(ABP) -- A leading presidential candidate writes letters to Christian ministers from around the country. He remarks positively on their contribution to society and church and suggests his interest in personal conversation. He invites the ministers to respond to a particular campaign official to set up a face-to-face. Many of the clergy respond in turn by contacting the campaign.
A delegation of Christian ministers is invited to visit the White House and receive a briefing on current issues. They are met in the Executive Office Building by White House officials bearing important titles. After several hours together, the clergy leave the White House and return to their churches with memories and some pictures on their phones.
A group of ministers is called by Congress to testify before a committee on a controversial administration decision. Each argues that the administration's position violates constitutional principles. Their testimony gains national attention.
These are fairly routine kinds of events in the relationship between church and state in the United States. I have personally experienced each of them.
Notice what these events have in common. In each case the initiative flows from the state to the church. In each case the state official invites the Christian minister to participate in some way in the political process. In each case the state official offers access or the appearance of access to government power or those who (might soon) exercise it. In each case the Christian minister responds positively and becomes involved in the manner suggested by the inviting politician.
Consider how this experience is processed from the minister’s side.
Receipt of the letter from the presidential campaign, the phone call from the White House or the invitation to testify before Congress is exciting. It isn't every day that a Christian minister laboring anonymously in a clerical vineyard somewhere gets such a phone call, e-mail or letter.
The minister is not just excited. He is flattered. This call means he is being noticed, and by very high officials in Washington. One does not always know whether anyone is really noticing our hard work. The kinds of people we see on TV every day -- they know I exist! They think I have something important to say! I might get to be on TV too! What outfit should I wear?
While excited and flattered, the minister is an earnest person. He does not want to say yes to the state's summons simply because of vanity. He says yes, sure, but the reason he says yes is because this is a chance to make a difference. He might influence a future president or affect an important policy debate. It is unlikely that he will make any difference whatsoever, but he will go, certainly go, when summoned.
Now consider the matter from the politicians’ side. Why do they offer such invitations to gentle clergy folk?
They do it so they can win.
Each minister stroked and flattered by a politician has the potential to become an ally. His very presence in the room signals that this politician is a friend and not an enemy. At the very least, the invitation likely neutralizes any potential public opposition from the minister to this candidate or politician. Once having experienced the excitement of a gilt-edged White House or Congressional invitation, the minister is less likely to do or say anything that might cost him future experiences, invitations or access.
Every four years (every two years; every year; most months) Christian ministers in America are enticed by politicians to come onto their turf and play their game their way. When we say yes, it is not so much a church/state violation as it is a state-church seduction. Both parties do it, and they do it well. Ministers of all political ideologies succumb just as helplessly. Perhaps it is comforting to find that we all have this in common. Bipartisan unity at last!
Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.