Madison, Wisconsin state capitol.
Photo by Sean Pavone.
Separation of church and state does not mean the church is politically innocent
Let’s accept Metz’s assertion as a profound truth. The church is always already functioning as an important political actor. This will come as a shock to many ears, because many (if not most) contemporary American Christians rather uncritically assume that the so-called doctrine of separation of church and state means that the church can exist in a kind of neutral religious space, “politically innocent” as it were.
Before the church takes up any particular political position, it is already functioning as a political actor. Perhaps this can help shed some light on the experience we are having in a supposedly more polarized political context, inasmuch as the political polarization as it impacts church life is exposing/unveiling the church as a political actor.
Of course, this may be because many churches (or even the church in general) has uncritically identified with particular political ideologies. But it’s important for us to make this distinction: it’s not that the church shouldn’t be political—it always already is—but rather the work of the church is to be political in the right way, with an awareness of that it is in fact a priori political.
Following the hottest summer on record, let’s try an experiment mashing together two of the more neglected yet crucial moral dilemmas confronting political theology: we might ask ourselves what it has meant for climate change and labor that the church has, especially in the U.S. context, presumed itself neutral and politically innocent.
I’m going to assume, based on fifty years of experience, that for the most part the church has presumed itself largely politically innocent in relationship to both labor and climate change.
Although there have been remarkable exceptions, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s solidarity with sanitation workers in Memphis, local congregations have largely not seen themselves as allies in solidarity with unions or the working class. Although some effective organizers have long been aware that when faith and labor are unified, they are a force, this is not an area the church has invested time, energy, or money in.
Personally, I’ve seen how effective faith and labor organizing can be working in tandem. When workers and clergy show up at the table and directly challenge the executive class and corporations, they often accomplish a lot. Admittedly, they accomplish a lot through onerous levels of organizing just to get simple wins. But nevertheless, I’ve observed labor and faith working together in highly effective ways.
But in the same period that church organizing has been waning, so too has worker organizing, and whether it’s simple lack of interest or just exhaustion, the church as a whole lacks a robust commitment to labor. Given the size and potential of the church, that the church has not shown up for workers has a lot to do with how corporations have been able to seize power and wrest the opportunity for effective organizing away from workers.
Meanwhile, the church presumes itself politically innocent of the many problems of class division in our society. The church sits silently on the side of the current class war and mostly just blesses the rich as they pillage the poor. Too often the church favors the interests of the rich in hopes that this may trickle down with benefits to everyone and inspire those not yet rich to avail themselves of becoming rich, or gestures at working-class solidarity while prioritizing the financial interests of the middle class over those of the working poor.
Here the complicity is patently theological. The church has for the most part read Scripture with an anthropological lens, concerned primarily with the salvation of humans and much less with our relationship with the creation as a whole. In spite of a rather deep leitmotif in Scripture of God’s abiding relationship with all of creation and humans as woven into it, the church has prioritized a gospel focused on saving human souls for a future or separate heaven.
All kinds of brutal systems have arisen from this theological error. Creation has been understood, in the worst cases, as a disposable vessel, as something humans can lord themselves over, or in the most common cases, simply as not a significant part of whatever it is that Christian faith is to be concerning itself with.
Christian theology in many quarters has for the most part simply been silent in relationship to creation, and just so inadequately prepared to address the climate crisis.
For the church to make a significant and lasting contribution in support of labor and the environment, we must realize that church properly understood is an alternative politics.
Once we wake up and remove the veil, then we can begin to understand everything in Scripture and Christian tradition that sees church as an “outpost of the kingdom of God” in the way it should be seen, as itself a kind of politics. As a kind of politics, it has something (quite a lot in fact) to say about our relationship to our industrial and economic practices that are contributing to climate change and that sacrifice workers at the altar of a neoliberal economy.
Having woken up, we can begin to consider how we might move in solidarity as a church at the intersection of labor and climate change. What is our responsibility toward workers who will, across the globe, have to work in hotter and hotter conditions if they lack access to A/C? What decisions will we make about work and labor and the ways we necessitate it for production if in fact that continues to exacerbate the climate crisis? Can we imagine living together in ways that lessen carbon emissions AND treat workers better (and overall stop feeding into a system that understands work as a kind of salvation?)
Can we read the gospels as a document recording a movement that primarily took place in and among the working poor? Can we rediscover in Scripture the way it speaks not just (or even primarily) to/about humans, but about creation as a whole?
Can we discover theological resources to wrest power away from the rich and restore access to all of God’s gifts to all of God’s creation in a manner of mutual aid and shared love?
The first move is the hardest to wrap our heads around but also the most essential. We must disabuse ourselves of the false notion that the church is apolitical. We must overcome the concept, so commonly taught among us, that we might somehow, in separating church from an influence over the state or the state having influence to keep us from being church in certain ways, arrive at some spiritual state of political innocence in which spirituality or religious life is not political.