Politics and the Pulpit

Should pastors speak up about politics? One shares why he won’t.

"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.

Daniel Darling is the pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in Chicago. He is the author of iFaith: Connecting With God in the 21st Century and blogs regularly here.

 

42 Comments

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Jeanne Cowger commented…

I still believe that Christians can do more for the political process by being on their knees and praying to the one who is supposed to be their God than relying on man's efforts. We Americans say we believe, but we surely don't act or talk like it.

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CB commented…

With all due respect, I've listened to many of Jack Hibbs' sermons, and I would have to disagree with you about him "getting it," with regards to bringing politics into the church. In my opinion he is too political---he means well, but I get the feeling that some of his sermons were framed around hot-button issues from Fox News, Rush, etc...

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FireandFocus commented…

My problem with Christians in politics is that we take evangelism to the poles. We take morality to the white house and try to get people sanctified before we bother with them getting saved. Us voting for or against gay marriage, abortion and all other single issue topics doesn't change the heart of sin in America. Either way, whether it's legal or illegal, whether the right "values" are in office or not, who is actually getting to know Jesus? Sin is in the heart, not in the political choices. We can't legislate who sins and who doesn't. All that has happened over the past few years about the Christian political crusade is angry people rising up against a God they fear is legally forcing them to obey. What we don't realize is that everything we do presents the Character of Christ to people. As a result of Christian politics, I've seen more people turned off to the gospel than ever touched by it. The battle we are fighting should be a spiritual one rather than a political one. God gives people free will to sin, to choose him and to walk away. He asks us to love people, share his message to them and hang out with the tax collectors that are not so popular with the religious pharisees. Jesus never went on a politicalcampaign. When asked a political question, he says, "render untoCaesarwhat is his own". The church and it's leaders should leave politics to the politicians; most of which don't have Christian agendas no matter how they try to get your liberal or conservative vote.

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FireandFocus commented…

PS, Christians are paying for centuries of forcing our faith and our God on people through war and politics. Most people that can't stand Christians are ones that had a bad experience of someone angrily trying to force Jesus in their hearts. We haven't been coming in love, peace, and patience but in judgement, anger, and force. The Christian Political movement is the strongest "de-vangelical" movement ever made in America. Blinded by the political agenda, somehow we are not noticing that after every election year, more people are saying how turned off they are to the church. We have fueled anger in people because they feel rejected by God. Most gays and atheists I meet that hear that I'm a bible believing Christianautomaticallyassume I will tell them about how swiftly God is going to send them to hell lest they repent.

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Zhall commented…

Great article. A great book to read related to this question is the classic novel "Ben Hur". It's a beautiful and thought provoking picture of one man's effort to bring God's kingdom to earth. (and nothing like the movie!)

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