Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Church and State...and City and Neighborhood

Joanna Stephens


May 11, 2012

By Joanna Stephens

Earlier this year, New York City Christians of diverse stripes banded together to voice their opposition to a citywide ban on churches meeting in public schools. On one hand, the controversy appeared to be yet another instance in which religious freedom and the establishment clause have taken prominent seats in the national dialogue this election season. Yet, beyond lofty rhetoric and partisan arguments, the issue struck a definitive local chord as it involved tangible school buildings, the people and organizations who inhabited them and, for approximately 60 neighborhood churches, the prospect of imminent displacement. Nothing gets more local than eviction.

Though many were not directly affected by the ban, Christians across the city prayed, contacted their elected officials, attended public hearings, formed websites, and organized protest marches across the Brooklyn Bridge. A temporary stay on the ban has allowed churches to remain in place, but the courts have not yet resolved the issue, with further judicial review pending this summer. 

Watching events unfold as a fellow believer and New York City resident, I was encouraged to see how effectively churches organized and recruited both congregants and members of the communities they serve to demonstrate public opposition to the ban. The surge of political participation over several weeks was impressive and a laudable example of active, non-violent engagement by Christians expressing a political voice in the public sphere. 

However, for many of them, particularly younger Christians from larger congregations with their own space and newer neighborhood histories, combating the school ban was the first time they had attended any kind of public gathering to engage in local politics. 

While it is understandable that a direct threat to worship would garner such high turnout, churches should use this episode to encourage members toward more regular civic involvement –whether or not religious freedom is at stake. As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Citizenship states, “Responsible citizenship includes not only abiding by the law, paying taxes, and enjoying the benefits of law-abiding behavior, but also helping to shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.”

Under the mandate of Jeremiah 29 to seek the peace and prosperity of the city, the Church's disposition toward local politics needs to be strengthened—both top-down and bottom-up from leadership and laity, respectively. If, for instance, in their small-group programming, churches could place as high a value on community engagement as community service, the two could fuel each other more organically.  Many churches offer service opportunities like volunteering at soup kitchens or visiting nursing homes.  Why can't the same be said for attending neighborhood zoning reviews, city council meetings, or public hearings? 

With the right guidance and encouragement, small groups periodically praying for specific community leaders and visiting public meetings together would encourage members toward fulfilling their calling as citizens. Such local political participation would also increase awareness about community issues, enabling church groups to brainstorm more effective ways to serve their neighbors.  Increased local political engagement by small groups of Christians—as opposed to organized coalitions of church leaders – might lead to Christians being known for serving with their neighbors, rather than solely being seen as a part of a sequestered voting bloc. By broadening their definition of community outreach, churches can make positive political participation of their members an invested part of congregational life in the city. 

Finally, regular, persevering prayer on these fronts is also something that the Church can better encourage.  While it is important for churches to pray for disaster relief, peace abroad, and wisdom for our national leaders, it is just as important to keep a prayer pulse on local issues—yes, even political ones. Christ himself commented on issues ranging from Roman imperial taxation to local Jewish Sabbath laws, using the teachings to guide people toward a right relationship with God and the world around them. 

Of course, empowering congregants to engage in politics means that churches will need to monitor against the temptations of polarizing, partisan politics—national or local.  But an impassioned drive for truth, justice and mercy can coexist with civil discourse. And what better place for Christians to start than locally, where one’s political opponents may be next-door neighbors, coworkers and friends.

Recent evidence in New York points to how well it can be done. What we need in coming years is more. 

—Joanna Stephens is an architectural designer in New York City. She was a 2011 Gotham Fellow, which is an intensive program integrating faith and public life hosted by The Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”