The Pastor and Politics
This year is not only a political year. It’s a hotly contested political year. In the United States the political divide seems to be getting wider with each election, with fewer people in the middle and more and more loud, square-jawed talk on one side of an issue or the other. But for all the talk of “separation of church and state”, the fact that many if not most political issues have moral and spiritual implications makes that clearly impossible. And since “separation of church and state” as a phrase actually isn’t in the Constitution, one is left to figure out where faith and policies meet, and how they can shake hands instead of fists? How does a pastor navigate the waters of politics?
Moral education. We must realize that the heart of all law is the codification of a moral code. The U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta are all attempts to organize society based on certain moral absolutes. Morality does not come from the government or the governed. Rather, it comes from God. Only One who is absolutely right can determine and declare right from wrong. Despite the best efforts to separate politics from religion, the fact is that all political policy is dependent at its foundation on a religious system of beliefs in right and wrong.
The pastor, then, can begin by simply educating his congregation on God’s moral absolutes. Not what politicians believe, but what does God’s Word say about right and wrong? Rise above debate about this law or that, and instead focus on God’s instructions for His people, and His defined moral expectations for the Christ follower. The church is the central body of moral education and believers should expect to receive a sound moral education focused on God’s Word.
Issue capitalization. Certain political issues naturally lend themselves to comment or teaching on the part of the church. Recently in Arizona there was an issue of denial of free assembly by a Bible study that met in a pastor’s home. The violation of Constitutional rights of freedom of religion and free assembly are among those things the church may wish to speak out on publicly. Taking a position on any political issue does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which restricts the state from creating a church of its own. Rather, it is clearly a place where the church can assert her voice in the realm of public opinion.
When the church speaks, she should be graceful, dignified and courteous. Just as a pastor should not be afraid to speak out on matters of public record, he should also not go to the other extreme and speak in a way that belittles or denigrates others, or is hateful or incites others to be discourteous or hateful. I would point to the example of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church by way of example of how not to enter the political arena of ideas. A pastor speaking on anything that could be construed as political should be well versed and thoughtful, never flat-out nuts.
Encourage participation. Among the helpful ways in which a pastor can involve his church politically is to encourage members to educate themselves on candidates and issues, and to vote. Despite the heated exchanges of political views on both sides of issues and elections, the fact is, less than 60% of eligible voters cast ballots in the last Presidential election, and the statistic has hovered around that number since the 1960s.
In a nation where we have free exercise of religion and the right to vote, the church can and should driver her congregations to the voting booth. The Bible clearly instructs us to respect our nation’s laws and elected officials (Romans 13:3-6, 1 Peter 2:13-15, 1 Samuel 8:7-18). To have the freedom to vote and as a believer to ignore that responsibility one could argue is sinful. Certainly it is, at the very least, a failure to live up to the responsibility of citizenship in one’s country. A pastor should press hard for his people to show up and carry out their civic duties.
Avoiding segmentation. Finally, a pastor should avoid dividing the congregation along political lines. The political landscape has become increasingly complex as have political issues. It is simply wrong to wrap God in the garb of a Southern conservative Republican, or equally cast Him as the peaceful, benevolent lover of all regardless of sin or godless practices. Both views dishonor and minimize His nature. It also belies that fact that we don’t speak for God. He can speak for Himself, thank you very much, and does so through His Word.
Within your congregation are people of all political persuasions. As this nation becomes more multicultural, we will see these political beliefs continue to broaden. A pastor should avoid arguing laws and programs, and instead focus on how Christ-followers can have be a godly influence in their society and culture. Jesus didn’t agree with tax collectors and harlots. But He didn’t wall himself off in a sanctuary and shout about the decay of society. In fact, He hung out with sinners quite a bit, and spoke with them reasonably and frankly about the Kingdom of God. May we learn from His example and not allow political persuasion to block our way to engaging our culture.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.