In his book, Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh gives the following principle for social harmony:
Do not use the religious community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice, and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.
Hanh’s first point, not using the religious community for personal gain is a no-brainer. The second, not transforming the community into a political party, has become common in the past two decades. I disagree with the old saying: “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t hurt the manure, but it sure makes a mess of the ice cream.” Religious involvement in politics has made such a mess it’s hard to distinguish between the manure and ice cream.
Hanh’s recommendation for religious communities to take stands against oppression and injustice requires some thought. Churches need to distinguish between policies of oppression and injustice and policies which simply fail to align with their doctrine. The question is whether a law or policy causes actual harm.
In my youth, Sunday closing laws were a big issue in Utah. The Mormon Church was on the side of Sunday closing. Obviously, good Mormons should be in church rather than shopping on Sundays. I’m not opposed to church attendance or to resting on Sunday, but I don’t see that allowing businesses to operate on Sunday causes harm to others. To me this is clearly an issue where churches can admonish members to obey their interpretation of the Bible, but should not lobby for laws which force others to conform to their beliefs.
Abortion is a tougher issue. Clearly, a fetus is harmed by the procedure, yet desperate women can die from unsafe, illegal procedures. I doubt anyone really favors abortion—it’s generally a question of which is the greater harm. This is certainly an area where churches differ. Most denominations permit abortion in order to save a mother’s life or health, in cases of rape or incest, or for a severely deformed fetus, but some oppose abortion for any reason. Churches certainly have the right to make rules for their own members, but should they promote laws to force people of different beliefs to obey their rules?
Gay marriage is opposed by many churches, yet none, to my knowledge, has provided evidence that gay marriage weakens traditional marriage or creates other harm. The fact that gay marriage is not something a church condones doesn’t seem like a valid reason to oppose it. Mormons don’t drink tea and coffee, but they don’t try to pass laws outlawing the sale of these beverages. Seventh-day Adventists and some Eastern religions don’t eat meat, but they don’t lobby for laws prohibiting butcher shops.
What should churches actively oppose? Oppression and injustice, according to Hanh. The Jim Crow laws in many states were clearly unjust and oppressive to African Americans. Many churches (unfortunately, not my own) rightfully joined the Civil Rights Movement to oppose those laws.
Besides opposing oppression and injustice, I believe religious groups have a responsibility to promote safe, healthy communities. Differences of opinion exist on how to achieve this. Perhaps the best role for churches to take in these areas is to simply encourage members to work within community organizations rather than to organize what may become divisive, partisan efforts.