Lesson 7: Church-State Relations

The separation of church and stateLast week I suggested that, in a hundred years, pastors would not be regarded as agents of the state when officiating at weddings. I imagine the relationship between Church and State will be changed in many other ways by then as well. The Church probably will follow the lead of corporations that feel no need to be American any more. She will think of herself more as a global rather than a national Church, certainly a more authentic biblical identity that modern technology is allowing to emerge.

Already, we can see this with the Roman Catholics electing first a non-Italian European and then a South American Pope. We all are going to see much more influence and leadership come from the Southern Hemisphere that now has more Christians than the North.

This will be a tremendous change. When I started my ministry in the mid-20th century, all churches were associated with ethnic and national backgrounds. My people were Pennsylvania Deutsche Lutherans who celebrated their German roots. At the same time, the American flag was prominent in our chancels and patriotic hymns and sermons were expected. People listened to religious radio and television that supported our government as much as religion. In fact, many of my acquaintances openly admitted they liked the patriotism and could care less about the Christianity. Those who wrote letters to the editor claiming removing prayer from public schools was destroying our country usually were people who did not worship in churches. Politicians, who would never darken a church door, schmoozed with clergy to gain votes.

The same could be said of most churches and neighborhoods then and to a great extent now. The Church is expected to cheer-lead for the government. In return for some privileges, the church is expected to remain silent rather than speak prophetically. The effectiveness of this relationship can be easily seen in the deterioration of prophecy since the Civil Rights marches and the anti-Vietnam protests.

All this is breaking down as fewer and fewer people feel a need to affiliate with a church. Many see them as divisive and an obstacle to progress. White protestants are especially losing control. As this trend continues, I expect the Church to regain her voice. Politicians will still try to buy votes, but this will not be effective as in the past. The church will become more and more one voice among many in a democratic society, and I expect it to be a much more contrarian one. Churches will speak for a better way of life rather than the preservation of the status quo.

I expect some of the issues we see slowly coming to light, such as championing the cause of the poor and pointing out the sins of cowboy capitalism, will be identified with the future church. Along with that will go much more concern for relationships with other world religions. Right now, hostility promoted by the ignorance of fundamental Christianity and Islam dominate. Closer contact with more open groups in both faiths will come with the advance of technology. Already scholars, such as Karen Armstrong, look for common messages, such as compassion. Younger American use meditation techniques from Buddhism in their devotional life. Religion departments in Church colleges now have specialists in all world religions instead of just theologians of their particular denominations.

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