Here’s the problem with saying we must never talk about politics at church: We immediately cede to politicians the right to define what is political and what is theological. And then the church loses its voice on theology because important biblical concepts have been wrongly labeled “politics” and therefore off limits.
Care for the planet was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. Gender equality was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. The sanctity of life (all life, by the way) was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. Care for the poor was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. How to treat immigrants was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. Predatory lending was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. Love of neighbor was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. Being good stewards of financial resources was a biblical issue before it was a political issue. Telling the truth was a biblical issue before it was a political issue.
There’s plenty of room to debate the best ways to live out these biblical teachings, and that may spill over into political platforms. Fine. But to deny that these are, in fact, biblical issues at root gives politics too much sway over the church. Politicians and political movements should not get to define what is “political” and what is “theological.”
The Pew Research Center recently released a national survey saying 64 percent of American churchgoers have heard religious leaders preach about “political” issues. Examples cited are religious liberty, homosexuality, abortion, immigration, the environment and economic inequality.
Lately, my Facebook feed has been full of well-meaning people begging their friends to leave politics out of social media (as if that’s really going to happen). And then I read a recent column by a denominational employee about how you never should mention politics in a Sunday school class or small-group Bible study. While on its face, this is true and sounds righteous, the danger lies in how you define “politics.”
For example, while it is not appropriate to incite a Sunday school class debate over the political pros and cons of Obamacare, Bible study teachers must help their classes understand the biblical mandate to care for neighbor as self. Jesus had a lot to say about that. We can’t lose our voice on biblical teaching just because it intersects politics.
For too long, mainstream Christianity has stood silently by while one branch of Christianity has successfully defined to the public what the “Christian” position on political issues should be. The Christian community in America actually is far more diverse than might be evident to an outside observer. A parallel, by the way, is the public perception of what Christianity teaches about the end times. Because of the activism and media savvy of premillennial dispensationalists (the “Left Behind” view), it’s easy to assume all Christians hold this view. In reality, the theology of a rapture and chaos on the earth never has been the majority Christian view. But I digress.
In this most contentious of all political climates we now find ourselves in, pastors and teachers in the church must not be scared away from teaching important theological concepts for fear they will be labeled as “political.” There is a way to talk about issues without endorsing candidates. To remove from conversation every issue someone sees as political — even though the root issue is a core teaching of the Bible — is to neuter the witness of the church.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could let our theology inform our politics rather than our politics dictate our theology? That’s something the left and the right ought to be able to agree on, even if we can’t agree on theology.