The Place of the Church Within the State

The First Amendment of the United States guarantees that the government shall not establish a religion. Nor would it interfere with the free exercise of religion. There's a nice bright line between church and state that we who are believers appreciate and respect. That's why we don’t ever talk about things that are political. And considering how Adventism was founded in America, it's no wonder that our church has historically avoided involvement in politics. So, in keeping with the law and our tradition, our church should refrain from discussions regarding anything remotely related to politics.

Right?

Enter record scratch here.

Separation of church and state doesn't mean we can't discuss things in churches if there are political elements to them. No one is endangering their tax-exempt status by having discussions about political issues. That is neither the tradition of the United States nor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Those are blanket misconceptions held by many.

The truth is, from the government’s perspective, limitations for churches have never been very clearly defined or enforced. After all, the definition of politics itself is pretty broad: “a: the art or science of government, b: the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy”. To deny religious entities the right to discuss these concepts would essentially hamstring their ability to discuss practical applications of good citizenship, and both rights and conduct of the governed.

The Historical Black Church in America has always been concerned with issues concerning government and civic engagement. As has been the Nation of Islam. Both entities were large influences in the Civil Rights movement. Additionally there has been a long tradition of religious congregations — of diverse ethnic compositions — to recognize politicians and public servants and give them opportunities to address their members. Houses of worship are part and parcel of the communities they belong to. The members are oftentimes constituents of those neighborhoods. For this reason there is a recognized mutually beneficial relationship when houses of worship are civically engaged. If government didn't believe this there wouldn't be outreach to faith communities. There wouldn't be government advisory boards involving faith leaders. And there surely wouldn't be any National Prayer breakfasts. While the government isn't supposed to endorse a state religion, nor hamper the existence of any religion, religion and government don't ignore each other's existence. To do so would actually be detrimental. So this idea that the IRS is ripping away tax exempt status from churches that preach about social issues is wholly false, both in spirit of the law and practicality.

But what about the Seventh day Adventist Church? Haven't we always been apolitical? No one with even a cursory knowledge of our church history would dare say so. If the very existence of our Religious Liberty Department doesn’t convince you otherwise let's examine our denominational beginnings. Since our earliest days, we've been involved in then-current social discourses. In 1891, former General Conference President George Butler wrote in the Review: “Were we living under an absolute monarchy, all we could do would be to pray; but in this Republic we have an instrument given with which we can second our prayers, and that is, our ballot” (Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 17, 1891). He recognized and promoted civil engagement of believers. But even further, Ellen White not only exhorted people to vote, she also encouraged political activism.

One of the hot button issues of the late 1800’s was temperance and alcohol prohibition. Ellen White pushed Adventists to vote specifically in favor of temperance on local ballots. Moreover, she preached and wrote that Adventists should vote against certain office holders whom she felt did not uphold this ideal. Let that sink in: the promotion of this concept was godly. In that light, she boldly preached against those politicians whom she felt fell short in this regard. Addressing the subject in an 1880 Signs of the Times article, she wrote: “Intemperate men should not by vote of the people be placed in positions of trust”. In another instance she urged members to vote for temperance — even if it meant voting on Sabbath: “Shall we vote for prohibition? Yes, to a man, everywhere and perhaps I shall shock some of you if I say, if necessary, vote on the Sabbath day for prohibition if you cannot at any other time.” She went beyond simply saying, “exercise your right to vote for whatever, just as long as you get out to vote!” She advocated for a particular stance she believed to be in line with “virtue”.

Furthermore, she asked members to exercise other means to get this message to broader society, “The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example — by voice and pen and vote — in favor of prohibition and total abstinence. We need not expect that God will work a miracle to bring about this reform, and thus remove the necessity for our exertion. We ourselves must grapple with this giant foe, our motto, No compromise and no cessation of our efforts till the victory is gained” (Review & Herald, October 15, 1914). If that isn't an endorsement of sustained civic action, what is?

