A stand from the pulpit

Down in front!
If they can't get a seat close to the pulpit, worshippers can watch Sr. Pastor Greg Boyd deliver his sermon on the big screen at Woodland Hills Church.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

The Rev. Gregory Boyd leads a congregation of 4,000 people at Woodland Hills Church. The services are full of prayer and song which bring worshippers to their feet during a good portion of the Sunday morning services.

But the church isn't as big as it used to be. About 1,000 people -- 20 percent of the congregation -- walked out two years ago during the last presidential election. Boyd had banned the distribution of political pamphlets and the announcement of political rallies, and refused to introduce political candidates from the pulpit. Then he laid out his stance in a six-week series of sermons, called "The Cross and the Sword," explaining why he believes the church and the state should be separate.

Greg Boyd
The Rev. Greg Boyd sits comfortably in the living room of his St. Paul home.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

"From a New Testament perspective, they're not only strange bedfellows, they're impossible bedfellows. You can't pick up the sword and still carry the cross. The two are antithetical," he said.

In fact, under the U.S. Constitution, the government may not establish a state religion. Religious leaders may speak freely about political issues, but they risk losing their tax-exempt status if they get too involved in the political process. Boyd, who turned his sermons into a book, "The Myth of a Christian Nation," says he's not opposed to Christians voting or exercising their civic rights. But he says even Christians can have a difference of opinion about how much of a role religion should play in government.

"What's sad is when someone slaps the label 'Christian' on their particular way of voting, they bring all the messiness of politics into the church, they have just alienated all the people in the culture who maybe don't agree with their political perspectives, they've compromised their gospel," he said.

Not everyone agrees.

The Rev. Greg Boyd leads his congregation in prayer.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

The Rev. Rick Scarborough, the founder and president of Vision America, a Texas-based evangelical organization, has written a book called, "In Defense of Mixing Church and State."

"What they're trying to do is say if you're a Christian, you should check your faith at the door when it comes to matters of public policy, when it comes to matters of public debate. And I absolutely, out of hand, reject that," he said.

Scarborough says religion and politics can not -- and should not -- be separate. He's helped elect Christian fundamentalists to many of his local city council seats, the school board and other offices.

"Our founding fathers would turn over in their grave if they lived today and saw how the First Amendment has been twisted to mean that the pastor should be silent on these great moral issues of our day. And when they have a political application, then he must apply the truth to that political issue. This is a clear case of 'rightness' and 'wrongness,'" he said.

They're not only strange bedfellows, they're impossible bedfellows.

Still, some members of fundamentalist churches are beginning to question their close alignment with political parties.

Ordained minister Barry Lynn says they're right to raise those questions. As the head of the watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Lynn says both the Democrats and Republicans have wrongly used religion for their partisan political purposes. But he warns that churches may have more to lose than politicians when the two mix.

"We, for example, never complained about churches, even if we disagree with their policy position, talking about it or using the church to organize about issues. But when you skate over that and into the arena or partisan endorsement of Senator X or Senate candidate Y, you've violated the tax laws, you've put your church's tax exemption in jeopardy and you've also guaranteed that you're going to have fights within the congregation over the propriety of doing so," he said.

Lynn says asking people to vote as part of their civic duty is one thing. Telling them how to vote is something else.

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