Thomas Contee to Bishop Thomas Claggett, 1798
The old saying, “Never mix religion and politics” carries little clout in this country today. Indeed, religion is used for political purposes as a means of gaining power and is often cited as the foundation for political stances. The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” asserting the freedom for all Americans to practice any faith, or have none at all, unrestricted by any official state-supported religion. Thomas Jefferson called this “a wall of separation of church and state.”
Of course, for nearly a century, from 1692 until the American Revolution, the Anglican Church was the Established church in Maryland, as it still is in England. In pre-Revolutionary Maryland, the Anglican Church (now known as the Episcopal Church) was supported by taxes from everyone, regardless of religious preference, and clergy were appointed to parishes by the governor. So it is little wonder that the concept of a “wall of separation between church and state” was still being debated even after the Revolution and the passage of the First Amendment in 1791. In 1793, the Rev. Joseph Bend, the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, preached a sermon he titled, “Justice twixt rulers and citizens; superiors and inferiors.” He said, “And I trust the day will arrive when ye mistaken opinion, that government & religion should have no connection with each other, an opinion certainly suggested by The Father of Lies for the extension of his empire, when this opinion shall be exploded in America”. In 1798, Thomas Contee wrote to Bishop Thomas Claggett, “I have heard it said that Church & State affairs should be separate, and that Politicks from the Pulpit were not proper. You or any other Clergyman mixing with the people and exchanging sentiments on Politicks are your right and as proper as any man.”
The Rev. Joseph Bend Sermon, 1793
Because the Anglican Church had been established by law, many feared a severe backlash against the Episcopal Church following the Revolution. In an undated document, but written during his episcopate (1816-1827), Bishop James Kemp, a native of Scotland, expressed the following opinion, “In this country where there is a complete separation of Church & State, & where every denomination of Christians stands upon equal ground & possesses equal rights, we did hope that no state of things would ever occur, that would deprive the church of privileges that were visited upon other denominations, or mark her out as an object of odium & reproach. In this, however, we have been sadly disappointed.” In the newly American mindset, the Episcopal Church was associated with England and was often seen as a bastion of support for the British cause. As a result, there was a strong feeling among the clergy that allowing any political discussion in church would harm the church and throw suspicion upon its clergy. A growing belief that the church was sacred and eternal and not of this world, further stated that social and political issues were temporary and fleeting. The church was in the world, but not of the world. Politics was a dirty business and the church had no business there; a strict division between the sacred and the secular developed.
This strict division between sacred and secular carried such weight that no bishop in the Episcopal Church spoke out against slavery in the ante-bellum years. In fact, some Southern bishops believed that slavery was the will of God so that Christianity could be brought to heathen Africans. Maryland’s bishop William Whittingham, although he was opposed to slavery did not believe that any Christian should support the overthrow of that “great social evil” because it was still legal in the United States, and that active agitation would encourage insubordination to the government. In fact, during 1861-1865, the topic of the Civil War raging in the country was not raised at any Diocesan Convention. In a May 15, 1861 letter to his clergy, Whittingham stated,
“We of the clergy have no right to intrude our private views of the questions which are so terribly dividing those among whom we minister, into the place assigned us that we may speak for God & minister in His worship.” Writing to Montgomery Blair on Christmas Eve, 1864, Bishop Whittingham said, “As a bishop I had no more right to obtrude on him (President Lincoln) to the concerns of the church than I conceived him to have to interfere in them.” [Montgomery Blair served as Lincoln’s Postmaster General from 1861- September 1864 and had famously been the defense attorney in the Dred Scott case’s Supreme Court hearing. At the end of 1864, Blair was still working on behalf of Lincoln, in this case, asking Whittingham’s views on the continued “banishment from the city” of a clergyman, Francis Hawkes, an outspoken Southern sympathizer.]
Bishop James Kemp, undated document written during his Episcopate, 1816-1827 (click image to see full document)
During the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, the Episcopal Church had gained a reputation as an upper-class institution, with over a quarter of all Presidents claiming the Episcopal Church as their spiritual home. The Episcopal Church seemed so closely associated with the prevailing powers in the country that it would not take a public stand on even the most egregious American practices. At the 1919 General Convention, a resolution to condemn lynching could not pass. It was substituted by a resolution condemning all mob violence.
By the middle of the 1950’s, some church members were clamoring for the church to speak out on social issues, especially the Civil Rights movement. The 1958 General Convention did pass a resolution recognizing “the natural dignity and value of every man, of whatever color or race, as created in the image of God”, which called on Episcopalians to work for “full opportunities in fields such as education, housing, employment and public accommodations.”
In May of 1963, the Presiding Bishop, Arthur Lichenberger, issued a Pastoral Letter urging Episcopalians to work “across lines of racial separation, in a common struggle for justice”, and a special meeting of the House of Bishops that year endorsed the Civil Rights legislation which was being debated in Congress. The bishops also encouraged members of Episcopal churches to take part in the upcoming March on Washington slated for August 28.
In his 1965 Convention Address, the diocesan bishop, Harry Lee Doll, told the delegates, “We are told time and again, that this (race relations) is not the Church’s business, that this is an economic and a social problem. … But all life is God’s, and nothing could have a more deeply theological basis than the relations between groups of people – a very simple and obvious one: loving our neighbors as ourselves. That we have failed to do this is to our shame…Deep-seated hatred and prejudice still infects us. This has spawned deceit, lying, schism and murder. … We Christians have failed to sway the hearts and minds of the people of this country. Let no day pass when you do not raise your petitions to God that this mind may be in us which was also in Christ Jesus.”
Thus, the church’s stance on mixing politics and religion in this country has swayed over the centuries. From believing that the discussion of political issues has no place in the pulpit, to brandishing the Bible to convey political stances, using religion to justify social or political sentiments is not new. Today, among many Christians, the widespread view is that if the church does not have something to say about issues affecting the lives of every citizen, then how can it have any relevance to those searching for purpose? Being a living organism, the church changes and adapts as any being must. Learning of our past and looking to tomorrow enables us to be part of the arc of the future.
Bishop Harry Lee Doll Convention Address, 1965