1996: Dale B. Robertson - Religion and Politics: Seeking a Comfortable Nexus

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1996: Dale B. Robertson - Religion and Politics: Seeking a Comfortable Nexus

D RobertsonDale B. Robertson was born in 1945 in Lovell, Wyoming. His family moved to Escondido, California when he was about ten where he lived until he went to college in Utah. After two years, he went on a mission to Brazil. Shortly after his return, he married Linda Olson who had recently returned from a mission in Canada. After Dale graduated in Political Science, the couple moved to Washington, D.C. where he did Masters and Ph.D. work at American University in the field of International Relations.

In 1977, Dale, Linda, and three children came to BYU-Hawaii on a three-year assignment to replace Dr. David Chen who had been called to be a mission president. At the end of the three years, Eric Shumway--then chair of the English department--graciously offered to give up an unfilled faculty position to the Political Science Department so Dale could be offered a permanent position. In time, three other children joined the family.

While here at BYU-HC, Dale was founding Director of the Honors Program, has been acting division chair, and has served as department chair. He has served on the Faculty Advisory Committee, the Academic Planning Council, and the General Education Committee. In 1988, he was selected by the student body as Teacher of the Year. Currently, Dale is Editor-in-Chief for the Institute for Polynesian Studies and editor of the journal, Pacific Studies.

In the community, Dale has been the Laie Elementary P.T.A. President, has served on the Laie Community Association Board, and on the Gifted and Talented Board at Kahuku High School. He has served in Bishoprics, Young Men's Presidencies, and has taught in Sunday School and Primary.

Dr. Robertson's hobbies and interests include singing in whatever groups will allow him, collecting airline motion sickness bags, fighting to preserve the University Convocation, and exploring ways to extricate the university from the colonial grasp of the Provo campus.


AS THE MUSICAL, SOUND OF MUSIC "REMINDS US," Nothing comes from nothing." This lecture did not spring spontaneously from my pen. I owe an intellectual debt to colleagues here and to ones whose names are known to me only in print. I owe much to a group of students who took an IDS class, Religion and Politics, with me last semester. They were fearless in following every issue and idea down countless dark alleys. They often gave me the courage to press on. In the written form of this lecture, they will be identified and thanked by name. (Samasoni Aunai, Kayley Baltz, Sandra Blair, Kristi Cook, Sarah Gambles, Edgar Gonzalez, Emaline Fonoti, Eric Jones, Summer Kay, Steven Kennerley, Roland Logan, Tiffany Lord, Dean McCune, Jeffrey Moore, Eiji Murakami, Christine Nicholas, King Lun Nip, George Proveau, Haley Quereto, Randal Raabe, Deborah Roberts, Steven Roberts, Rachel Routt Jones, Ray Southwick, Alys Staten, Noa Tora, Puafisi Tupola, and Delia Ulima.)

I owe a spiritual debt to my parents for believing in me and sustaining me through several decades of perpetual adolescent contrariness. And, I owe a lot to my wife and children who supported me in countless ways this year.

It is said that there are two topics that people should not bring up in polite conservation--politics and religion. Today I am going to speak of both. The combination of these two topics is especially troublesome in the BYUH/Laie community since there is this cultural aspiration to be united in all things. But since we are not in fact united, we just don't talk about it.

Then why am I doing this? I think because I found a lot of discomfort in my life over the occasional intersection of these two forces, especially as they both became increasingly salient to me. As a teenager I felt very uncomfortable to see members of our ward try to isolate and humiliate a couple who were committed to an unpopular political party. Later, in college, I disliked having to write favorable reports on right wing political tracts in order to get good grades in religion classes. One month before we moved to Hawaii, there had been a Women's Conference in Honolulu organized to generate a political agenda to take to Washington, D.C. A pall hung over the community for months as people whispered stories of LDS women herded into busses and told how to think and to vote by church leaders.

In my Religion and Politics class, I assigned my students to write a final exam with the same title as this lecture. Many of the students couldn't resist adding little tags to the title. Ed Gonzalez titled his final, "Religion and Politics: Lovers or Fighters?" Eric Jones wrote, "Greed and God, Oil and Water, Politics and Religion: Gruesome Twosomes." Puafisi Tupola's was "Religion and Politics: Raging River." But my favorite was from Rachel Routt Jones, "Religion and Politics: Seeking a Comfortable Nexus, in Vain."