Ellen White preached on the topic, citing biblical examples demonstrating the application of this principle — not just in the lives of the believer, but for all citizens. And she prodded other ministers to preach this message just as boldly. Speaking specifically on the subject of prohibition, she admonished: “Let ministers of the gospel be faithful in sounding the warnings to the people” (Signs of the Times, February 11, 1886). She even cast some shade on those pastors who didn't strongly preach about it, “I will inquire why some of our ministerial brethren are so far behind in proclaiming the exalted theme of temperance.”

In 1909 the General conference promoted the efforts of all members of varying professions — including ministers — to speak in favor of this political topic, asking that “ministers, teachers, physicians, nurses, and people generally, engage in a vigorous campaign in behalf of total abstinence, by means of lectures, demonstrations, and the distribution of health and temperance literature, and that whenever consistent our people, by voice, pen, and vote, place themselves on record as favorable to its restriction and entire prohibition.” (General Conference Bulletin, May 24, 1909). Through the concerted efforts of various organizations — including Adventism and other denominations — the 18th Amendment was passed in 1919. When it came under threat of repeal in the 1930’s, the General Conference went so far as to send a letter to the US president! (Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic, 2001). The Adventist Temperance Society tirelessly distributed literature persuading others throughout the nation to work against repeal (Spoiler alert: it was repealed in 1933).

The church encouraged members to vote for a certain outcome. They were also prompted to teach and even preach on this stance. It was a political issue but it was also a moral one. And where that intersection exists our church has not shied away from being vocal about social action.

Somewhere in the mid 20th century, becoming further removed from our pioneers after their passing, we also became further removed from our roots. We forgot our energetic history as a civically engaged church (a lot of stagnation happened during those years, including the erosion of women's equality within church leadership). Perhaps there was uncertainty regarding what direction to travel, so we stood still. But, as the wider society progressed, being stationary became more like regression relative to our surroundings. And the sad thing is, in the 21st century, people have so lost sight of our beginnings that we have bought into the idea that we've always distanced ourselves from politics. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Many ultra conservative Adventists proclaim the need to go back to our Adventist roots. I couldn't agree more. “And let all remember that our happiness in two worlds depends upon the right improvement of one.” (Ellen White: Review & Herald, February 11, 1886).

Courtney Ray is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7900
4 Likes

the greatest sin of the church in America is “Labeling”. Everyone must fit one status or another. while a member of the Board of Trustees at LLU every time a new Conference president was appointed, I would be asked if I was a “worker” It got so that I would respond well I ain’t the queen bee!

4 Likes

Brilliant!!! Thank you!!! ~ Gregory W. Hamilton, President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) at the North Pacific Union Conference of Seventh day Adventists

2 Likes

Very good article. Shows solid scholarship. Well-reasoned and convincing. A brilliant historical analysis of SDA political engagement.

1 Like

This.

I almost want to end my comment here because it is so spot on.

Even a casual reading of the biographies in the Adventist Pioneer Series of books that George Knight is shepherding to press, reveals that the movement of Adventism was deeply influenced by the politics of the time. Several noted Millerites and Early Adventists were abolitionists; the church organization, and notably A.T. Jones, fought against Sunday laws before Congress; EGW was myopic about temperance and prohibition; the church was deeply divided over how to politically approach racial and economic disparities. Even today on issues of importance, such as the Defense of Marriage Act, we find the church writing a cautionary amicus curia warning of religious liberty conflicts in upholding the law.

Christ said, give to “Ceasar that which is his” implying that Kingdom citizenship required Christians to be engaged citizen in this world’s kingdom too. In Christ’s time that meant being a compliant, semi-autonomous citizen under a brutal dictatorship. Today, in the United States, we are called to be engaged as we live in a participatory democracy. For those founding this country, that freedom came through war and conflict. For women and people of color that right can through protest, and arguably civil wars and conflict. It is the church’s responsibility to exercise its rights as aptly pointed out, “exerting our influence by precept and example — by voice and pen and vote.” Anything less is unworthy of the gospel.

