A Modern Conceit: The Separation of Religion and Politics


By Frances Lee Menlove

Art by Kelly Brooks


What has our apostasy from peace cost us?”

—J. Reuben Clark


At the very heart of Mormonism, deep in its DNA, is a yearning for restoration. A yearning to be continuous in our time with Jesus and his followers; a yearning to be in faithful community with the earliest Christians; a yearning to restore what has been lost over the centuries.

The thicket of religion and politics is a thorny one. So I am first going to take a brief look at how religion and politics co-existed in first century Palestine and then show how it relates to contemporary America, and to our lives in the contemporary church.

Let me confess right off the bat that I am antsy talking about religion and politics. I am deeply committed to the separation of church and state. My son made a custom bumper sticker for me that says, “Pray for a Secular Government.” So when I refer to politics, I won’t mean political parties—Democrats or Republicans or Independents. I’ll be talking about how we make group decisions, how we navigate our way through our responsibilities to our government, to our fellow citizens, and to our Christian faith.

Recent precise scientific archaeology and the analysis of Christian documents found hidden in caves for millennia have provided us with a pretty good sketch of first-century Palestine. The scholarly consensus is that we now know more about the origins of the Jesus movement than any generation has since the first century itself. The Harvard religious scholar Harvey Cox concludes from this rich harvest of findings that “the separation we make today between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ is a modern conceit. It did not obtain in first-century Palestine. Religion was political, and politics were religious.”1


Let’s move back in time almost 2000 years and take a brief glimpse into the time and place in which Jesus was situated. Following is a list of titles of honor and respect. Let’s see whose name pops into your head:


Son of God


God from God




Savior of the World

King of Kings

Lord of Lords

Each of these titles was given to Caesar. All of them have been found on inscriptions, edicts, coins, etc. My guess is that Caesar isn’t the name that popped into your head. It certainly didn’t into mine.

In the imperial kingdom of Rome, Caesar’s godhood was the theology, the Roman story. Caesar—Lord Caesar—was a lover of peace. He was venerated in statues and proclamations for bringing “peace through victory.” His peace was established with armed conflict and maintained by legions of troops supported by forced taxation. In 31 B.C.E., Octavian declared Rome the “savior of the world.” An inscription declared, “Peace established by victories on land and sea.” Octavian became “the Augustus,” the “one to be worshiped.”

An inscription dated from a few years before Jesus’s birth explains that all calendars would be changed so that Caesar Augustus’ birthday would be the first day of every year, for Augustus had been divinely ordained to be a savior, to put an end to war and order peace, “since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings residing in him . . .”2

The Empire’s good news was “peace through domination, peace through redemptive violence, peace through centralized power and control, peace through elimination of enemies.” Pax Romana. This is the framing story of the early years of Christianity.

Paul summoned up these images of world-dominating power, of glamour and pomp, when he spoke of Jesus as “Lord,” “Redeemer,” and “Savior of the World.” In other words, he co-opted the language of Roman imperial theology. Rome cast Augustus as both human and divine, just as Paul cast Jesus. His rhetoric was probably considered either political dynamite, or considering Jesus’s status as a simple Jewish peasant, perhaps political comedy. “Jesus is Lord” was a very earthly, political declaration—a statement of defection from the emperor.

In his inaugural announcement of his mission, Jesus describes what he was called to do in social/political terms: “I come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives . . . and recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18). He later uses social and political terms to declare what is required of us: What counts in the separation of sheep from goats is not our piety or how often we have said “Lord, Lord,” but whether or not we were there for the least among us: clothing the naked, visiting those in jail, feeding the poor.

Jesus was a deep lover of peace. But Jesus preached, exhorted, and pled for a different approach to peacemaking than did the Caesars: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In one of Jesus’s final responses to Pilate, he makes crystal clear that his way is not the way of Caesar: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). In other words, Your soldiers hold me, Pilate, but my companions will not attack you even to save me from death.

