During last night's vice-presidential debate both candidates were asked about how their faith influences the choices in life - and in politics. That is always a tricky question to ask. If you recall John Kennedy never hid his Catholic faith though we know he had problems following at least part of its teachings. Ronald Reagan like to reference God but his appearance at a church service was a rare occurrence indeed.
However, as soon as the question was asked last night, some of my friends (left & right) began fuming about the separation of church and state, quoting Thomas Jefferson. "Religion and politics should not mix" wrote one "Separation of church and state, remember?"
Well, it was not always so in New England. From 1634 till 1884 almost every year ministers were invited to preach "Election Sermons" in front of the magistrates, governors, and all those seeking election into office in Boston (Vermont and New Hampshire had simmilar traditions but they were discontinued in 1813). It was a great honor to be asked to preach, and quite a few preachers succumbed to partisan politics. In fact the first election sermon preached by Rev. John Cotton urged those gathered to reelect governor Winthrop. The sermon hopelessly backfired, and the Puritan electorate voted in his opponent. Other preachers took time, and considerable time, to touch on the subject of the vices plaguing society: drunkenness, swearing, Quakers, Catholics and so on. Remember: until 1831 Massachusetts had a state religion: Congregationalism - until 1776 only Congregational ministers were invited to preach. One minister listed vices and their effects for 90 pages, only to end on a more happy note, that in his view we have still not hit the bottom. But it was not just gloom: already in the 1660s some preachers called on for a system of free public schools, others condemned slavery and promoted women's rights. The last sermon was preached in 1884 by the Universalist minister Alonzo Aimes Miner, the president of Tufts University. The practice was abolished that same year.
But the question remains: can you separate church and politics? Does your minister's or priests political choices influence yours in any way? Let me know.
BTW I the old tradition, I will be preaching an election sermon on Sunday November 11.