work.
What did you think?