Jesus’s way was peace through non-violent justice, peace through the forgiveness of enemies, peace through reconciliation. Marcus Borg declares: “If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather he was killed because of his politics . . .”3

In its early years, Christianity was a deeply anti-imperial movement. The earliest Christians understood that Jesus’s way of peace—peace through justice and non-violence—was not Caesar’s way: peace through victory. For the first two or three centuries, Christians did not serve in the military. In the year 303, Diocletian forbade any member of the Roman army to be a Christian. But by the year 416, a sea change had taken place and no one could be a member of the Roman army unless he was a Christian. Clearly the earliest Christians did not feel obligated to support their nation’s wars.

I hope you have been able to hear this historical and theological recap not as esoteric trivia but as Christian convictions that are crushingly relevant to life and values at the end of this decade of perpetual war, in a country which some dare call the American Empire.


What has happened? President J. Reuben Clark has a stark, even chilling answer to that question, asserting that there has been an apostasy from peace. “What has our apostasy from peace cost us?” he asks.

Can you hear the profound seriousness in that phrase? Mormon apostles do not use the term “apostasy” frivolously. President Clark goes on to elaborate on his concern:

I believe that permanent peace will never come into the world from the muzzle of a gun. Guns and bayonets will, in the future as in the past, bring truces, long or short, but never peace that endures.4

Just as religion and politics were not separate spheres at the time of Jesus and his early followers, religion and politics are also intermingled in President Clark’s searing question, “What has our apostasy from peace cost us?”

So, what has happened to the core Jesus principle of non-violence—of “Do unto others . . .” and “Turn the other cheek?” Faith communities such as the Quakers and Mennonites have kept the ethic of non-violence central to their understanding of the Christian life, embracing conscientious objection to war and non-cooperation with the build up to war, the taxes of war, and war making.

The Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of the world tell us that nonviolence is not “flight” nor is it “fight.” It does not mean being passive in the face of injustice, but neither does it mean meeting brutality with brutality. Nonviolence stands in between flight and fight. It is the speaking of truth to the person or powers that be. It is the courage to be the one who absorbs the last blow. Practitioners such as Gandhi and King and their followers, as well as the people of Ammon in the Book of Mormon, bear public witness of the ultimate, crushing, profound seriousness of war and violence and our complicity in it.

What about the LDS community? Richard Bushman engaged the issue when he hosted a Mormon-centered conference at Claremont Graduate University last year titled “War and Peace in Our Time.” Professor Bushman said that the conference grew out of a deep sense that there were strong anti-war sentiments in Mormonism that were being drowned out or not articulated, perhaps out of concern of seeming unpatriotic. The conference was designed to bring into open dialogue the robust anti-war strain in Mormon tradition, to put a check on the conviction that we can overcome evil only by force.

In his conference address, Ron Madson gave a deep, carefully nuanced scholarly presentation of D&C 98. Echoing President Clark’s concern about the apostasy from peace, Madson described Mormonism’s own “Constantine shift,” ruing the joining of religious with patriotic language and the abdication of individual decision making.

Joshua Madson’s close reading of the Book of Mormon concentrated not just on the oft-repeated story of the pacifist Ammonites, but on the entire sweep of its history and its non-violent message.

There is a strong anti-war tradition in Mormonism. When asked about whether a Mormon could seek conscientious objector status, President McKay was not willing to rest on a doctrine of a “just war” or patriotic submission to authority. Rather, he wrote a letter specifically endorsing the right of Mormons to seek conscientious objector status, thus endorsing the primacy of conscience.5


How are we to live out the implications of our allegiance to the Jesus that embraces peace and says no to violence? How do we move from this core ethical mandate to the mind-boggling complexity of the modern world, where our problems are so global and interventions and lack of interventions so unpredictable?

For starters, we can refuse to morph deep gratitude for the Constitution into a claim that America is more beloved of God than other nations. Toxic ideologies fuel violence. The claim of American exceptionalism, of America’s divine mission, adds din—maybe even idolatrous din—to this clamor. This is a rework of an ancient myth that has sent soldiers to their deaths for thousands of years: “God is on our side, not theirs.” As poll after poll reveals wide-scale favor toward war and military buildup, it seems that for many American Christians, American exceptionalism is trumping Jesus’s ethic of non-violence.

