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Vail Daily column: Martin Luther King Jr. mixed faith and politics

Jack Van Ens

Balancing the Constitution in one hand with the Bible in the other, Martin Luther King Jr. connected faith and politics. He challenged citizens to help what politics often neglects — the poor left behind in our society.

Critics scorned MLK. They chanted: “Don’t mix politics and religion.” They refused to admit that the cross-over of religion with politics is unavoidable.

That’s because religious convictions anchor values about what’s right and fair. Acting like rudders, such beliefs steer our lives. They support cherished values and discredit unethical schemes for getting ahead. Personal values affect our choices of hobbies, sports and political candidates.

Christian faith is personal but not private. Religious convictions inform how we vote. Faith’s public face sizes up politics that makes for an unavoidable mix.

Putting faith on the front line, patriots rallied support for the Revolutionary War. Presbyterian John Witherspoon, who served as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), was the only clergy to sign The Declaration of Independence. Influenced by how Witherspoon mixed faith with politics, Princeton student James Madison dedicated his life to public service.

Witherspoon’s faith in Jesus as guide transformed him into a revolutionary firebrand. His enthusiasm for faith interacting with politics inspired many Princeton graduates to run for elective office. Vigorously preaching against King George III, Witherspoon protected colonists’ personal freedoms.

King George III groused about colonial clergy and chastised them as the “black brigade.” Presbyterian preachers wore black robes, similar to college students’ graduation garb. Why? Because these clergy saw themselves as God’s enlightened spokesmen who spearheaded patriots’ freedom from British suppression.

After some black-robed colonial clergy ended sermons, they headed outside churches and joined parishioners in militias on village Greens. Shedding dark robes, they proudly wore mauve and blue—the colors George Washington selected for his army.

Personal liberty of conscience and political freedom were woven into the same religious cloth, declared Witherspoon. “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entirely,” he thundered. “If therefore we yield up our temporal property (to the British), we are the same time delivering our conscience into bondage.”

President Barack Obama caught Witherspoon’s spirit in his eulogy last year for slain Charleston, South Carolina, pastor and state senator, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The president told how African-American parishioners expect their clergy to mix Christianity and politics. Obama noted that, as a result of Christian teaching in church, Pinckney was “in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18 and public servant by 23.” As state senator, he served citizens in a poor district. His faith in Jesus directly led to political involvement.

“Clem was often asked why he chose to be pastor and a public servant,” said Obama. “But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and assumed that Christianity and politics don’t mix.

“As our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, we don’t make those distinctions (of separating politics from religion). ‘Our calling,’ Clem once said, ‘is not just within the walls of the congregation but the life and community in which our congregation resides.’”

Congregants filled the auditorium where President Obama spoke, shouting “Amen!” and “Praise to sweet Jesus!” These Christians didn’t evade political responsibility by shrinking faith into an exclusively private matter between “me and Jesus.”

(Pastor Clem), emphasized Obama, “embodied the ideal that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the sweet hour of prayer actually lasts the whole week long; that to put faith in action is more than just individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the Bible’s last book Revelation mixes faith and politics. Christians who keep faith private distort Revelation’s major thrust. This book doesn’t predict what will likely occur in 2016 or in the near future. Rather, first-century Christians persecuted by Roman Emperor Nero read Revelation as a vehement protest for religious liberty. The author portrays the Roman Emperor as an evil beast. Branded by the number “666,” early Christians recognized this code language as pointing to Nero.

On a Sunday morning, a Christian prophet named John found himself on a small island of Patmos, off Turkey’s coast. In a trance, he saw Jesus, whose “face was like the sun shining in full force” (Revelation 1:12-16). This dazzling Jesus revealed God’s game plan to battle Nero, conqueror of the ancient world. And God will win, believed seer John. Revelation’s punchline is: “Evil won’t prevail over the good, the true and the beautiful.”

God duels with Nero. Patriots battle King George III. Martin Luther King, Jr. parried against unjust political blocs that horded wealth and deprived the poor of voting rights. Today, politics and faith keep mixing it up.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).


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