Yet I am convinced there are appropriate places for religion and politics to coexist. Are we supposed to set our most intimate feelings aside when we enter the polling booth or the political arena? Were not the anti-slavery movement, the Civil Rights struggle of the 60's. and other important social campaigns fueled by churches? As Noa Tora, one of my IDS students said,".., politics without religion turns irrelevant." So here begins my quest for a comfortable nexus, or connection, between religion and politics.


I WANT TO START WITH A BRIEF HISTORY OF POLITICAL-RELIGIOUS events in America (I need to apologize to our international students. All my examples today are from the US. Therefore, much of what I say and conclude will make no sense to you, nor should it. Please write your English 315 papers on this topic from your historical and personal perspectives and come and visit with me about it.) All short histories do a great deal of violence to their topics, and this one is no exception. But this one is short in part because mostly religion and politics do not intersect. They mostly go their own way and leave each other alone. In the play, "Mary, Queen of Scots," Mary was reminded that Queen Elizabeth had changed from Catholicism to Protestantism for political reasons. Mary responded, "That I could never do. Nor do I see that faith should be touched by politics."2

The problematic relation between politics and religion existed from our beginning. When the Plymouth colony was established in 1607, in what they called the Mayflower Compact, the residents pledged to God and to each other that they would establish a "civill body politick" and would submit to the laws that were to be written. From that time, three interesting themes developed and persisted in our history. These I've termed individual liberty, opposition to evil, and the establishment of' Zion. In the pre-revolutionary period, many of the colonies had established churches. That meant that the church was sponsored by the government. When you paid your taxes, you also were paying your tithing. While that, perhaps, was convenient, it also meant that the Governor or the King of England set church policy and doctrine. But even under those restrictive circumstances, a number of non-established churches flourished. An interesting fact was that church membership was quite low--probably around 6 percent. Actually; attendance was much higher than that, but high requirements to join, geographical factors such as poor transportation and long distances, and probably frontier orneriness kept the membership rate down. But the point is that a religious culture did pervade early America. While Americans seemed reluctant to have doctrine and practices dictated to them, they were believers and felt that societal evils should be confronted.

The Revolutionary War proved to be a turning point toward religious independence. After all it is hard to have an established religion when you are having a war against the "establishers." After the War, a period of disestablishment, declining orthodoxy, and tolerance ensued. Some of these changes in religious orientation were manifest in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which formalized the relationship between the government and the churches. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The post-revolutionary period was a time of great change for religion in America. Many of the new churches came out of what was called the Second Great Awakening. In many frontier areas huge camp meetings were held that were frenzied carnivals of religious preaching where the emphasis was on individual conversion and personal spiritual experience. Once people were "burned by the spirit," they were left to local preachers to proselyte. But many were not attracted to extant churches and several new religions sprung up -- including our own.

The pervasive religious culture helped to frame the response to national problems. Even the mega-issues of the times such as isolationism, continental expansion, and later imperialism found their vocabulary and social context in religion. For example, President John Quincy Adams "preached" against American involvement in foreign affairs.

"Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be un-timed, there will be America's heart...But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve her self beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force .... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer be the ruler of her own spirit." (July 4,1821)

Even more dramatic, after the Spanish-American War, Pres. McKinley briefly pondered what to do with the Philippines and then justified our imperialism with this statement: "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and Christianize them and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men, for whom Christ also died." Those of you from the Philippines will recognize the irony that your country was Christian before America was even settled.

After the Civil War, the multiplication of churches and individual interpretations continued apace, abetted by the immigration of Catholics and Jews. Mainstream Protestants grew alarmed and increased their political and cultural activism to fight such perceived evils as alcohol, Sabbath breaking, and immigration. In terms of the Zion-building theme, the Protestant churches came to see that the rural or small town religion of early America was ill-equipped to confront the social realities of industrialization and urbanization such as crime and oppressive poverty. By the turn of the century, a liberal, activist wing of Protestantism confronted the social problems of the times through what was called the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was a broad based, mostly philosophical movement that argued for a reconciliation between capitalism and Christianity. The various camps argued on one hand for practical reforms like building parks and fighting prostitution and alcohol. On the other hand they campaigned for better city governments.

