To Love Your Neighbor

I have always thought that the conventional maxim – “religion and politics do not and should not mix” was not only wrong but misleading and downright silly. Of course they mix. We express our deepest values which often are rooted in our religious beliefs in how we live, how we order our priorities and spend our time and money, and how we vote. What it really means, I have observed, is that “your religion and my politics don’t mix.” The maxim is often confused with the separation of church and state. The Founders of the nation decided that the new republic would not have a state religion and established state church, and that citizens would enjoy a completely new phenomenon–freedom of religion and freedom to believe or not believe, to belong to a church or not to belong, according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. No one thought it would work. How can a state survive without religious support? How can a church survive without state sponsorship?

The wall separating church and state is not in the constitution per se, but in a letter Thomas Jefferson addressed to some concerned Baptists in Connecticut. One effect of the letter was actually to encourage citizens to civic and political involvement as an expression of their religion and to assume responsibility for the life of their churches. American churches have been expressing their convictions with political ramifications all the way back to Colonial days when American Presbyterians, at their first General Assembly, addressed themselves to the new president, George Washington.

The issue is before us now with Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato si’. The Pope chose words from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle to the Sun”, a gorgeous poem that praises the Creator for the gift of the creation and assumes human stewardship and responsibility for the creation. The Pope used blunt language in observing that in exercising our responsibility for the earth, our home, we human beings have made a mess of things. He invoked current science to document his point and specifically named climate change and global warming as major threats to all of us.

University of Chicago Divinity School professor, William Schweiker observed that even before Laudato si‘ was officially released critics lined up to dispute the Pope and to question not only his scientific credentials but the appropriateness of his addressing an issue with huge economic and political implications. Republican Catholic presidential candidates are scrambling to find a way to appease their conservative base that denies human involvement in climate change and not to be seen publically to disagree with the Pope. Jeb Bush, a convert to Roman Catholicism, said that he doesn’t get his economic policy from bishops and the Pope – which is similar to what candidate John F. Kennedy said to Protestant clergy concerned about whether a Roman Catholic president could govern apart from the doctrine and social policies of the church. But then Bush elaborated: ” I think religion ought to be about making us better people and less about things that end up getting us into the political realm.”—that is, religion and politics don’t mix. But they do: we want better health care for everyone and education for everyone because neighbor love is one of our deepest values and commitments. We want safe food and safe automobiles and a judicial system that guarantees equal treatment for all and a sustainable environment for our grandchildren because Jesus told us that nothing is more important than loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The Pope broke new ground, Professor Schweiker observes, by unapologetically using current science to back up his claim about human involvement in climate change and reminded us that religious conviction and scientific inquiry cannot and ought not be at cross purposes on critical public issues.

The Pope also reminded us that the first and most severely effected victims of climate change are the poor and marginalized of every nation. Affluence insulates us. We can purchase bigger air conditioners and move to cooler climes if necessary. We can, if necessary sell our ocean front property and move to the mountains. Most of the people of the world cannot.

Whatever Protestant misgivings I have about the papacy, Francis, on this issue, is my Pope too.

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