Church and State

November 2008 Pastor's Newsletter Article

There has been a remarkable amount of conversation lately about faith and politics in our country. This has been especially notable in the area of presidential politics. During the last few election cycles, there has been a heightened expectation that candidates have the capacity to articulate their faith, and clarify how their faith will or won't affect the way they plan to make policy decisions as an elected leader. In this particular election, we have heard a great deal about certain Christian Ministers who have influenced candidates over the years, and certain others who have offered their endorsements of candidates. To some people, that seems out of place. Yet our country has a long tradition of respecting the right of believers to be engaged in the political and civil arenas.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists. They had contacted him the year before, complaining about how their state (Connecticut) treated religious freedom. In Jefferson's letter, he stated that the "legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state." (The fulll text of Jefferson's letter can be found at: In this carefully drafted letter, Jefferson clearly opposed the notion of a state sponsored religion in this country, and insisted that citizens be granted the "free exercise" of their religious beliefs.

In 1523, in his pamphlet "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed," Martin Luther lays the groundwork for Jefferson's point of view. (Interestingly enough, Jefferson's successor, James Madison, credits Luther for this work in a 12/3/1821 letter to F. L. Schaeffer.) Luther's viewpoint is that in civil matters, temporal authority is supreme (and instituted by God), and Christians have a duty to participate in governmental affairs. But when civil authority attempts to "hinder the gospel or coerce the conscience" Christians are duty-bound to resist the government.

What emerges from a reading of Luther, Jefferson and Madison, is that the primary thrust of the philosophy called "separation of church and state" prohibits the state from interfering with the free practice of religion, either by establishing a religion or by banning it. Yet all citizens are free to participate in governmental affairs, and people of faith are free to act on their religious beliefs as they do so.

As Christians, we are called to exercise our responsibilities as citizens of this nation in ways that are wise and faithful. We are to study the Scriptures, do our best to discern the mind of God, and act in ways that promote what we believe God wants for this country. Our faith demands that we "strive for justice and peace in all the earth." (Affirmation of Baptism; Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 236) Participating in the political process is one way to do just that.

So I encourage every reader of this column to study the issues. Measure each candidate and proposal against your understanding of God's will for this world and for this country. Make your voice heard by voting on (or by) November 4th. And in the months to come, make sure that your elected representatives hear from you regularly about matters our faith addresses. It is your Christian duty.

God's peace to you all,

David J. Risendal, Pastor