Politics and the Pulpit
By daniel darling
April 9, 2012
"Why don’t more Christian leaders speak out?"
We hear this complaint at the beginning of every election cycle, though it seems more intense the last few years. Political advocacy organizations, particularly conservative ones, seem to think that if pastors, Bible teachers, Sunday school workers and others would just articulate the issues more forcefully, the “right person” would win the election.
To spur on this effort, some leading social conservative organizations have come together to better educate pastors on their rights. There are several websites (TruthInAction.org, SpeakUpMovement.org, BlackRobeReg.org and more) that inform churches of their legal rights.“I think part of the reason many pastors and priests are unwilling to speak out on politics is because they fear the loss of their tax-exempt status,” says Jerry Newcomb of Truth in Action Ministries.
It’s hard not to admire the passion of these ministries endorsed by some admirable Bible teachers. As a pastor and onetime political activist, I appreciate the clarity on legal issues—but I wonder if these groups are slightly misguided.
Aren't some Christian leaders already speaking out?
You don’t have to be a political junkie to know that pastors have not been shy about injecting themselves in politics. In the early primaries, prominent Iowa pastors circulated a letter endorsing Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachman. As the Republican field winnowed, a group of highly influential national Christian leaders met secretly in Texas and endorsed former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and in the African-American church, political speeches by Democrats are commonplace. And who can forget the firestorm that engulfed Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas who was heavily criticized for his comments on the Mormon faith of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
When it comes to issues, simply scroll the Twitter feeds of leading evangelicals. Many regularly engage hot-button issues. In fact, research continues to show that pastors may often be too political for the public’s taste.
The IRS isn't the only thing preventing pastors from speaking out
If there is a reticence among newer generations of evangelical leaders to engage, it’s not due to fears of legal reprisal. At least, that’s my experience. Prior to assuming the pastorate at Gages Lake, I spent two years volunteering for a friend of mine who was running for a hotly contested congressional seat. I was a liaison of sorts to the evangelical churches in our area. I tried to build a base of support among the conservative and religious. I hoped to convince pastors to leverage their influence to mobilize volunteers and donations.
I had a little success but not nearly what I anticipated. Most leading pastors rebuffed me.
Why couldn’t these men of God stand with my guy? They agreed with his moral positions. Many said they’d personally vote for him. But mention him in the pulpit? Encourage their members to volunteer? No way.
A couple years after the campaign, I found myself in the position of leading a church. And suddenly the position of those church leaders made sense. Aligning a church with one particular political party or candidate presents subtle dangers. Not because the IRS could come after the church but because the church could drift from its mission.
History offers sober lessons on the Church’s influence in a culture. When she lusts for power, her mission as the vital expression of Christ in community is diluted, even tainted. G.K. Chesterton said it best: “The coziness between the church and the state is good for the state and bad for the church.”
That’s not to say the Church should retreat into itself, either. History also shows the sad fruit of total disengagement. The vacuum left is often filled by evil forces. You don’t have to look much further back than the Church in 1940s Germany, a once-powerful social agent that proved impotent in the face of Nazi aggression.
Churches best serve their community as independent catalysts for change.
Good leaders guard their influence
There are a variety of ways for Christian leaders to engage the issues if they choose, but a good pastor considers the pulpit a sacred space, free from political manipulation. The task given to Peter on the shores of Galilee was not to advance an earthly movement or kingdom but to simply and humbly “feed the sheep” (John 21).
This is a humble and holy task because the people who attend churches arrive with the assumption that what is said comes from the Bible. To cut and paste partisan talking-points or to substitute consistent exegesis with sample “election season” sermons is spiritual malpractice.
Faithful Christian leaders know the preaching of the Word will ultimately effect social change because the Bible speaks on most issues that plague society. History proves when the Church stays true to its mission, the radical nature of the Gospel explodes in the hearts of its people, equipping them to lighten every dark corner of society.