This is the intersection of religion and politics in our day: much of Christianity in America has retreated so far from Christ’s call to be peace makers that the call has become a harmless background to the “real” business of living. Our story, our American story, is that we can achieve security through military dominance and peace through violence. We hope for a world of peace as we live in an economy of war. But, as President Jimmy Carter wisely said in 1976, “We cannot have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.”6

President Eisenhower also articulated the profound intersection of the issues of peace and justice:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. . . . Is there no other way the world may live?7

We cannot forget that, for Jesus, non-violence is not just a means to the kingdom of God, it is a quality of the kingdom itself.

By upturning the “conceit of history” and acknowledging the intermingling of politics and religion in first century Palestine, we can move Jesus from practical irrelevance to a position that speaks directly to us about our world and its crisis. The earliest followers of Jesus rejected the way of Caesar: peace through victory. Where do you and I stand?

In his essay “Can Nations Love Their Enemies?: An LDS Theology of Peace”8 Gene England urges resisting the demagoguery of both press and politicians, instead adopting what he calls “effective pacifism.” Remember, Gene reminds us, a pacifist ethic really works. I feel sure Gene would be encouraged by Steven Pinker’s assertion that one of the most compelling arguments for peace is contemplation—serious, deep contemplation—of the alternative. Non-violence has often been criticized as being “unrealistic.” But realism can dismiss war. With the escalation of the lethality of weapons and their ubiquitous availability, it is unrealistic to assume that violence is the answer. Maybe we need to dismiss war as being naïve and unrealistic.9

How do we deal with the demands that peace and non-violence make on our existence in this historical moment? How do we stay faithful in our political space?

The Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan answers this way:

Does it mean that every Christian must be an absolute pacifist? We do not think so but we honor and revere those who bear that fullest witness even unto martyrdom. Does it mean that a group or a nation cannot defend itself if attacked by another? We do not think so but we honor and revere those who do so only as the last and most desperate alternative.

It means than an American Christian today must do everything possible to lower the level of violence all around us—in our sports and on our screens—in our homes and in our schools—in our domestic policies and in our foreign affairs—personal and individual violence, local and regional violence, national and international violence.”10

Remember, Jesus did not say “blessed are the peace lovers.” We are all peace lovers. Jesus said blessed are the peace makers.


I end with a story and a prayer. First the story—a wonderful old Native American tale that is a favorite at Peace Village. It says that inside each of us two wolves struggle with each other for survival. One wolf is belligerent and violent. The other wolf is peaceful and compassionate. Which one survives? The one we feed.

And now the prayer.

Eternal God; God of Love; God of Compassion,

We seek in this world, in our cities, and in our families to be peacemakers.

But we have difficulty—through habit, through ignorance, through weakness—embracing the very things that make for peace. So we ask for your help:

Help us to feel the gift of peace which you send into each of our hearts, that we might know we are secure.

Help us to walk through our deep prejudices, that we may see all men and all women, not only as equals, but as your beloved children.

Help us to drop our cherished opinions, and take up, instead, compassion.

Help us to be kind in our words to one another, so that the means by which we seek a peaceful end may also be peaceful.

Help us to trust the company of children.

Help us to trust the company of the poor.

Help us to treat other creatures as brothers and sisters, and the earth as what it is: Holy Ground.

Help us to turn from our ingrained reliance upon violence, and trust non-violence as the only way to peace.

Help us do the hardest thing of all: to actually love our enemies, to hear their truth, to see how beautiful they are in your sight.

Generous God, Healing God,

Forgive our apostasy from peace.

Help us to become peacemakers. Help us to embrace the very things which make for peace.





1.  Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 69.

2.  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 160.

3.  Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 92.

4.  J. Reuben Clark, “Let Us Have Peace,” Church News, 22 November 1947.

5.  Eugene England, Making Peace (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 148.

6.  Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Nashville TN, Thomas Nelson, 2007), 171.

7.  Dwight D. Eisenhower, from a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 16 April 1953.

8.  Eugene England, “Can Nations Love Their Enemies? An LDS Theology of Peace,” Sunstone November–December 1982, 49–56.

9.  Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (New York: Viking Penguin Group, 2011), 668.

10.     John Domonic Crossan, participant guide from Eclipsing Empire: Paul, Rome and the Kingdom of God, DVD, (Phoenix, AZ: livingthequestions.com, LLC, 2008), 57.