Religion and politics is a topic in practically every presidential election—whether it takes the form of the symbolic nod towards religious values expected of every national candidate, or more assertive attempts by some American evangelicals to claim a privileged place for the "Judeo- Christian tradition" in public institutions.
But the problem of religion and politics also is a recurring theme in the history of the four traditions—Congregational, Christian, Reformed and Evangelical—that united to form the United Church of Christ in 1957.
Vol. 5 of "The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ," recently published by The Pilgrim Press, shows that while our spiritual ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th century believed in separation of church and state, that did not mean separation of religious values from political institutions.
It was an era of self-confidence in the human capacity to build a better world. The rapid rise of a modern industrial state produced expectations that wealth would be shared. In all of the UCC's ancestral traditions, preachers and theologians reasoned that if humanity could "conquer" nature it could also overcome poverty, injustice and war.
They were driven by a sense of moral urgency.
Aware of the shadow side of the industrial revolution, Congregationalist Josiah Strong wrote, "I believe it is fully in the hands of the Christians of the United States, during the next 15 or 20 years, to hasten or retard the coming of Christ's Kingdom by hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years."
Twenty years later, Reformed Church leader George Richards would condemn a divided social order that was "rotting from the gilded palaces downward and from the wretched slums upwards."
In another 20 years, the Evangelical Synod would adopt a "social platform" demanding industrial democracy, a minimum wage, social insurance, cooperative ownership and "full political and economic equality" for women.
The Living Theological Heritage series, a seven-volume memory bank of UCC history, is available from The Pilgrim Press. The book can be ordered by phoning 800-537-3394. Andy Lang is Managing Editor of the UCC website at www.ucc.org.