To hide behind edited quotes of Ellen White cautioning against politics is disingenuous at best and cowardliness at its worst. So we must ask why do we hide? In my opinion, it is because confronting politics forces us to come face to face with our ideological differences, and prejudices. Lord the forbid that we have honest conversations about the nature of the gospel as it relates to justice and equity. After all, it is much easier to look for orange hair in the Greek text of the book of Revelation than it is to talk about politics and social justice.

Addendum: Since we are limited to one post, I am adding this addendum In response to Jeremy

Jeremy’s full comments below underscore two points. First, our focus on the second coming as the core of our evangelism make us so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Second, the portion of his message that I quote above betrays two things. First is the misconception that politics has to be Us versus Them. We will only survive the next years if we recognize that it is no longer partisan. Democracy is at stake… Which is why historical Adventism intersects politics today. Read Luke 4:18-19. The gospel we are to be preaching is not the irrelevant “gospel” of the second coming but is, in the works of Christ’

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to give the Messianic proclamation of the gospel to those who are impotent, hopelessly dependent and totally impoverished; To heal the wounds of those who have been physically, mentally and emotionally beaten down and broken; He, the Spirit, has sent me for the purpose of proclaiming far and wide, release and cancellation of obligation to those held captive in misery; and provide recovery of sight to those who cannot see; and send out as free those, who at the hands of others, are oppressed, weakened, downtrodden, and broken like shards of smashed pottery; To proclaim that Today, the anticipated and welcomed time of the Lord’s Jubilee has arrived.” Luke 4: 18-19

We are a church that should be preaching the politically charged message of wholeness and community and universal reconciliation. But indeed that is dangerous. Let’s be safe and press on with irrelevance, superimposing today’s events on the obscure symbols of Daniel and Revelation.

All of which underscores Pastor Ray’s message that we have forgotten how Christ has led us in the Past.

6 Likes

i think our reticence with overt political involvement is related to practical aspects attending our priority of evangelism…after-all, given the polarizing tendency of politics, by identifying with one party, we automatically close off virtually all possibility of appealing to someone from an opposing party…and it’s now pretty much the case that identifying with one political party tends to close off possibilities for fellowship with even adventists from an opposing party…gone with the wind are the days when it could assumed that most american adventists you knew would vote republican…

2 Likes

I believe this as well:

Consider these questions: Did Jesus ever suggest by word of example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar? Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day? Did he ever word to pass laws against the sinners he hunt out with and ministered to? Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected? Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God? The answer to all these questions is, of course, no.
Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church

3 Likes

To the Author , It would appear that you are unfamiliar with the argument put forward by A.T. Jones when he went before the U.S. Congress to stop a bill to close the World Fair on Sunday. His presentation can be found in the 1893 General Conference Bulletin .There is a State religion in America. It is the Christian Religion. In fact Elder. Jones puts forward the argument that Congress shall not make any “other ,” religion the national religion other than Christianity .It would also appear that the Law was passed and still on the Books .That being the case , it can be called forward at any time .Church and State is alive and well .

1 Like

Amazing article! An eye opener! Such ashame that it’s not taught in Adventist high schools to a larger degree… As a student myself in such… I do not recall any such learning about christains & politics. Apart from the whole world is in God’s hands & run when the beastly power pursues.

Oh I wish a proper perspective in my youth days of the eighties /nineties. That is… Evil prevails when good men do nothing. Not by returning evil but by carrying a torch similar to our pioneers. One of perseverance & courage.

1 Like

Mark, whether we like it or not, Jeremy brings up a valid point. All you need to do is read some of the comments on Spectrum to see that all too often that’s all it does: Us vs. Them. For some people partisan politics is their religion.