In the post WWI period, the multiplication and transformation of the churches continued. Blacks and Black churches spread north, Judaism took on several manifestations, and Catholics grew both in numbers and social and political respectability, to the point where we nearly elected a Catholic president in 1928.

Through the depression, WWII and up to the 1960's churches grew in membership and, again, in diversity. The most pronounced change was in the rise of evangelical and fundamentalist wings of Protestantism over the mainline churches. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War Protests of 60's provided opportunities reminiscent of the Civil War and Prohibition eras for churches to become involved in political issues. While many religious people became deeply involved in these great moral issues, institutional religion mostly sat on the sidelines. (Of course the black churches were active participants) This gap between members and clergy disappointed many and church attendance declined somewhat. By the end of the 60's many were wondering why religions which had so much interest in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth were having so little effect on critical issues of the day.

While white churches may not have led the charge on these great political and moral issues, religion had provided a context and a vocabulary for the debates. In fact, Leonard I. Sweet called our political conventions and rallies the "the enduring legacy of the camp meeting."3 Teddy Roosevelt referred to the presidency as a "Bully Pulpit"; that is, a great place to preach. Let me give one more historical example and then some contemporary ones. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan addressed the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Among his proposals was the elimination of the Gold Standard-- an arcane economic practice that he believed worked to the advantage of the rich. "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."4

As I read dozens of speeches of contemporary American presidents,5 I was impressed with the cadence of the preacher, the ease with which they integrate scripture into speeches, and the apt references to things of the spirit. For instance, Kennedy exhorted the "young in spirit" to approach his New Frontier programs by heeding the scriptural call, "Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou discouraged." (602) Nixon exhorted people to work in their neighborhoods, to "build a great cathedral of the spirit." (661) Ford announced his pardon of Nixon's criminal acts by saying "I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as president, but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy." (699) And, of course, Pres. Clinton refers to his package of programs as the "New Covenant."

While these statements do not demonstrate a merging of politics and religion, they do illustrate that religion provides a comfortable context for the presentation of political messages.

In this short historical section, we could conclude that, in America, there has evolved a great deal of individualism and diversity in the practice of religion. These conditions make it hard for churches to present a united front on political issues and make it equally hard for churches to be manipulated by politicians. Second, we see that people want to oppose evil and create a better world. Usually they try to do it themselves but sometimes they try to influence the political system to act for them. And, third, a religious culture pervades the United States and while we do separate church and state, religion provides a vocabulary and a context for political discourse.


TO FIND THE APPROPRIATE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHURCH and state, we need to understand and appreciate the concept of a liberal democracy.6 In this sense, "liberal" refers to an 18th Century European concept. In a liberal democracy, power is dispersed; that is, governance of a society rests in a meaningful way in the people. That power of the people is directly manifest through the election of legislators and indirectly through cultural restraints upon politicians.

The public sets boundaries beyond which elected officials simply cannot go. The second major aspect of a liberal democracy is limited government. Basically, people are to be left alone and allowed to develop values and, within some limits, lifestyles in their best interests. A third aspect of a liberal democracy is the concept of rationalism. Rationalism means that reason is the only basis for action. Another aspect of rationalism is communication. One author emphasizes that political communication must be "publicly accessible;" that is, it is not based on religious assumptions. That does not mean that religious assumptions are bad, it is just that they are not communicable. If I told you that I had a spiritual manifestation that gambling was evil, you might understand what l was saying and my statement might even convince you that you should change your opinion. But it would be inappropriate for me to approach a state legislator with that testimonial and expect her to make public policy based on my personal manifestation.7

So the individual in a liberal democracy is superior to corporate authority and conflicts are to be resolved by rational, publicly accessible, inquiry. Can you see that religion, or churches, would flourish under such circumstances? Robert Frost said that "Good fences make good neighbors." In this case government not only stays out of the way of religion but does not compete with religion for attention or emotion. As your love for your mother does not compete with love for your father (Freud aside), you are free to pursue God and politics simultaneously.

