Thursday, August 10, 2017

Religion and Politics: Non-Profit Ministry in the Public Square

Disclaimer: This is a much longer post than what is typical and resulted in a larger time gap between posts.

For those who know me well, you know my interests are pulled in a thousand directions. I am deeply committed to my Christian faith, I have worked in government and politics (despite my paradoxical disdain for politics), I am an academic (despite my lack of trust in academic work), and I am a musician. However, God in his coolness and sovereignty, has provided me with the perfect job to fit almost all of my interests as CEO of Transforming Jail Ministries.

In this post, I really want to focus on this intersection of government and religion. It is an important relationship to understand and equally important in order that churches are prepared for future changes. After all, like the Apostle Paul, we are citizens of two kingdoms: the geo-political state we belong to and the Kingdom of God.
Identity Tug of War

Let me begin with this. I totally agree with Francis Schaeffer (and others) who have emphasized the notion that there is no “sacred secular divide.” Meaning, we cannot live as Christians separately from being citizens (or any other social circles we may be a part of). In fact, there is no such thing as a sacred and secular divide in the sense of there being two realms. Everything is sacred.

To put this differently, for the Christian, our identity is first in Christ. That is not to say that we must disavow ourselves of other identities. It would be impossible to do so.

W. E. B. du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” spoke about living behind two veils. One was the veil of being a freed man in the United States with the second of being a black man in the United States. While I do not wish to hijack or diminish the horrible consequences of racism and slavery experienced by black Americans, I do think there is something here for the Christian to consider as well.

We too live behind two veils, and like du Bois, we must figure out a way to navigate our way through life on this side of eternity. It is the struggle between Augustine’s Kingdom of Man and Kingdom of God. John Bunyan also utilized this theme in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Here are some biblical references on dual citizenship:
-       Paul cites dual citizenship as a follower of Christ and a Roman citizen (Acts 21:39)
-       Acts describes Paul as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-8)
-       Paul says he was born a citizen (Acts 22:25-8)
-       Paul appeals to Caesar as a citizen (Acts 25)

Dual Citizenship

There is, however, a major difference between the Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Man. We cannot confuse those two and must not blur the lines between them. To quote my ethics professor from seminary (Russell Moore), “We can be Americans best if we are not Americans first.”

If you’re a die-hard patriotic nationalist, then those words are probably offensive. Here’s Moore’s point. The Gospel of Christ is much greater than Manifest Destiny or American Exceptionalism. Manifest Destiny was a sham all along and Americans have never been exceptional. Nations rise and fall and we too will one day die. And on that day, we will no longer be Americans.

To think of being American (ethnically) as being greater than being Mexican, Libyan, Chinese, Russian, Syrian, Iraqi, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, German, Somalian, Kenyan, Zambian, Peruvian, Portuguese, or any other nationality is entirely racist and anti-Gospel. It flies in the face of God’s word when he tells us that we are all made in his image. Equality is global in scope.

What are we to say to our brothers and sisters abroad? Are they only semi-Christian? Is American citizenship a sort of salvific baptism into the Kingdom of God? Absolutely not!

I do not say this to claim that the United States of America isn’t a great nation. It is. There’s no other nation in which I’d prefer to live. I’m not anti-American in heart, mind, or deed.

But, if we confuse our nationality with our faith, we will exacerbate the kind of civil religion where our nation is to be the defender and substance of our faith.

Likewise, if we believe being Christian requires belonging to one political party over others, then we have confused our identity in Christ with partisanship. There’s not a major political party or third party in the U.S. which sufficiently and exhaustively reflects Christian beliefs. Given that we have Christian liberty in government policy, it would be impossible for such a party to exist. Were it to be possible, it would likely be unwise.

The Financial Future of Religious Institutions

Early in U.S. history, Baptists and Presbyterians fought for separation of church and state. They were wise in doing so and we’d be wise to follow in their footsteps. However, the framers of our Constitution did not all agree as to what separation would look like. The U.S. Constitution never uses the language of “separation of church and state.” The Establishment Clause simply restricts government from being able to recognize, or “respect,” religion (a Madisonian approach).

