Prominent Religious Leaders Debate God and Government

Rev. Graham, Pastor Keller and Rev. Sharpton discuss religion in America

April 23, 2011, 4:57 PM

WASHINGTON, April 24, 2011— -- As heated political rhetoric escalates and acts of religious intolerance arise across the nation, a group of prominent religious leaders joined Christiane Amanpour on "This Week" to discuss the role of religion in government and what can be done to promote civil discourse.

Government vs. the Church

"A hundred years ago the social safety net in the country was provided by the church," the Rev. Franklin Graham told Christiane Amanpour. "If you didn't have a job, you'd go to your local church and ask the pastor if he knew somebody that could hire him. If you were hungry, you went to the local church and told them, 'I can't feed my family.' And the church would help you. And that's not being done."

Graham's comments come as people across the country debate the degree to which the government should manage social programs including Medicare, social security and health care.

"The government took that," Graham said. "They had more money to give and more programs to give and pretty soon the churches just backed off."

As Congress debates the federal budget including the plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which would decrease the extent of government involvement in certain social services, Graham concedes that churches are not prepared to handle the civic responsibilities they once bore.

"Now you have generation after generation of pastors in churches that have not done that," Graham told Amanpour. "You would have to teach them again how to do it."

Promoting Civil Discourse

In a year when "compromise" has been described as a dirty word in Washington and a congresswoman was shot at political event in her hometown, what role should religious organizations play in promoting civility and understanding?

"At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly," said Pastor Tim Keller, who based himself in New York City with the mission of spreading the gospel to a city better known for stone-cold competition rather than Christian brotherhood.

"As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility," Keller told Amanpour on "This Week." "So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse."

The Church as a Political Player

The governing principle of the separation of church and state traces back to the founding of the country, but its interpretation and the degree to which the two entities should be separate is an issue of heated debate. Even among religious leaders, the church's proper role in politics is not consistent.

"I think it's our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political position issues," Keller said. "I personally think the church, as the church, ought to be less concerned about speaking to politics and more concerned about service."

The Rev. Al Sharpton had a very different take on the role of the church in politics, claiming that spiritual leaders have the obligation to build a moral and ethical framework for heated political discussions.

"I think the church must set first a moral tone," Sharpton said on the "This Week" roundtable. "All religions are based on how we interact one to another as human beings.... That should be reflected in the public policies that we support."

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