06/18/2015 07:03 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2016

Emanuel AME Church Reminds Us of Religion's Intrinsic Connection to Politics

Joe Raedle via Getty Images

"Religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm." Presidential candidate Jeb Bush said this in response to Pope Francis' statement on climate change. In other words, the Pope should stick to religion and not meddle in politics. Ne'er the twain shall meet.

Pastor-politician Clementa Pinckney, were he alive, would beg to differ with Mr. Bush. The pastor of one of the most politically-charged churches in America can't respond, of course, because allegedly a sandy-haired young man was welcomed into a Bible study in the basement of the church he pastored -- and began to shoot. Again and again, he shot.

He shot until 9 black bodies, Bibles by their sides, lay still on the floor, one of them Reverend Pickney's.

As a white kid in Levittown during the '60s, I grew up with what we might call the Jeb Bush dichotomy. Religion and politics were like two sides of the Red Sea, mounted in opposition with a swath of dry land between them.

God, I thought, could inspire personal virtues but not politics -- and certainly not politicians. Jesus could heal individuals but not nations. Once upon a time, in a fairyland that never in fact existed, I believed with Mr. Bush that "religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm."

I believed this because I had never heard, growing up in a white, conservative Protestant church, that God had inspired people like Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who fought slavery tooth and nail, or Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, or Martin Luther King, Jr., who galvanized the civil rights movement. People who put the lie to the neat division between politics and religion.

Then, like the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who died the other night in Charleston, South Carolina, I read my Bible. Read it for what it said -- not for what I'd been taught it said. And in that reading, I came across a text: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of Hosts." As I studied that text and other prophetic texts like it, I put aside the Jeb Bush dichotomy between religion and politics.

There's a backstory to this explosive little text. In 539 BCE, after half a century of exile, the Persian Empire sent the Israelites back home to rebuild the temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed half a century earlier. The Persians also sent the exiles home with the warning not to raise a whiff of rebellion. Enter Zechariah, a prophet and political realist who directed his energies to recreating a faithful little province -- Jerusalem may only have been four or five acres with four or five hundred inhabitants -- that would grow strong without raising the eyebrows of Persian power.

Zechariah shows us that Bush's tidy division between religion and politics is convenient but indefensible. Zechariah talked religion. He also talked politics. The temple would be rebuilt, he charged, both Persia's way and God's way.

In a context of prudent political optimism, Zechariah pronounced the famous words, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts." These words were both promise and warning: King David's distant heir, Zerubabbel, the political governor of the province of Yehud (Judah) at the time, would rebuild the temple by the power of God's Spirit.

Fast forward two-and-a-half millennia. After years of challenging the American people to join religion and politics in the fight for civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," under a banner -- no surprise here -- with a single Bible verse that would say it all:


"Not By Might, Nor By Power, But By My Spirit,

Saith the LORD of HOSTS." Zechariah 4:6

King had proclaimed this same message in 1962 from the pulpit of Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He dove headlong into the realm of politics in a speech about voting rights and the American dream.

For two centuries, the people of Emanuel have embodied the intrinsic connection between religion and politics. Founded by African Americans, worshipping for decades in secret because of a ban against all-black churches, seeing its building burned to the ground, taking an active role in the Underground Railroad, disrupted and harassed by white Christians in Charleston, Emanuel has consistently wandered into Bush's "realm of politics."

Recently, in the wake of the death of Walter Scott, Clementa Pinckney stood on the floor of the South Carolina Senate, urging his colleagues to require police officers to wear body cameras -- a simple, small step in the monumental American effort to regain trust in our government.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church teaches us, at great cost, that politics -- politics done right and righteously -- is actually deeply spiritual. And religion -- religion done right and righteously -- is actually deeply political.