In my opinion, the Madisonian approach is the right one. It is inconvenient for everyone, but benefits no one above others. A Madisonian non-cognizance approach simply means that government can make no decision that recognizes religion as a factor. It is also the most commonly used approach by the Supreme Court.

In the case of the Ark Encounter controversy in Kentucky, it meant that the state of Kentucky could not withhold tourism tax credits on the grounds of Ark Encounter being a religious entity. It also means that the state cannot withhold funds from an atheist or Muslim equivalent, whatever that might be. The tax credits must be available for all who meet the necessary requirements, regardless of religion or lack thereof, because government cannot allow religion or the lack thereof to be a factor in an assessment.

In order to best preserve our individual religious liberties, we must therefore protect religious liberties for persons of all faiths and those who lack religious identity altogether.

There will be a day, however, when religious organizations will lose tax credits and benefits. Christianity is being viewed more and more as antithetical to contemporary ethics. What will we do when that day arrives?

I suggest that we should be prepared well in advance to give up our tax credits and benefits in order to maintain our theology. Churches are generally registered as 501(c)3 organizations. In the language of law, we are tax exempt organizations. As of now—according to a Madisonian understanding of the U.S. Constitution—we are able to be tax exempt because churches and religious organizations are not for profit (most of us anyway).

When our theology is no longer tolerated, either we will lose our exemptions or we will lose our doctrinal distinctives. Read this as both a warning and exhortation to be financially prepared for the day when we will lose our tax-exempt status if we fail to comply with court rulings and legislation. That time is not far.

Render to Caesar What is Caesar’s

This final section is wholly dependent on a specific biblical interpretation and political philosophy. The first part is to believe that the words of Jesus apply to all people at all times. That means when Jesus says to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mk. 12:17), then we are expected to do so. In other words, pay your taxes and uphold your obligation as a citizen.

Secondly, we must have a half-decent understanding of the social contract. Political theorists and philosophers have discussed the social contract for some time. The social contract is assumed at birth. You don’t get a choice. In the U.S., it means that we are born within the geo-political boundaries of a government we must obey. Simultaneously, we have certain civil liberties and freedoms our government is expected to protect. If we do not obey, there are consequences that include fines, incarceration, and possibly death. If the government does not uphold its obligations, we have a judicial process through which we can take action.

There are gray areas however, where this relationship is not so clear.

Transforming Jail Ministries (the organization I serve) operates within government facilities and receives some local government funding for the services we provide. In turn, we manage the process of credentialing chaplains for all faiths in order to accommodate inmates of all faiths.

Some Christians will find this controversial and difficult to reconcile with gospel ministry. I did at first, but it is important to distinguish between credentialing and endorsing. While we are the buffer between government and religious groups—as the credentialing agency—we never endorse any chaplain or religious group. Therefore, we are able to continue our gospel ministry and provide services for the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department (Cincinnati for those who do not live here).

If there comes a day when we are expected to “endorse” all theologies, that will be the day I step down.

It is also crucial that I maintain proper boundaries between my organization’s operations and that of the Sheriff’s Department. In heeding my own words, I am working towards funding levels where my organization is not wholly dependent on donations from the Sheriff’s Department in order to continue our operations. Should there be a day when we are expected to operate in a way that violates our Christian distinctives or else lose funding, then I will opt to forgo our government funding whatever the consequences may be.

Concluding Remarks

I want to thank those of you who have trudged through this exceptionally long post. I do not wish to be offensive with this post, though I am sure some will take it as anti-American. That is not my goal. I have a long history of working within government for the purpose of making my communities, state, and nation a better place. I love the country in which I live. Despite our warts and historic moral failings, I believe an overwhelming majority wish to continue working toward the goal of making the U.S. a better place.

For those of you who are in ministry, I hope you have found this helpful. It is essentially an outline of a lot of research and study I have done over the past several years as a seminary student, a student of political science, and a political activist.

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