This morning I received two pieces of email. One was from a pastoral colleague who copied me and other pastors in his reply to a message from Michelle Obama just before she spoke at the Democratic National Convention. His message to the First Lady included hearty words of congratulations for the passion and quality of her speech. It went on to affirm that we were proud of Mrs. Obama, and that she could count on our support to make sure Mr. Obama would be re-elected. I have a problem being included in his description of “we”. The implication is that pastors and other people of faith are united in their alignment with and support for President Obama and the Democratic Party. I have not publicly endorsed President Obama, nor will I do so. This group does not define me as a citizen or as a follower of Jesus.
The other came from our local Baptist Associational office. It was a plea to support a motion picture being released by an organization connected with the “Discovering God in America” movement championed by Texas Governor Rick Perry. The film depicts religious freedom being attacked, and blends support for the war, with support for Christmas, with support for Republican candidates as a way one demonstrates their faithfulness to both God and country. I have a problem with faith in Jesus Christ being connected to support for and alignment with the Republican Party and/or its candidates, or even worse, a movie. I have not publicly endorsed Mitt Romney, nor will I do so. This group does not define me as a citizen or as a follower of Jesus.
Jesus does not belong to either party, and one’s faith should not be mingled with political agendas. Our Cause is Christ.
I find it inappropriate for pastors, churches or denominations to endorse political parties, agendas or candidates. We are in the midst of yet another attempt by the church to influence culture through political engagement. After decades of this failed approach by right and left leaning Christians, “church and politics are both worse for it.”
From a political perspective, the upcoming election, low approval rating of Congress, our economic situation, rumors of scandal, cover-up, and other troubling factors have unleashed a torrent of negative political rhetoric, and produced an environment of polarization and incivility unprecedented in recent memory. In the words of comedian Dennis Miller, “I don’t trust any politician, they are all hacks.” Such an attitude is reflected in the widespread distrust among Americans toward politicians from both sides. At last, something with bi-partisan support!
From a church perspective, many churches this Sunday morning will not be a place for Christians to turn aside from such an environment in order to worship Christ. The pulpit will not be the place where peace and blessings are centered in Christ. No, in far too many places of worship, and among far too many people of faith there will exist suspicion, division, and polarization brought on by an unfortunate and inappropriate commitment to partisan politics taking place among the very men and women called instead to be united by our allegiance to Jesus Christ and our commission to bless the world through the united proclamation of his gospel.
As the church has increased its involvement in political strategies, endorsement of candidates, and identification with particular parties, its influence in culture, its presence in intellectual conversation, its place as a reservoir of wisdom, and its reputation as a channel of blessing has decreased. Is it any surprise then, that Christians today are known more by their political affiliation than by the message of the gospel or its ethic of unconditional love?
Such an approach hurts the church in two ways.
From within: Young adults who define themselves as Christian are leaving the church in multitudes. Lifeway research found 2/3 of young adults leave between age 18-22, most never return. In a Gallup Poll, one of the most frequent reasons given is that the church is too involved with social and political battles.
From without: Pollsters Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in their book UnChristian, found non-Christians to be repelled not by Jesus, but by churches being “overly motivated by a political agenda.”, or “too involved in current social and political battles.”
I think Philosopher Jacques Ellul was accurate when he wrote, “It seems as though politics is the Church’s worst problem. It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the Prince of this world.”
I can hear the questions, concerns, and even objections from friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“Kevin, are you saying that followers of Jesus should be politically disengaged?”
Not at all, but we must not allow a political party to do our thinking for us. No party is perfect, so we must think biblically, critically, and independently. As Ross Douthat writes, “Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship’s pull, instead of rowing with it.”
“Are you calling political involvement by Christians and /or churches an act of foolishness?”
In his thought-provoking book, A Faith of Our Own, Jonathan Merritt addresses this question. “Politics itself is not foolish. Foolish participation in politics is what gets the church into trouble. It divides a community for which God desires unity and distracts from the reason we live, move, and breathe.”
“How should Christians navigate such an environment?”
On the edge.
Semiotician Crystal Downing, uses the image of a coin to describe differing perspectives people may have on any given issue. It is far easier to allow the coin to fall onto one side or the other, ignoring and obliterating one side of the conversation. The Christian, she suggests, should have the vigilance to remain balanced on the edge of the coin, where one’s vision engages with the right and left, past and future, tradition and change, Republican and Democrat.
Pastor and author, David Platt, shared that on any controversial issue there are ditches on both sides that one can fall into. Between those ditches is an edge on which to stand. When someone has fallen into one ditch, it’s silly to assume that by attempting to climb out of that ditch, they are doomed to slide into the other. The edge between is where one encounters people who travel from both sides of an issue. It’s where the tension may be tangible, but perhaps it’s where the music of grace is most vibrant.
Dr. Billy Graham provides yet another example of this principle. When asked about meeting with twelve of the last presidents, Dr. Graham was quick to point out, “I didn’t ask to meet with them; they asked to meet with me”. Every president since Harry Truman has asked for Graham’s advice and prayer. He read scripture with Dwight Eisenhower, prayed with Gerald Ford, offered counsel and called for forgiveness for President Clinton, is credited with the conversion of George W. Bush, and has met and prayed with president Obama. Graham admits he could have done better, but has done his best to avoid being claimed as a pawn by any political group, and has endeavored to “stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left.
Such a position does not come quickly, nor does it come easily. “A sound biblical theology must be the determining factor for our political ideology and not vice versa. Jesus is neither Republican nor a Democrat, conservative nor liberal. Jesus refused to sell out to the religious and political systems of his day. He stood in prophetic tension with both, and we as his followers must learn to do the same.”
The edge is risky, requires constant adjustment, is a place where both conversation and confrontation from both sides are geographical hazards, and it’s exactly where I believe the church is supposed to be. On the edge, the church is positioned to do far more than just make a political point. On the edge, we’re poised to make an eternal difference.