But, for a liberal democracy to work, there must be a strict separation of church and state. The main reason is that with an established religion the combination of church and state is just too powerful. First, the church is able to employ the powers of the state to enforce doctrines. The saddest example of this was the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 where perceived dissidents were tortured and even killed. Second, with an established religion, the laws of the land take on a religious cast and political leaders, like church leaders, are not to be questioned.

Smart religious leaders appreciate the importance of separation of church and state in a liberal democracy. In the 19th century, an English Baptist minister, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, (one of the most famous preachers of his century) spoke against proposed Sunday closing laws.

"As to getting the law of the land to touch our religion, we earnestly cry, 'hands off! Leave us alone!' Your Sunday bills...seem to me to be all wrong. Give us a fair field and no favor and our faith has no cause to fear. Christ wants no help from Caesar. I should be afraid to borrow help from government; it would look to me as though I rested on an arm of flesh, instead of depending on the living God. Let the Lord's day be respected by all means, and may the day soon come when every shop shall be closed on the Sabbath, but let it be by force of conviction and not by force of policemen; let true religion triumph by the power of God in men's hearts, not by the power of fines and punishments."8

That Church and State should be separate was a primary belief of the writers of the American Constitution. The First Amendment declaration has been called by Philip Schaff of Union Seminary in New York the "Magna Carta of religious freedom,9 for never before has a government given up control of churches. Colonial America had struggled with church-state relations. One social critic -- Artemas Ward--said of the period, "The Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedom where they could not only enjoy their religion, but could prevent everyone else from enjoying his."10 How can a church prevent others from practicing their religion? Obviously, only if it has the power of the state behind it.

Even after the Constitution was adopted, some people still didn't get the point. The legislature of Virginia considered assessing a tax that would support all churches. Writing in opposition, James Madison said in a tract called Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment, "We maintain therefore that in matters of religion no man's right is abridged by the institution of civil society, and that religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of other sects."11 But Madison continued to struggle with the concept of separation for some time. While contending that he believed in a "perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters," as president, Madison signed bills setting aside days of fasting and prayer and one establishing military chaplains. However, later he expressed disapproval of both practices.12 Even today we struggle over the First Amendment. In 1956, a Catholic Bishop in New Orleans threatened state legislators that if they voted for a bill segregating Louisiana schools, he would excommunicate them. And in fact he did excommunicate some. Political conservatives decried such actions and liberals cheered. But in 1990, Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor of New York warned politicians that if they supported abortion rights legislation they would be "at risk of excommunication."13


MAYBE WE COULD UNDERSTAND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN church and state better if we could articulate what the two organizations do or what they ought to be about.

Years ago I heard a man speak about something he called "Organizational Essence." He said that each organization has something that is central to its existence. That essence is what drives and shapes so much of what it does successfully. To explain what he meant, he talked about the development of missile technology. As missiles were conceptualized as instruments of war, the decision needed to be made as to which branch of the armed forces to give them: the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force. You may think that the Air Force was the logical place, but as the Air Force officers walked around the weapon, they asked, "where do you sit?" The answer, of course, was, "in a hole in the ground in Nebraska." The Air Force response was, "We don't sit in holes in the ground, we fly." The Navy was totally flummoxed by what missiles were for, but the Army knew exactly what a missile was. It was artillery: the mother of all mortar shells! The first two services could not fit the weapon into their organizational essence so they rejected it. However, when the Army got zillions of dollars and dozens of generals in the package, the Air Force reevaluated and asked, "Couldn't we hang some of these things from the wings of airplanes?" And the Navy decided that missiles were just submarine torpedoes that fired up 'rather than out. So all three military services got missiles, but only when they fit them into their core values.

So what is the essence of religion? The Apostle James said, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Or you might say that it is to "Perfect the saints, redeem the dead, and proclaim the gospel." But maybe the essence of religion is to teach people to do those good things. I think that churches do a wonderful job of teaching. But have you ever tried to force people to love their neighbors? It doesn't work very well does it? But when you teach people correct principles, they are surprisingly responsive.

