By Jill Riley
I have a license to pastor a church. This license allows me to officially marry and bury people. In honor and deference to my work the government allows me to not pay taxes on my income. I can put much of my salary towards “housing allowance”. Our church can take in donations, for which the donor can receive tax deductions; all because we are a community of faith. I appreciate these benefits. In exchange I am asked by the government to not make a stance politically. Not promote candidates for office and not mix politics with our church “work”. Fair enough.
However, occasionally I am asked if I will make a stand against a candidate because of their support of homosexuality, their outspoken beliefs on abortion, etc. etc. My presence has been requested to picket policies and ordinances. The invitation has been extended to me to “speak out” on this issue and that.
So, what is my role as a minister in government and the political arena? How should I interact with integrity and honor to both God and country?
Deeper. This year our city was embroiled in a battle over a “non-discrimination ordinance”. On one side of the schoolyard stood the line of ministers, conservatives and friends that wanted me to picket and pronounce my indignation that we would allow gays “more rights” than Christians. On the other side were other friends and peers who wanted to see gays be allowed to rent apartments and solicit businesses freely, without the threat of discrimination. Each side had its own interpretation of the “law” and of “rights”. I listened while both sides chanted “red rover, red rover . . .” to me, begging me to take their side. (I chose to read the drafted law outloud to our congregation. I reinforced that those who telling us we would lose our religious freedom were not only inaccurate but fear mongering. I told our church that discrimination of anybody according to race, religious preference, disability, gender or sexual preference was not the way of God and we would support no such activity. How they voted on the ordinance was up to them.)
Deeper still. What should the church’s stance on gay marriage be? Should I, a recipient of tax benefit and occupational privilege, be allowed to take a stance on a government issued license? Where do the lines of following God and obeying the laws intersect? Can we separate these issues?
For the record, my personal feeling on this specific issue is that the government should issue licenses for marriage according to its own statutes and guidelines, leaving religious preference outside of the conversation. Then let the church and it’s officiates bless the marriage of whomever they will, according to their religious beliefs. That seems to me to be true separation of church and state.
Unfortunately not every topic can be separated this easily in my mind. Should I push to allow the Bible to be in schools? The ten commandments be on the courthouse lawn? Shall I protest an imam being invited to pray in the Senate because I don’t share his beliefs? Is my child being discriminated against if they cannot read a Bible during reading hours at school? Will I picket against the death penalty?
(Some ministers I know choose to not take the tax deductions allowed and then speak freely. This is their way of avoiding ethical conflict. However NO church I know turns down the tax breaks allowed a religions institution.)
God in politics. Where do we speak? When are we silent? When do we advocate? There are many questions and few finite answers to me.