However, that is not to say we should not vote against the ills of society. The word “politics,” can be a slippery one. As the writer of this article pointed out:

It would have been appropriate I believe for the sake of clarity for the 3rd definition in Websters Dictionary to have been added to the list:

c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government

For some people the word politics means just that: “concerned with winning and holding control.”

I totally agree with this. Vote the policy, not the man or his party. Here’s the kicker: If we’re not allowed to vote how can we vote…

From an article in Ministry Magazine, 1968. Does this sound familiar:

"There is no drearier chapter in American politi­cal history than that which records the period from the end of reconstruction to the Populist revolt of the early nineties. . . . During the whole of this period the electorate played a game of blind man’s buff. Never before had American politics been so intellectually bankrupt. . . . The result was to make national politics unreal, and, except for electoral clowning and Congressional buncombe, very dull. . . . Candidates . . . fought political campaigns on the basis of personality or inherited prejudice… . . Politics was largely a Punch and Judy show, but though the puppets and even the voices changed, the hands that held the strings were the same.
https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1968/11/adventists-and-politics

Good read,

Thanks

1 Like

By all means, Pastor Ray, let’s mix politics with religion, and with Jesus’/EGW’s Blessing, of course.

I mean it’s not like any of these entities aren’t divisive enough on their own, right?

So what better way to set SDA’s even further apart from their fellow men than to impress/scare them with a divinely inspired call to political sectarianism?

Excellent. Good work. We often forget where we came from and why—some of that information is embarrassing, some power-eroding for current leadership, some both enlightening and useful. The church lives in an environment of “Present Truth,” not an a-historical system of habits.

2 Likes

Well, are you aware what is a church? (five BA Hai, meeting once the week ?), what is “State”. Not so long ago in court the judge begun his sentence : “In the name of the Emperor”. Now in our republics it is to be heard “In the name of the Republic” - _and the republic is also you and me. -with all our responsibilities._

It is a saddening erxperience, when some SDA periodicals editor invites you to place his paper on Church - State - relationship in your waiting room and , asked, he can define neither.the one nor the other.

Here in Vienna one lot for building a church, together with room enough for a church school was obtained by contacting the Red city government. - - We had school on Sabbath. I all the time was - illegally - excused. Then, 1954 the State authorities for School, Education , a Black institution- - dismissed an order making this practice legal… For this you need networks to the one and the opposing other party. And what about the privileges of the clergy ? - If we SDAs were acknowledged as a “Church”, an ordained minister could refuse being asked as a witness in court ! (we are not - you know, 4 000 members are not enough and we did not join the union of the Babylonian other small churches)

A new law, regulation the "Psychotherapy"contained a passage that would have been detrimentous to teachers, priests, ministers, and to our mission concepts - - - Then I had my network, leading to eliminate this passage : I approached the Federal Minisuter of Education, , Red, a former schoollmate in college times, and the secretary of the RC Bishops conference, also having been in college with me. Black. And some members of the parliament. The very passage then did not even come into the final parliament session.

Negative, the living in an apolitical bubble : Leading Brertheren long ago approached he Federal Minister for Education, Culture and Religious Affairs for the SDA being acknowledges as a “church” He was Black, a liberal conservative, and promised his support. This two days before him being - removed - something all Vienna knew already. On another occasion, our Bretheren approached the President of the Republic. He was very polite, showed concern and interest and promised his support - only : According to our constitution the President has very (very !) limited influence and is compassionately listening to - everybody !.

And a ta SDA historians symposion in Fiedensau 2014 ond delegate from Argentine told us about the close connection to the dicttorship govenment -None of his ministers was imprisoned, none got lost, none was killed. Inbetween the dictator - and his supporters -are gone. The Brother from Poland told about the SDA abused by the communist government to weaken the RCC - fr this being in favor and privilege of the Comunist government. Now Poland is a strickt RC country again and some precisely remember - - the special anticatholic play.

Just about Church and State.

1 Like