Governments, on the other hand, are good at coercion and not good at teaching. Different branches of the government have different essences. For instance the State Department negotiates and the military fights. I have heard some hilarious stories about meetings between these two departments where one side came to deliberate and the other came to do battle. Guess who always won.

Many of our mistakes and failures come because of a misunderstanding of what we are about. To illustrate, I will use another example from the military. When we first came to Hawaii, we went to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. It was an awful experience. We had to wait for hours in long lines in the sun and then get on the boat. We were treated like intruders. The military does many things well, but entertaining tourists is not one of them. Shooting tourists would be closer to their mission. But now the Pearl Harbor facility is run by the Park Service and those of you who have been there would have to agree that it is an experience not to be missed. But to be fair, I would have to say that the park service could not fight a very successful war--an entertaining war, but not a successful war.

Several years ago, the religion editor from Newsweek spoke to a Mormon scholarly audience. He said that he was offended or confused when someone asked him what religion was good for. His response was that religion is not good for anything, it is just good. Or more specifically, yon should not go to church to do anything, you just went to church. The act of worship itself was good.14 I think that what he is saying is that religion is a process, not an end. I have a son who is super creative. During one period of his life he made tiny clay figures. They were astoundingly intricate and took days to make. But I don't think that they meant much to him once they were done. it was the process of creation that was of value. We all could tell stories on ourselves of times when we confused the process and product of religion. I think that I grew up thinking that the purpose of religion was to collect lapel pins.


CLEARLY, RELIGION IS NOT A SINGLE ORGANIZATION. IN FACT, IT is not an organization at all but a way of life. In my brief history of religion in America, I identified several trends and a wide variety of churches that developed. From time to time in our history, churches have felt a need to enter the political arena. How they engaged the political world affected their essence. To illustrate this point let's look at two major ways of conceptualizing and acting in politics. Those are Elitism and Pluralilism.

Elitism posits that government is controlled by a central group. The process is exclusionary, hosthe to outsiders, and focused on boundary maintainance. Diagram #I illustrates this conceptualization. The elite are inside the circle and the rest of us are on the outside. The pluralist model, Diagram #2, describes the system as a set of overlapping circles. The process is inclusive and even proselytory. The following table outlines the differences.


Diagram #I

Diagram #2




Elitism Pluralism

Winner takes all

Must win today

Loser eliminated

Winner and Loser are
perpetual enemies

Loss is devastating

No compromise

Keep elite in and non-elite out

Winning part is enough

Loser retreats to fight another day

Loser survives

Winner and Loser are potential
allies in future battles

"Win some, Lose some"

Compromise is essential

Recruit members


As you can see, with elitism, the emphasis (or the essence) is on the end, while pluralists focus on the process or the means. Two recent political voices illustrate the point. In the 1984 presidential election, two ministers ran in the primaries: Rev. Pat Robertson ran For the Republican nomination and Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination. Although Jackson had done well in some of the primaries, at the National Convention, he was treated rudely and had every reason to be bitter. But Reverend Jackson chose the high ground in his address.

"Tonight we come together, bound by our faith in a mighty God...Leadership must heed the call of conscience -- redemption, expansion, healing and unity...

I will be proud to support the nominee of this convention for the presidency of the United States...America is not like a blanket...It is more like a quilt--many patches many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the Native American, the small farmer, the business person, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled make up tire American quilt...

We are copartners in a long and rich religious history--the Judeo-Christian traditions. Many blacks and Jews have a shared passion for social justice at home and peace abroad...We are bound by Moses and Jesus, but also connected with Islam and Muhammed. We are bound by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel crying out from their graves for us to reach common ground. We are bound by shared blood and shared sacrifices. We are much too intelligent; much too bound by our Judeo-Christian go on divided from one another."15

Did you hear the pluralist words: bound, woven, held together, common ground?

In comparison, Reverend Robertson saw politics more as a war where someone wins and someone loses. And he planned to be on the winning side.

"Only by destroying the Christian consensus could this nation be undermined and its power destroyed. The assault against America has taken he following avenues.

