I recently wrote that for many decades politicians have used “Separation of Church and State” to intimidate the clergy to be silent about “political issues,” and that most churches responded accordingly. One result I noted has been to deprive churchgoers of moral and intellectual guidance and make them more vulnerable to secularism. I urged the clergy to resist political intimidation and provide such guidance from the pulpit. This essay will expand on that idea.
Separation of church and state was first recommended by Roger Williams and later supported by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, all of whom feared that if any religion gained dominance, those outside it would lose their freedoms. History had repeatedly proved the merits of this argument, so there was no reason for them to be concerned about the reverse situation—secularism gaining dominance and denying freedom to the religious.
Over the last half-century, however, that reverse situation has come to pass. Secularism now reigns and therefore controls the culture. Moreover, federal and state governments, schools and colleges, the mainstream and social media, and business organizations are generally supportive of secular viewpoints and narratives. As if that did not tilt the culture strongly enough toward secularism, the messages that communicate the viewpoints and narratives have often been scripted by people opposed to Judeo-Christian values.
It would be difficult enough for people to maintain their religious values if the messages they received six days a week were challenged from the pulpit on the seventh day. But it is virtually impossible if their pastors remain silent about them on the seventh day. That has often been the case. Little wonder that many Christians and Jews have fallen away from their faith and support programs and causes their religious denominations have long opposed.
I believe America’s political, economic, and cultural decline is largely due to secularism’s displacement of Judeo-Christian values. I also believe that the most effective way to overcome the decline is for religious leaders to speak out strongly from the pulpit on every moral issue facing our country. The argument for doing so is twofold: First, the danger facing America today is not religion’s intolerance of secularism, but the reverse. Secondly, barring Church leaders from expressing moral principles both blocks their obligation to offer guidance in moral matter and violates their constitutional rights.
What specific issues need to be addressed from the nation’s pulpits and how should they be framed? Here are some examples of issues, outlines of sermons, and the biblical basis for them:
Issue: THE RISE OF HATRED AND VIOLENCE
Sermon Outline: Public discourse seems more negative than ever. Media commentators accuse those who disagree with them of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Contributors to social media question one another’s sincerity and integrity. A steady diet of both leads us to anger, resentment, outrage, contempt, and hatred. Those feelings make it difficult if not impossible to respect people who differ from us. For the sake of social harmony, we should resist such negative influences in our lives.
Scriptural Foundation: Ecclesiastes 7:9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools. John 3:15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer . . . Ephesians 4:31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
Issue: THE CORRUPTION OF CHILDREN
Sermon Outline: For decades, popular culture has extolled sexual promiscuity. Such messages have destroyed families and deprived children of safety, guidance, and happiness. Today the situation has worsened. Many schools are instructing children in all manner of sexual practices, often before they have reached the age of reason. Some are also encouraging them to imagine themselves having a different gender and, worse, guiding them to chemical and/or surgical alteration of their birth gender without consulting their parents. Not only parents, but all concerned citizens have an obligation to speak out in condemnation of such abuses.
Scriptural Foundation: Matt 18:6 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Issue: THE INCREASE IN UNHAPPINESS
Sermon Outline: More people than ever are reportedly experiencing feelings of depression and despondence, in some cases severely enough for them to consider suicide. Some of these feelings can be traced to mental conditions, economic difficulties, or family problems. But the cause can simply be the attitudes caused by advertising, which makes us feel a need for what we don’t have, from clothing to cars, diet pills to facelifts, appliances to gadgets. We envy the happy people on the TV screen, which increases our temptation to envy those around us and to feel cheated in life. The way to break this downward spiral to unhappiness is to focus on the positive aspects of our lives, including the fact that we live in a country that guarantees us freedoms.
Scriptural Foundation: Exodus 20:7 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Proverbs 14:30 “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you . . .Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Romans 12:12 “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
Issue: THE LACK OF DISCERNMENT
Sermon Outline: Discernment is the skill of judging things well, separating good from bad and true from false, and grasping even subtle differences. There is considerable evidence that this skill is lacking today. For example, several years ago a reporter stood in front of a group of riotous people on a city street. Behind them were several buildings engulfed in flames from the ground to the rooftops. In a calm voice, the reporter said into his microphone: “This demonstration has been mostly peaceful.” That continued to be the narrative in his network and a number of others in the days and weeks that followed. In another case, a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court was asked if she could define the word “woman.” She answered that she could not. In yet another case, over the course of several years, illegal immigrants streamed across the U.S. southern border daily. As of this writing, the total is over ten million individuals. Yet for all that time many elected officials have repeatedly stated, and most news sources have reported, not only that there is no border crisis, but that the situation there is normal. The lack of discernment goes far beyond the people mentioned in these examples. All of us who listened to them and did not question the reports, failed to separate good from bad, true from false. For our own good, and that of our country, we need to examine what we see and hear and judge it more thoughtfully—in a word, to be more discerning.
Scriptural Foundation: John 4:1 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Note: Each of the four sermons presents a moral judgment of a timely situation that conservatives of different religious faiths, or no faith at all, would generally agree with. A close look at each will reveal that no mention is made of God, the Bible, or the Catechism. Each sermon could in its present form be a purely philosophical statement based solely on experience and logic. I included biblical references only to show that the messages are consistent with biblical teaching. I could just as easily have substituted references from Greek, Roman or other secular philosophers.
My point is that there is no reason for the Catholic hierarchy and clergy (or pastors of other faiths) to refrain from speaking of moral matters from the pulpit. Properly understood, separating church and state does not mean banning the expression of viewpoints from pulpits. It simply means forbidding the imposition of religious beliefs and practices on citizens.
To Be Continued . . .
Copyright © 2024 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.