Bruce Maiman

Debate over religion’s role goes back to our founding

For several years now, the homeless in downtown Sacramento have turned to the Winter Sanctuary Program, a cluster of city and county churches providing shelter during the winter months.

As Sacramento County supervisors work with the program’s major partners – including Sacramento Steps Forward and the Capital Christian Center in Rosemont – on how those churches can use their property to help the homeless, they might turn to our own history as a guide.

It is nearly forgotten that from George Washington’s presidency to James Monroe’s, religion was the source of our nation’s first great divide. Even the Fourth of July became a battleground, with conservative pastors scorning the “red, white, and blue” as anti-Christian and anti-American, while Baptists championed the separation of church and state.

The conflict finally subsided after America’s victory in the War of 1812 drove New England’s Christian Right to withdraw from electoral politics. No longer entangled in each other’s business, church and state flourished alike.

For the rest of the 19th century, Christian socialism became the driving religious force in America, invoking scripture that stressed charity, helping the poor and social justice. Its signposts are everywhere: the founding of the Salvation Army, soup kitchens and the abolitionist movement. John Brown, a deeply religious man, believed his fight against slavery was divined from biblical teachings. Christian socialists opposed child labor, supported public education, women’s suffrage, fair wages and labor unions.

Eventually, the temperance movement and fundamentalism, whose direct descendant is the Religious Right, eclipsed charity as the principal face of religion.

The difference between the two approaches is not inconsequential. It’s playing out today as we – the secular and religious alike – figure out what role the church should play in tackling society’s problems, including homelessness.

The Rev. Rick Cole, the pastor of Capital Christian, put himself in the middle of that debate by spending time with the homeless to learn about their plight and to raise money for the shelter program. Some parishioners, however, shy from getting involved in issues outside the church.

“What’s difficult for a lot of people in the church community,” Cole told me, “is that the church itself has its own culture and often sees the culture around it – society’s culture – as an enemy. It almost tries at times to separate itself or isolate itself from society’s culture instead of trying to help it.”

On the other hand, some flinch when a cause becomes tied to religion.

“One of the things I’m running into in trying to fundraise for the homeless, is that the religious affiliation is kind of a turnoff for some folks,” Maya Wallace of Sacramento Steps Forward told me. “I have critiques from people who say they don’t want to be part of this because of its affiliation with the faith community.”

A congregant from a mega-church in Rocklin once told me you couldn’t worship there unless you were the right kind of Christian. In a current job listing, William Jessup University specifies that applicants have “a strong visible Christian faith.” So a Jewish applicant with otherwise impeccable credentials has no shot. It’s the school’s right as a private institution, I suppose, but it sends a troubling message that can manifest itself elsewhere.

Sacramento County is home to nearly 500 churches, according to census data, yet only about 30 churches are involved in the Winter Sanctuary Program. Between those 30 churches and the Rev. Cole’s recent two-week sojourn among the homeless in downtown Sacramento, they’ve raised more than half the $300,000 target to fund winter shelters.

That’s fascinating to ponder for those who don’t think the government should be the primary engine that drives these kinds of programs, and for those who advocate more government intervention.

How ironic it would have been had the county supervisors truly been trying to impede the church community’s charitable efforts. How sad more churches aren’t involved in such a terrific program, and sadder still that the ideology of some religionists turns off those who might otherwise be charitable.

As our own history has shown, religion can be a powerful agent for social change – if the right religionists are behind it.

“My hope,” Cole said, “is that the way we do it is more life-giving.”

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.