...the liberal left realized that no elected body in the United states would adopt its radical agenda. Therefore, a deliberate plan was put in motion to claim for non-elected judges power that they had never been given under the United States Constitution...

...the educational system would first be taken from its Christian roots and used as a psycho-political indoctrination ground to move the young toward the agenda of the left

...organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the National Educational Association, and more recently the National Organization for Women, People for the American Way, the Gay-Lesbian Caucus, and their ilk would arise to champion unrestrained sex, homosexual rights, abortion on demand."16

On his television show that same year he says, "The constitution of the United States is a marvelous document for self-government by Christian people. But the minute you turn the document into the hands of non-Christian people and atheist people, they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society."17

Rev. Robertson follows the religious tradition that I outlined earlier of combating evil. He desires no compromise or communication with those who oppose him. The way he defined himself, defined his opponents. If his side is "moral," then the other side is "immoral." Part of the problem here is that politics almost always has been conceptualized in terms of a struggle. Some years ago, I used a text called Politics for Human Beings.18 In it, the authors pled for a reformulation of the political process. In power politics, winners achieve their goals at the expense of the losers. Yet by suppressing others, we become less human. Therefore, the authors propose that we rethink politics and consider a process of compromise that elevates both, fulfilling the needs of all participants.

Will such a reformulation bring us to that comfortable nexus? Or are we so loath to compromise on what we think are moral issues? Do you think that those who recently stormed the state capitol are willing to compromise on the legalization of prostitution, same-sex marriage, and gambling? But what if I were to say, for instance, on the first issue, "Since women are victimized by prostitution, and since men are unequally prosecuted for their participation, and since police are unwilling or unable to enforce the current laws, couldn't we sit down and discuss various solutions to the problem? Maybe there is a possibility of compromise, but probably it would take a generation to reformulate the process and to develop the skills of cooperation.


LET'S SEE IF I CAN PULL THIS TOGETHER. SOME TIME AGO U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said that "A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion." That is why the founding fathers separated the two in the first amendment. From our discussion of the principles of liberal democracy and elitism, we can see that government as we know it could not exist with religion running it. The degradation of religion under government tutelage is, perhaps, less obvious. Here is an example that illustrates the point.

When we lived in Washington, D.C., one Christmas we planned on going to the White House to see the President throw the switch to light the National Christmas Tree and the Creche. Fortunately we didn't go, because that year President Nixon had reserved all of the seating for members of a Korean Church that supported his policy in Vietnam. Not only that church, but religion in general was degraded by that experience. A lot of people hated the war and a lot of people hated Nixon. When Nixon pretended to "embrace" religion or used religion to shield himself from criticism of the war, those who hated him wound up hating organized religion as well. The experience certainly reinforced my belief in the separation of church and state.

But I concede that a lot of people think that America has gone too far in that separation. While we might not agree on the level of separation, I would propose some ideas that might bring us closer.

  1. We could all calm down a bit on partisan politics. The truth is that most, if not all, problems are going to take a combination of liberal and conservative efforts. The government can spend a few billion on cleaning up toxic waste dumps and my family can recycle and compost a lot of our trash.
  2. In most cases, churches should de-emphasize direct political action. Storming the legislature, jamming fax machines, and rigging community meetings may provide a quick fix and a rush of satisfaction, but the exercise of power politics will, in the long run, only polarize people. Our enemies will regroup and get us later, maybe on more important issues. If we must act--and I agree that sometimes it is necessary--it must be on issues that are critical to our survival and our actions must reflect our organization's essence. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. constantly warned activist groups that if they began to hate those who hated them, they would lose the eternal battle and probably the political battle. Let churches do what churches do best--teach correct principles. As one social commentator, Gary Wills said, "the problem with... religion is not... that it encroaches on politics, but that it has so carelessly neglected its own sources of wisdom. It cannot contribute what it no longer possess."19
  3. We need to talk about religious issues that are likely to become politicized. Who in my generation ever talked about abortion? It was not addressed in Sunday School classes, fireside discussions, or even in private conversations. Not in our church nor in any other. So when the courts had to address the issue, there was no religious cultural context or a vocabulary of dissent in which to interpret the laws or the Constitution. We have recently seen that we were ill equipped to fight same-sex marriage. Our arguments were cobbled together at the last moment. Let us, as religious people, get ahead of the curve on future issues like euthanasia, cloning, use of fetal tissue, and genetic engineering. We also could talk about old issues that just won't go away like capital punishment and war.
  4. We should also give some thought to how we could deal with issues we might lose. Students from Nevada tell me that a huge population of devoutly religious people exist in their state where gambling and prostitution arc legal. How do they do it? Same-sex marriage is legal in all or parts of six different countries. None of the predicted crises have occurred there. Is there something that we could learn from them?

