From Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority to William Barber II’s Moral Mondays, the last few decades in American life have seen a bolder and different kind of pairing between the religious and the political, on all points of the spectrum. Even so, things seemed to come to a head in the last two years. Evangelical authors like Max Lucado and Beth Moore who had previously stayed silent on politics spoke out against Donald Trump. Others like Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham have given him their unequivocal support. Some of the loudest voices in recent debates about refugees, military spending and health care have come from people of faith. Not only that, but our society in general is more politically engaged (a good thing) as well as living in more deeply polarized echo chambers (a bad thing).
We are living in some challenging times. More churches and pastors have sensed that it is a time for the church to step up, speak up and show in new ways that our belief in the love of God and neighbor is not just abstract. As Elizabeth Gilbert said on Twitter, “‘Staying out of politics’ isn’t a choice now. … We’re citizens. Our nation is in trouble. To respond is to care.”
But this raises issues and challenges — mainly, how to do it in a helpful and responsible way? Perhaps you’re a church-goer and your pastor has been speaking out on certain issues? If you’re like many, hearing something in church that strikes you as “political” is not the most comfortable thing. You might think to yourself, “I don’t go to church to get into controversy.” You might start to squirm as you think about the different opinions that might be present. Or you might totally disagree with what was said or done and now you’re mad.
How, in church, can we or should we delve into issues that some may consider “political”? Allow me to scratch the surface with some thoughts, guidance, and challenges for both pastors and parishioners as we try to navigate the issues and fulfill our duty as the church to speak for and live out “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
Let’s get the easy part out of the way. Your church cannot and should not be partisan. If you openly endorse a candidate or political party, or communicate that a party or candidate is ”God’s choice,” then this is a clear cut issue. It’s out of line, not only in forgetting the Kingdom to which we owe first allegiance, but also with respect to the IRS. The Johnson Amendment is a tax code provision passed by a Republican-led Congress in 1954 and was largely uncontroversial at the time. It is the government saying to churches, “So long as you don’t act as a political action committee (PAC), you won’t be regulated or taxed like one.” To repeal it would actually open the door to churches becoming political pawns (read here for more).
It is also typically unwise for a pastor to speak for or against a particular piece of legislation. Information on such things often comes from partisan think tanks or so-called Christian groups who do anything but give fair and accurate representation. With few exceptions, we should stick to preaching and advocating Kingdom values, letting the pieces (and politicians) fall where they may.
With that said, parishioners, if your pastor is not being partisan, the question for you to consider is how you are defining political. What exactly makes a statement or issue political? More often than not, something is considered “political” simply because politicians are currently debating it. But how could we avoid all such issues and still be relevant to real life? The Johnson Amendment does not in any way bar churches and ministers from speaking to moral and ethical issues, which the church can and must do. If your pastor preaches “love for enemies” (Matt. 5:44) while politicians happen to be talking about bombing our enemies, or your pastor preaches care for the foreigner (Ex. 23:9; Ezek. 22:29) while the government is rounding up foreigners, the discrepancy is not your pastor’s fault.
Some confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of religion and politics. The former is enshrined in the First Amendment and absolutely necessary for a free society; the latter is impossible and never advocated by the founding fathers. Churches and their leaders have a right and a responsibility to speak to moral and ethical issues (especially where suffering is happening or human dignity is at stake), just as each individual believer has a right and a responsibility to take their faith with them into the voting booth.
So, parishioners, before objecting to your pastor addressing an issue that you find “political,” ask yourself: did it fall in line with the biblical witness for justice and love, and the foundational Christian principle that all people are created in the image of God? When you feel there is a problem, here’s what you should do: Use Jesus’ model in Matthew 18:15-17 by talking with your pastor one on one. Never go around your pastor, be passive-aggressive, or skip that first step. Make an appointment with your pastor and bring your Bible along. Tell your pastor exactly what bothered you and why. Then, give your pastor the opportunity to explain why he or she believes it was his or her duty to speak to the issue, and what the theological grounding is. If your pastor can provide that framework and articulate why this is important for Christians, then that will give you an opportunity to discuss the issue on the merits if you disagree. If your pastor cannot, then you might have an opportunity to gently help your pastor explore how another approach might be helpful.
But pastors, remember this: your church’s pulpit is not your national soapbox. Unless your service is televised to a wide audience, you’re speaking to this congregation. You were given this pulpit by a very large act of trust by these people to speak to them, first and foremost. Before speaking to politically-charged issues, or any topic for that matter, it is our responsibility to ask ourselves as pastors how it intersects with the lives of our people and be clear on what we feel that assembled group can and should do. Yes, many of us feel a strong prophetic call in these days, but we are also shepherds and caregivers. The Matthew 18 passage applies to us too: don’t get up in the pulpit to grind an ax with one or two individuals in the church, or with politicians who aren’t even in your pews.
It is for this reason that I take issue whenever people, after some high-octane national event, insist that pastors change their sermons or otherwise imply that we are not doing our jobs if we don’t speak to this or that issue this Sunday. After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, I remember someone posting a message on Twitter to pastors saying, “I hope you’re rewriting your sermon for this Sunday.” That is presumptuous at best. How do you know that my congregation needs to hear a 20-minute condemnation of white supremacy? Yes, it is an egregious sin. Yes, we should sometimes address the issues of the day and it may be advisable to do so immediately. But remember also that we serve a God who is known to show up where people aren’t looking. The Spirit may sometimes be trying to draw our gaze towards something upon which no camera lights are shining.
I’m mainly addressing the pastor in the function of his or her duties. But something important for parishioners to understand is that, like most non-government employees, your pastor is allowed to have an opinion and share it as a private citizen within reason. Your pastor may quickly start to resent the job if he or she feels muzzled all the time and unable to share things on personal social media accounts or be involved in advocacy as a private citizen. Your pastor was called to your church because of his or her vision, passions and gifts, etc., not because he or she agrees with everyone in the church. Recognize that your pastor may need space to be a citizen with convictions, just like you.
But a level of discernment is needed. Pastors: it is unreasonable to ask our parishioners to create a total mental separation between our professional self and our personal self. We don’t clock in and clock out, and you are “pastor” whether they see you at church, in the mall, or on Facebook. As much as I myself have been guilty of unhealthy engagement, we bear a responsibility to demonstrate responsibility, rigorous discernment, and a better way. Choose your battles wisely, and search for the big picture. Don’t spout or post about everything you see that troubles you. There is an endless supply.
In all these things, we must remember these words from Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
In a world of many gongs and cymbals and a society being torn apart by polarization and hatred, we must show love. Pastors, we have all failed at this at times. I am guilty. But Paul said that love is patient and kind, so even our prophetic witness must be. Paul said that love is not proud, rude, or boastful. So must our prophetic witness avoid all such things. Paul said that love always hopes and perseveres. When we speak, may our people not hear a jaded spirit, but hope for what could be and what God is doing. Your congregation will never be unified on the issues, but the church is called to be unified in love. We should not preach on “issues” so much as we preach love, and bring the issues to that turf.
But parishioners, remember this: we follow a Jesus who showed that God’s word, in certain times and situations, calls for urgency and clarity. Jesus was compassionate, but did not play nice to keep the peace. He did not shy away from telling the truth. He comforted the afflicted, but afflicted the comfortable. He even turned over a table or two. Your pastor, to be faithful to the call, might have to do that now and then. These are dark days. A sudden bright light in the darkness can make you squint. But we are better off being found with our lamps burning (Matt. 25:1-13).