Religious Perspectives on Activism

Religious Views on Activism and Faith

We are blessed to live in a democracy founded on freedom of speech and religion. As people of faith and conscience who are committed to creating a more just world, we know that our blessings carry responsibilities. Many religious denominations support activism as consistent with—and mandated by—their faith. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has compiled this sampling of various statements about activism by Christian denominations and Jewish movements to illustrate diverse religious perspectives on involvement in “the public square.” The full statements are available on websites of the individual denominations.

“A Shared Vision: Religious Liberty in the 21st Century”

A statement on religion and politics by the American Jewish Committee, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the Interfaith Alliance).

As voices of conscience, religious organizations can and do seek to express their prophetic witness by influencing moral values and public policy. Separation of church and state does not mean the separation of religion and politics. Nevertheless, attempts at affecting public policy should be tempered by tolerance for differing views and recognition that a multiplicity of voices is crucial for the success of a democratic society.

While religious groups serve an important role in holding government accountable for its actions, that role can be fulfilled only when a healthy distance is maintained between religion and government.

Neither church nor state may control, dominate or subjugate the other. The idea that America is a “Christian nation” violates the American commitment both to democratic government and religious liberty. In the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world, any government endorsement of religion inevitably will make some people feel like outcasts in their own land.

United Church of Christ

Doing justice, seeking peace and building community are central to the identity of the United Church of Christ.

Throughout its history—from early engagement in the movement to abolish slavery to modern campaigns for civil rights and social justice—the UCC in every setting of the church has been engaged in ministries of compassion, advocacy and reconciliation. While there is a deep respect in the UCC for the right of every individual member to form her or his own views on these issues, there has always been a recognizable passion across our church to ‘make things right’—as a testament to our faith in God, our hope for God’s future, our love for God’s creation. In this way we seek to apply the commandment of Jesus Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Presbyterian Church (USA)

God calls us to loving human community. God calls us to establish and build responsible political community. When God called Abraham and Sarah, it was to establish a great nation. When God led Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt, it was to liberate the people from political oppression, discipline them in the wilderness into new community, and lead them to a land where that new human community could be lived out and developed. When God called the prophet Samuel to speak to King David, when God called all the prophets, it was to call the nation back to its covenant of faithful and just human community. When God led Jesus to Jerusalem, it was to confront the political powers of the day and to announce a new formation of human community….[It is fitting] for local congregations and church structures across the country to develop non-partisan programs to help the Christian community reflect upon the political order.

Unitarian Universalist Association

Unitarian Universalists have a rich history of working to vitalize democratic participation in our political system, dating back to the earliest days of American government. Our fifth principle reads: we will covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. We have long been committed to the belief that our democracy will be enhanced and improved by greater participation.

The Episcopal Church

The Creation account in the book of Genesis calls us to stewardship of all that God has made. In the Baptismal Covenant, we are asked: “Will you strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?” The Washington office is committed to fulfilling the promise of that covenant through public policy advocacy.

As Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold frequently comments on public policy and has explained his witness: “In the words of Jesus: just as you did it to the least of these… you did it unto me. I believe that as Americans we are possessed of enormously generous spirits. Our policies need to reflect our national spirit of generosity and caring rather than being limited to the immediate concerns of particular interest groups.”

…We believe we must follow the compassion of Jesus, joining love and justice, to serve the world in all the facets available to us – “with God’s help.”

The United Methodist Church

The Political Community

While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principal vehicle for the ordering of society.

Because we know ourselves to be responsible to God for social and political life, we declare the following relative to governments:

Political Responsibility

The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens. The Church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust.

Church and State Relations

The United Methodist Church has for many years supported the separation of church and state. In some parts of the world this separation has guaranteed the diversity of religious expressions and the freedom to worship God according to each person’s conscience. Separation of church and state means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction. The state should not use its authority to promote particular religious beliefs (including atheism), nor should it require prayer or worship in the public schools, but it should leave students free to practice their own religious convictions. We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state. The rightful and vital separation of church and state, which has served the cause of religious liberty, should not be misconstrued as the abolition of all religious expression from public life.

Conservative Judaism

…It is not the voter’s job simply to reward a candidate’s religiosity. Rather, it is our responsibility to choose among specific policy initiatives that may (or may not) derive from a public servant’s personal religious orientation. For a candidate to speak of God’s love, for example, while skirting issues such as stem cell research, poverty, homelessness, and health care, would be disingenuous and unfair to the voter.

…God—and religion in general—have been, and remain, a rich source of moral values and ethical guidance. Nevertheless, these concepts also provide fertile grounds for divisiveness. The First Amendment to our own Constitution clearly recognizes the need for a clear separation between Church and State. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, writing in 1968, noted that the Amendment ‘mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion.’

This neutrality has brought our nation great benefits. In ensuring that those who choose to observe a religious lifestyle are afforded the freedom to do so, the Amendment has encouraged high levels of synagogue and church affiliation and attendance. Further, by guaranteeing freedom of speech—ensuring that all people, including candidates, are free to speak about religion—we are blessed with a relative lack of friction between ethnic and religious groups. One has only to look at the rivalries that exist in Sudan to appreciate how fortunate we are.
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice-president of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Reform Judaism

As a central Jewish tenet, the pursuit of gemilut chasadim (righteousness) cannot be separated from the important work of torah (study) and avodah (worship). These three pillars of Jewish life are intertwined, one wrapped around the next. Is it possible to truly understand the teachings of the Torah without feeling compelled to act on behalf of the powerless and the needy? Is it possible to witness the desperate need of the vulnerable among us without seeking strength and wisdom from beyond ourselves to respond? Is it possible to pray to God without looking into oneself and deciding to take action and make a difference in the world? The combination of Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim strengthens each individual value and leads one toward a fully realized Jewish life.

If our congregations, which are the heart and soul of Reform Judaism, effectively integrate these key precepts of our tradition, congregants will experience a holistic vision of the essence of Jewish life. They will be drawn into the synagogue as a place that embodies the totality of Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim.

Social justice and social action grow out of and lead into study and prayer. Evely Laser Shlensky, former chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, envisions a synagogue where, “Torah lishma (study for its own sake) is not the goal of study. Rather, the study of Torah leads from the classroom to the streets, the shelters, the public square, and the courthouse. [It is a temple where] worship addresses both God and the human condition. It features not just Torah readers, but also Torah enactors—people whose everyday lives are about redemption. It is a synagogue in which social action projects integrate the work of our hands with the wisdom and celebration of our tradition, and where the use of social action blessings serves as a reminder that these acts, too, are an expression of our relationship with the Source.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism

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