I had just sent out an e-mail to the Lakeshore congregation inviting them to join me in the march that would be held on Saturday, March 24, calling for an end to the war in Iraq and an increase in federal spending in Oakland on those things that would make for peace in Oakland—like improved health care, improved public education, more affordable housing, and violence-reduction programs.

Within in minutes I got an e-mail back from a leading member saying she was concerned that the church was getting too political, concerned that we were crossing the line of separation between church and state. Her concerns are important and reflect the ongoing uncertainty in our society about what the appropriate role is for religious institutions, and people of faith, in matters of public policy, in matters involving the political process, in matters relating to government.

The wall of separation between church and state, an expression not found in the Constitution yet expressive of the intent of the First Amendment to the Constitution—Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof—is a gift to us all. It protects us from religious coercion and governmental coercion. In my mind the separation of church and state is one of those “win-win” situations that we spend so much of our time searching for. Yet, the location, height, width and shape of that wall is a matter of ongoing debate. In any given session the Supreme Court is likely to be asked to hear a case involving either the establishment clause or the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

One of the questions I ask when trying to determine if I, or Lakeshore Church, should become involved in a potentially political matter is “Does this issue primarily involve support of a political office holder or office seeker, or does it primarily involve the support of a particular action or policy?” If it is primarily about office holders or office seekers I step to the side. If it is primarily about actions or policies then I will consider becoming involved if the matter is consistent with the values of the church, the needs of the community and if I/we have the time, passion and energy.

For example. On March 17 Barack Obama came to speak in downtown Oakland. I did not endorse any “let’s get the people of the church out in support of Barack” efforts. This stance was not about the merits of the candidate. It was about my understanding of the wall of separation of church and state. I was calling for people to turn out on March 24. The march is about the support of policies that I believe to be consistent with our religious values of justice, non-violence and concern for the well being of all, even our “enemies.”

I value the separation of church and state. I don’t see that wall as keeping the church out of politics. I see it as preventing us from being partisan. To be non-political is likely to mean we are uninvolved in the well being of our community. To be non-partisan is say we live with respect for all and that there is room in the church for all, even people from different political persuasions and parties.