While the Constitution, our history, and reason compel us to separate the institutions of church and state, as individuals we can seek to combine the personal dimensions of religion and politics. That, I think, is the location of the comfortable nexus. This week I have spent a lot of time enjoying the writings of President McKay. He talked a lot about politics and the problems of the day. But inevitably he found the solution deep in the essence of the gospel. For example, once he commented on a statement by a Russian leader that the United States was enslaving its people. His response was that "The surest method against such slander is to live it down in perseverance in well doing, and by prayer to God that he would cure the distempered mind of those who would traduce and injure us."20 In the same light, Pres. Kimball tells us how to fight wars. "When threatened we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus in the manner of Satan's counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior's teaching: 'Love your enemies .... ' Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies."21 President McKay and President Kimball have found the comfortable nexus. It just might be different for each of us. Good luck too all of us in the quest.

Dale B. Robertson
Box 1979 BYU-Hawai'i
Laie, HI 96762


1Much of this outline is from Fowler (1985) who "shamelessly draws" from the works of Sidney Ahlstrom, Sidney Mead, and Martin Marty. Back to Top

2Anderson, Maxwell. Mary of Scotland, New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1933. Back to Top

3Leonard I. Sweet, "Nineteenth-Century Evangelicalism," In Encyclopedia of American Religious Experience, edited by Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988. Back to Top

4William Jennings Bryan: Selections. Edited by Ray Ginger, Indianapolis, IN: Bobs-Merrill, 1974, p. 46. Back to Top

5Podell, Janet and Steven Anzovin, Speeches of the American Presidents, The W.H. Wilson Company, New York, 1988. Back to Top

6"See Chapter 2 of Greenawalt for an excellent discussion of liberalism and religion. Back to Top

7Greenawalt, Kent. 56ff. Back to Top

8Church and State, March 1956, p. 18. Back to Top

9Philip Schaff. Church and State in the United States, New York: Putnam, 1988, pp. 22-23. Back to Top

10Quoted by Senator Lowell Weicker, Jr. "Back to the Future: As the Constitution's Bicentennial Approaches, Americans are Debating Church State Questions Which were Answered Long Ago." Church and State, March 1968, p. 10. Back to Top

11Meyers, Marvin, ed. Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of lames Madison. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill. Inc., 1973. Back to Top

12Lieblich, Julia. "Religion and U.S. Law" Deseret News 23 July, 1995: V1. Back to Top

13Carter, Stephen L., The Culture of Disbelief. New York: Anchor Books. 1993, p. 61. Back to Top

14Going my Way: An Interview with Newsweek's Kenneth Woodward." Sunstone Vol. 5, No. 5, 1980, p. 32-39. Back to Top

15Official Proceedings of the Democratic National Convention, 1984. Back to Top

16Pat Robertson, The Collected Works of Pat Robertson, New York: Inspirational Press, 1992, p. 148-149. Back to Top

17Christian Broadcasting Network, Sept. 25, 1984. Back to Top

18Isaak, Robert A. and Ralph P.Hummel, Politics for Human Beings. North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbuty Press, 1975. Back to Top

19Wills, Gary. Under God. New York: Simon and Schuster 1990, p. 164. Back to Top

20McKay, David O. Gospel Ideals: Selections from the Discourses of David O. McKay. Salt Lake City, Utah: An Improvement Era Publication, 1953, p.318. Back to Top

21Ensign, June, 1976. Back to Top


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Ginger, Ray. William Jennings Bryan: Selections. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.

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Meyers, Marvin, ed. Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Inc., 1973.

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