The faith factor: Liberal pastor sees secular line around politics

A liberal pastor thinks public politics should be secular, even if faith is a quiet factor personally.

Colin M. Lenton/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Liberal pastor Rev. Michael Caine thinks public politics should be secular, even if faith is a quiet factor personally. "We don’t always have to agree, but we can’t deny the blessing we can be to each other." This article is part of the cover project in the April 2, 2012 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

In a little brick parsonage surrounded by landmarks of America's independence, the Rev. Michael Caine, pastor of Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, talks about freedoms: the freedom of individuals to interpret Scripture as they see fit; his congregation's freedom from big-church doctrinal and bureaucratic demands; and his members' freedom to be who they are, a diverse collection of folks more bound by progressive political leaning than by age, race, or class.

It's no surprise the pastor likes freedom. After all, it was the desire to sing and study the Bible unburdened by liturgical demands that led Mr. Caine's forebears in the faith to dissent from their English hierarchy. The church's congregation has been independent-minded ever since.

But when Caine preaches, he aims for the pastoral, not the political. One recent Sunday, for example, he reflected on a verse from Corinthians: "for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." His sermon that day was "mostly about a call to humility as human beings for things we don't know and can't know," he says. "I would say there's a translation into US politics which prevents us from believing there's one way of understanding our world or our faith or even what's right and wrong."

This pastor has the heart of a socialist, is openly gay, chooses not to drive a car, and spent 24 years in New York City in seminary, ministry, and church work, before coming to Philadelphia two years ago. He clearly enjoys the left side. "The 'Occupy' movement was really fun for me," he says. Last month, he welcomed the rare conservative into his congregation – a new parishioner who firmly "believes capitalism is the best way of organizing" society, Caine says. This presents a new pastoral challenge, but not a bad one.

As for the birth control/religious liberties debate, he says, freedom of conscience ends where federal funding begins. "I don't think freedom of religion has given religious communities [freedom] to opt out of most broad-based social commitments," he says, especially if they get tax dollars. But he acknowledges that things aren't always so clear, noting that, among other things, churches benefit from government funding through their tax-exempt status. Caine more freely grants conscience freedoms to individuals – those who object to fighting in a war, for instance. But even individuals, he notes, can't withhold taxes even if they hold a conscientious objection to war.

Faith can undergird action for a politician or citizen, but Caine likes religion to be out of public life. He believes it has no place in public schools, on public property, or in the civic conversation of a pluralistic nation. Even clergy, he says, should shift from religious language to secular when speaking of policy to officials. And while broad biblical language has long laced speechmaking, and while the pastor doesn't mind President Obama speaking in a religious setting of his faith journey, a politician citing specific Scripture to explain policymaking "gets a little weird."

Caine grew up in a mostly ­Republican family in St. Louis and attended private schools before graduating from Colgate University and Union Seminary in New York. Many members of his family are Southern Baptists, evangelical Christians at the opposite end of the Protestant spectrum of church/state worldviews. And though he himself is the odd man out when he's in their midst, now and then there's time for a long chat with a trusted cousin about – among other questions – how it is possible for a gay man to be ordained.

Caine will vote again for Mr. Obama this year, even though he thinks the president has gone a bit "establishment" on him: "He still lives in a context that is limiting."

Thinking back on the Reagan years after seeing the film "The Iron Lady," about Margaret Thatcher – and perhaps mindful of the new capitalist in his own flock – Caine realizes anew that there are different opinions about how government can do best by the greatest number of people. "I often say to people in church, 'We don't always have to agree, but we can't deny the blessing we can be to each other.' "

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