Spirituality and Morality and Politics – Oh My!

A reader sent in a link to an opinion piece written by Thomas L. Friedman from the New York Times.  The article dealt with immigration.  Here’s a link to that article: immigration opinion piece.

In reflecting on matters the article raise, the reader asked the following questions: “What’s the separation and distinction among political, moral, and spiritual questions? Which are the questions that are appropriate for church involvement?”

I will share a couple of thoughts to get the conversation started, and then invite others to share their perspectives as well.

In regard to the first question – “What’s the separation and distinction among political, moral, and spiritual questions?” – the lines are more blurred than some would like to think.  I often chuckle when some say that pastors should stay completely out of politics.  I wonder if such people have ever read the words of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) who regularly talk about things like taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the alien and rail against “the haves” who mistreat “the have nots”.

I don’t have a neat line that clearly delineates the difference between “political”, “moral”, and “spiritual”.  For me, it’s more a matter of creating a flow/relationship between the concepts.  For instance, I begin with an active spiritual life that informs my understanding of God and my sense of how God calls me to live in healthy relationship with other elements of God’s created order (both human and non-human).  Those ways I’m called to live in healthy relationship form my sense of morality.  And when I move from the personal into the public arena – and try to forge ways of living together with others who might have a different sense of morality than I – the policies for which I advocate to guide our interactions drive my political understandings.

With that said, I do believe it is possible for folks to have a sense of morals and politics without a spiritual foundation.  There, of course, will be areas of overlap in morals and politics between those who have a spiritual foundation and those who do not.  There will be areas of difference as well: even between those who share the same faith tradition.  If you have any doubts about that, just ask an Evangelical and Progressive Christian what they think about abortion – or for whom they voted in the last Presidential election!

Let me give you an example of how this spirituality – morals – politics flow works for me.  As a Christian, my spirituality tells me that ALL of God’s children are equally loved and sacred.  This spiritual conviction then forms my sense of morality that calls me to extend humane care to everyone who crosses my path: legal residents of this country as well as illegal immigrants.  That sense of morality then causes me to support political policies that are humane and recognize the sacred worth of immigrants.  It causes me to question political policies that first separate and then detain family members – and policies that ignore some of the systemic issues (i.e. economic and political exploitation of other countries by the United States) that create the very hardships that drive their citizens out of their homes and into the United States.  I use the topic to show how my sense of morality and politics flow from my spiritual life.

This leads me to the second question: “Which are the questions that are appropriate for church involvement?”

My sense is that some local churches and denominations get themselves in trouble (I’ll say more about this in a minute) because they reverse the order I listed above.  They start with politics, then moralize their political positions.  Spirituality is often treated as an afterthought – or as a means to justify positions that were arrived at using other primary factors.

A moment ago, I talked about churches getting themselves in trouble.  Here’s what I meant by that.  There are government rules that restrict a local church’s involvement in partisan politics.  There are IRS rules, in particular, that limit what 501(c)(3) (charitable organizations) can do.  A 501(c)(3) is legally defined as a group “which does not participate in,  or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”  This means local churches cannot endorse – or directly work to elect – a candidate for partisan office (meaning an office where the candidates are declared to be members of the Republican, Democratic, Green or Libertarian parties – to name just a few political parties).

While this law precludes work on behalf of specific partisan candidates, it does not mean churches can’t speak to issues.  They can.  So the issue then becomes, HOW they speak to issues.  A church can, for instance, talk about their spiritual understanding of an issue like abortion or homosexuality and establish a position consistent with their beliefs.  If the church’s leaders follow that conversation up by saying, “And because Republican/Democratic candidate Jane Doe shares our opinion, we heartily endorse Jane and urge you to vote for her and get her elected!”

Some churches from both the Right and Left start by speaking to moral issues: and attack those who have the nerve to disagree with them: even suggesting that those who disagree with them “aren’t really Christians”.  I don’t think this is the right place to start.  I prefer to start addressing issues at the spiritual level.  Once we establish not only our theological views – and our core values, or morals, that grow out of these beliefs – we can then pay attention to HOW we go about sharing those values with the world.  For instance, do we share those beliefs from a place of anger or judgment; or do we do so from a place of love and openness to transformation (not only of the others but even for ourselves).  If we come from a healthy place spirituality, then I believe the way we bring forth our sense of morality and politics will reflect that.

So that’s how I approach the great questions raised by my reader.  There IS an intimate relationship between spirituality, morals, and politics (please note my preferred flow of those things) and that people of faith and their worshipping communities can play a role in addressing issues of morality and politics – in ways that transcend the partisan divides.

My greatest sadness these days in regard to the current political climate of this country is that many of those from my own faith tradition (Christianity) have made things much WORSE in terms of the hatred and division that is dominating our country these days by promulgating a narrow sense of morality and a freakishly partisan agenda.  Regardless of where we land on political issues, we should always show Christ’s vision and values through the way we treat others.  For, as we increasingly struggle to live and love those who are different than ourselves, I often think of Point 4 of the Center for Progressive Christianity’s 8 Points of Progressive Christianity: “… the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe.

What are your thoughts on these matters?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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1 Response to Spirituality and Morality and Politics – Oh My!

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Thank you for acknowledging that not all moral positions must derive from a spiritual foundation. As an atheist, I become concerned when anyone, regardless of political beliefs or affiliation, refuses to discuss morality or politics through any other lens than their own spiritual beliefs. In a country where we supposedly have separation of church and state, saying “My religion tells me X, so I believe the law should support X, end of story” is genuinely frightening for those of us who are excluded from that kind of conversation and whose needs are therefore likely to be excluded from that policy proposal.

    To be clear, I am completely okay with people deriving their morality and politics from their spirituality. My parents did this, and my own morality is no doubt greatly influenced by the values with which they raised me. The only thing I ask is that when you take it past personal morality to political advocacy, you be prepared to answer the question “Why should people with different spiritual beliefs (or no spiritual beliefs) be subject to this law or policy or support this candidate?” A simple acknowledgment that other people exist and have as much right to be part of the conversation and consideration would go a long way toward reducing the political conflict between people of different spiritual beliefs.

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