Last Thursday, Donald Trump signed an executive order designed to make it easier for churches to participate in the political process. It was little more than a good will gesture to the white evangelicals who supported him by an 80 to 16 margin, but it gave moderate white Baptists a chance to advocate for church-state separation.
“Partisan politics have no place in our pulpits,” Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship announced. “In fact, it’s the absence of that very thing — partisan politics — that gives us the power to speak with moral authority on issues of the day.”
Is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship speaking with moral authority on issues of the day? Click on the advocacy link on the CBF website and you will learn that the CBF’s approach to advocacy is “individual and systemic, global and national, state and local, relational and non-partisan.” And because it must be non-partisan it can’t have anything to do with politics. Which is why the next sections of the page explains why the CBF isn’t in the business of dictating morality to its constituency.
In an editorial in the Baptist Standard, Marv Knox asserted that Trump’s order “set back the cause of true religious liberty at least 63 years” and “will further polarize our nation — ripping many Christian congregations apart and severing them from meaningful connection to their communities, while continuing to disenfranchise minority faiths from society at-large.”
There’s a lot of meat in that paragraph; so let’s break it down.
First, Knox suggests that Trump’s order set the cause of religious liberty back to 1954, the year Congress passed “the Johnson Amendment.” Lyndon Johnson’s opponent that year was backed by a free-spending, tax-exempt nonprofit organization. In response, Johnson had language inserted into a tax bill stipulating that tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations could neither support nor oppose political candidates. The Texas senator didn’t have churches in mind, but the IRS applied the rule to all tax-exempt organizations.
When President Trump rails against “the Johnson amendment” he is arguing that preachers should be free to endorse or oppose political candidates. This possibility fills moderate white Baptists with dread.
Editor Knox cuts to the heart of the matter when he argues that preachers of partisan politics will rip their congregations apart.
Is this true? Preachers associated with the Religious Right have hardly been coy about their commitment to the Republican Party. It’s been good for business and the IRS never seems to mind. It isn’t unusual for black pastors to lay hands on political candidates as an act of worship, and this partisan performance rarely roils the faithful.
Political partisanship in the pulpit only divides a congregation if the congregation is already divided. White evangelical churches give 80 percent of their votes to Republicans while 90 percent of African-American evangelicals support Democrats. Pastors can signal their support for a party or a candidate because these religious constituencies share a common political-religious ideology. Partisan political preaching, I would argue, can actually enhance congregational unity.
Partisan political preaching is only verboten in white mainstream congregations like the United Methodist Church and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in which congregations blend roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. If a pastor makes a political remark in these churches there will inevitably be backlash. This explains why the CBF’s advocacy page says nothing of substance.
On the same day that President Trump issued his executive order on “religious freedom,” House Republicans passed the American Health Care Act, legislation that abolishes Obamacare without providing a serious alternative. If this bill becomes law, thousands of people who can no longer afford health insurance will die before their time. Did the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship take a bold stand against the AHCA? Nope, that would have been perceived as partisan.
I’m glad the CBF has taken a public stand against predatory lending. They can safely do so because the issue (for the time being) hasn’t been branded as a partisan issue dividing liberals and conservatives. But campaigning for compassionate immigration reform would violate the CBF’s refusal to “select issues from the top down and force them upon churches and pastors.”
The CBF inveighs against partisan politics in the pulpit because, in a fellowship of moderates, everyone views the church as a safe zone where political opinions are checked at the door.
In the churches Marv Knox knows best, sermons that take a stand on the hot button issues of the day are divisive because they expose the divisions among us. But we are making a virtue out of a grim necessity.
Prophetic speech has always come with a high price tag. The night I arrived at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1975, an eloquent professor told us to avoid “getting crucified on a toothpick.” If you’re going down, he suggested, make sure it’s about something important. A couple of years later, that same professor suggested to my wife, Nancy, that she should transfer from the master of divinity to the master of religious education program because “our churches don’t ordain women.” When Nancy politely declined, the professor called her back for a second chat.
The ordination of women was a cross worthy of a crucifixion. Immigration, gay rights and health care fall into the same category. If we refuse to wrestle with our differences we surrender our prophetic voice.
Finally, Knox asserts that partisan political preaching severs churches “from meaningful connection to their communities.” He is thinking, I suspect, of the conservative white preachers who, in recent years, have made words like “Christian” and “evangelical” toxic.
But the problem here isn’t political partisanship; it’s the embarrassing disconnect between Jesus and those who speak in his name. We fix that problem by speaking out, not clamming up.
The phrase “partisan politics” is redundant; politics is always partisan. And messy. And undignified. And riddled with compromise. Watching the sausage being made can be revolting, but when the end product saves God’s most vulnerable children it’s all worth it. If we run from these public fights we will continue to be ineffectual.
My wife, Nancy, (the one with the M.Div. from Southern Seminary hanging on her office wall) is currently running for office. Nancy says that politics is how we translate our values into public policy. And when our values flow from the kingdom vision of Jesus the translation process happens in worship or it doesn’t happen at all.
Kingdom values cry out for a political agenda. No established political party will embrace the whole kingdom enchilada, but if we fight hard and argue effectively we can have precisely the sort of leavening influence Jesus talked about.
A “kingdom vision” that floats, high and beautiful, above the squalid compromise of politics is a pious fiction. Kingdom preaching is dangerous, and it has always been divisive, but the price of our safe silence has been staggering. We need more political preaching, not less.