Politics and Religion – Southern Style

I will never forget the first time I met with a group of older men for breakfast at my first church. As discussions began, they informed me, “We don’t talk about religion or politics.” They immediately began talking politics. When I asked about the discrepancy, they told me, “Religion and politics don’t go together.”

Politics have been around since the church began. In Acts 6, the disciples appointed Stephen in response to political pressure. In Acts 15, Paul and Peter went toe-to-toe at the Council of Jerusalem debating the future of the church. I have always been amazed when I hear people say, “Politics have no place in the church!” I guess it depends on how you define politics.

The dictionary defines politics in several ways. It can mean, “The art or science of governing” and it can mean, “The art or science concerned with winning or holding control of authority.” Therefore, depending on your definition of politics, it may be appropriate to have politics in the church, or it may be inappropriate to have politics in the church.

In South Georgia, we received the news recently of the new procedure for identifying those who desire to serve as delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference. The 2005 session of the South Georgia Annual Conference established a policy on elections in an effort to “create a level playing field and be fair with all potential candidates.” South Georgia is joining other conferences in allowing clergy to declare their interest in serving by placing their personal information on the conference website – lay people have done this for years. The conference designed the procedure to be sufficient and preclude candidates or supporters from sending other forms of campaign materials, printed or electronic. This appears to be an attempt to do away with politics as “the art of winning control or authority”. The hope is to allow a political process that will uphold the greatest virtues of our faith and promote unity.

Many in the church have observed the church taking cues from our American culture when it comes to choosing leaders, and that is unfortunate. Our culture emphasizes the polarization of people into defined camps of ideology. The church has followed suit and has drawn firmer distinctions on both sides of every issue. Unity was a primary concern for Paul, but it seems to be of little concern for modern Christians. At times, we seem to be more concerned with winning control than becoming one in Christ.

What kind of example could we set if we chose leaders in a way that accentuated our unity? Could our practice of choosing leaders become a model that would transform American politics? In Acts 1:8, Jesus said we were to be his witnesses to the world. Could it be that our greatest witness is in how we disagree with one another, remain unified, and lift high the cross?

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