Doing any sort of activism work will inevitably lead to some criticism by members of your community, at least it will if you are doing it right. Demanding relevant change in the world makes people who are complacently comfortable in their lives, positions, and viewpoints profoundly uncomfortable. This comfortable complacency is often one of the most persistent barriers to making lasting changes to equity and justice within our society. One quickly finds that being perceived as a threat to that comfort will incur criticism, attacks, and vitriol from the most invested. This can be tiring, but it’s to be expected. It’s part of the process, and while responses of personal attacks and malevolence tend to harm everyone involved, respectful and civil disagreements and debate furthers the dialogue and can lead to solutions to problems. So a big part of remaining effective in your activism is to learn when to ignore criticism and when to engage in dialogue with your critic.
One of the most common criticisms that an activist that comes from a spiritual background will receive is to tell us that we shouldn’t mix our religion or spirituality with our politics. The people who level this complaint at activists and take a stance on not mixing their religion and politics tend to be people who can afford to separate these two aspects of their lives, people whose human rights aren’t being threatened and whose lives and finances are well protected by a system that tends to favor white male rights over all others. But what does this look like, this separation of spirituality and politics? How does one untangle these ideas in our minds and make choices without one influencing the other?
The root of the separation of church and state in the United States comes from a combination of sources. The First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion and impeding the free exercise of religion. On a side note, it also prohibits abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. These are all aspects of the protest movement that the same people who advocate keeping spirituality out of politics often have issues with as well. This leads people to cherry pick the constitution for statements that support their agenda the same way that an evangelist will cherry pick the bible to support their agenda. Further, Article Six of the Constitution establishes that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States, ensuring that the US Government remains secular and not directly influenced by the Church. Later, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut written in 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the subject that the United States should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
So what we have in regards to the separation of Church and State is a strict commitment, written into the Constitution and echoed by Jefferson and the Supreme Court, to not allow the government to be controlled in any way by the Church, to not allow the state to establish a state religion, and to not require membership in a particular church in order to qualify for public office. There are many reasons why this is a good policy. There’s the fact that most Abrahamic faiths strongly encourage people to unquestionably follow an autocratic elite, an idea that clearly stands in opposition to the spirit of a truly democratic society, there’s the idea that we do not want another person’s religious beliefs impinging on our rights and freedoms, and there’s the fact that religion and government have different roles in society and should remain separate because mixing those role have historically been disastrous. But while I strongly believe that the strict separation of the Church and State is necessary to maintain a just society, this is not the same issue as keeping one’s spirituality or religion out of their personal politics.
But how does one keep their personal politics and their spirituality separate? For me, I can’t do it. As a matter of fact I can’t even imagine how someone who critically thinks about the issues can keep spirituality and politics compartmentalized in their minds. Because in my experience, most people’s spirituality and politics are influenced by their morals and ethics, not the other way around. For example, I believe that everyone should have basic human rights. I would not practice a religion that advocated denying others their human rights, and when I vote for a candidate their moral character and stance on human rights is a major factor on whether or not they will get my vote. To separate your spirituality from your politics is to separate your morals from your politics and that is a dangerous thing. For without consideration of morals, what are we using to make our political choices? Our wallets? Our party affiliation? Our self-interest? These motivations do not lead to a just and equitable society, they lead to inequality, power imbalance, and ultimately the decline of that society.
As a society, we must learn to be guided by our own morality and our own codes of ethics and not have them dictated to us by churches and politicians. We need to have an active ongoing relationship with our moral codes and sets of values, a dialogue with ourselves and others to continually refine and update our opinions as we learn new information and hear other people’s viewpoints. Morality cannot be written in stone, it should always be a work in progress. There is danger in the inverse of this approach. To allow your government or your church to define your moral and ethical code without critical reflection can be one of the most destructive impulses that a society can have, Governments can tell you that they have to militarize and restrict your freedoms in order to keep you free, they can try to convince you that poisoning your water and land is necessary in order to maintain prosperity. Churches can tell you who is righteous and who is pure and try to justify dehumanizing others for having differing faiths and they can try to convince you that your natural healthy impulses are impure and sinful and pit you against your self in a never-ending cycle of shame. Spirituality and politics should never be top down institutions, they should be guided and led by the people in a continual process of refinement and education, striving for better understanding and a more equable and just society.
So to the demand that I keep my religion out of my politics, I will have to politely decline. For both my religion and my politics come from the same place, my heart, guided by a moral code that I am in constant refinement of. My religion and my politics can’t be separate because at the root of both of them is an uncontrollable impulse to stand for every person’s basic human rights, to help my community to grow and be prosperous and fair for everyone, to defend the most vulnerable and abused in our society, to create a culture of equity and a clean and healthy planet for the coming generations. Our morality is not handed down to us from our churches and it’s not prescribed to us by our governments, it is ours, a precious part of our humanity that must continually be nurtured and grown, educated and socialized, and refined and enlightened if we are to create a lasting society worthy of our vast potential.