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Three Degrees of Separation

In 1893 a preacher came to town and stirred up folks against liquor. In his wake they prohibited church people from drinking, of course, and also from selling any form of alcohol.

They went further, refusing membership to those who rent property to a saloon, who deposit money in a bank that loaned money to the liquor business, who sell insurance to any person in the liquor industry and, finally, “who live in part or in whole on money collected from any person directly or indirectly connected with the whiskey business.

Even that was not enough: they chastised “any Mayor or Common Council or other Officers that grant license to any person engaged in the manufacturing, buying or selling of intoxicating liquors.”

In the end, their policy of tracking those complicit in the forbidden practice led them to excommunicate “any person who buys or sells cattle, hogs, or other stock to be fed in part or in whole on distilled slop.”

It was a policy of separation unto the third degree.

That split the church, of course, because liquor was the leading product of the town and among church members were landowners, insurance brokers, and the town mayor.

It was a wonder anyone was worthy of communion!

I know all this because exactly 100 years later I was pastor of the congregation that has descended from these tee-totaling, sin-denouncing, straight-living Baptists.

I think about this when I read of recent efforts to separate the people of God from the vices of the world.

In the current case, the sin is not alcohol but abortion. The authorities are not evangelists but bishops.

The penalty, however, is the same—excommunication from the life of the congregation.

It began as a warning to a very public figure, one who aspires to the presidency of the country.

Exclusion stares him in the face because he is separated from the sin by only two degrees:  securing the abortion is the sin; providing the abortion is one degree of separation; and funding those who provide the abortion is two degrees of separation.

Now the policy is being taken to the third degree: voting for people who provide the funds to pay those to do abortions constitutes the third degree of separation.

This means those who touch the “wrong” key in the voting booth are thereby complicit in the sin, and thus fall under commendation.

There is a serious public issue here: should church officials seek to influence—through opening or closing access to religious rituals—the voting patterns of both elected officials and the electing population? How does such a practice affirm or deny the separation of church and state?

But my immediate concern is more religious than political.

If all who are connected to meanness, injustice and outright wickedness by indirect and/or unintended ways are thereby banished from the sanctuary of God who, pray tell, will remain to worship the Lord?

All of us are no more than three degrees separated from any (and perhaps, every) sin—including pride, prejudice and sexual assault.

The pension fund manager of another religious group said as much. Pious investors charged that their monies had purchased stock in the parent company of a cruise line which, in turn, was assisting a travel agent in booking a vacation package for a lesbian group.

Was the retirement fund, then, supporting homosexuality? Not directly and intentionally—unless you trace three degrees of separation.

She replied to the accusation (and here I paraphrase): “I suppose funds invested in any retirement fund would have this long distance connection to things we denounce” (which included such as liquor, tobacco, gambling, pornography or abortion).

And this “long distance connection” is precisely my point!

If we begin making the connection between every sin and any saint, we will soon disqualify every believer, including the Baptists and the bishops. And then who will remain to stand and sing the old gospel song that reminds us of the humility and hope that constitutes the core of the Christian soul, “Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

Dwight Moody is a writer, preacher and theologian living in Lexington, Ky. This is his final column before he takes a one-year sabbatical from writing a regular column.