Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, October 2, 2008
On the one hand, we know that politics matter, as there are issues which are inextricably intertwined with politics that we are called to care deeply about: the definition of marriage, when life begins and ends, care for the poor, or the treatment of the oppressed. These are deeply spiritual matters, and as a result, deeply spiritual concerns.
But we’ve also been burned by politics. Whether it’s embarrassment over the excesses of the religious right during the 1980’s, or the groups that would shout out “God hates fags” or scream at women entering abortion clinics. In fact, we were so burned by it – and associated with it - that it’s become one of Christianity’s biggest image problems. As Gabe Lyons and Steve Kinnaman have found in their research on young American “outsiders”, the dominant view of Christians is that we are antihomosexual, judgmental, insensitive to others and, of course, too involved in politics.
So here we are in an election year when, in just a few short weeks, we’ll choose a new president.
What to do?
It might be healthy to remind ourselves what churches and their leaders can do.
Since 1954, when then Senator Lyndon Johnson proposed and successfully passed legislation prohibiting nonproftis from either opposing or endorsing a candidate – after being opposed himself by a nonprofit organization - churches may not directly endorse or oppose a political candidate.
The key word is “directly.”
No church can officially say, “We endorse John Doe,” or “We oppose Jane Doe.” Not only that, but a pastor cannot send out a personal written endorsement on church letterhead. Political signs cannot be displayed on church property. The only participation in the political process that is allowed is “indirect.”
As a pastor, I can personally endorse a candidate. I can tell you who I like in the church parking lot or the grocery store aisle in normal conversation. I just can’t do it directly from the podium.
As a pastor, I can also personally work for a candidate, and contribute financially to their campaign, but the church itself cannot contribute financially with church funds even if approved by the membership. I can also endorse a candidate in print, and use my title and the church I am affiliated with; I am free to speak and teach on moral and social issues that may be integral to the political debate, such as abortion, gay marriage, and economic matters – even if, by implication, it throws support toward one candidate and critiques another.
As a church, we can also take official positions on such issues, as long as we don’t directly endorse or oppose a candidate in the process. We can organize voter registrations and drives as long as they are directed at all eligible voters and not toward just one political party. We can hold forums where candidates are invited to address the issues. If a candidate were to visit our church, they could be publicly recognized and introduced. We can even host candidates to speak from our stage, as long as that candidate is not directly endorsed or urges the church to vote for them. We can distribute non-partisan voter guides giving information on where each candidate stands on the issues. And, of course, we can offer our campus as a voting station.
This is what a church, and its leaders, is currently allowed to do – though a group of pastors recently announced their choice for president to their congregations and encouraged them to vote accordingly in a “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in the hopes they will be sued and the laws inhibiting such speech will be changed in a court of law.
But what of the individual Christian? Politics can be a dizzying affair, and is increasingly difficult to navigate. Clearly God is not aligned with any political party. There is a fascinating passage in the Old Testament where an angel of the Lord comes to Joshua. The Bible records that “Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’ ‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come’” (Joshua 5:13-14, NIV).
Yet there are stands that one or both parties may take on a specific issue that reflect the Kingdom of God or do not; issues about the sanctity of human life, the definition of marriage and family, how the poor are treated, and whether those who are victimized are protected. Based on your reading of the Bible, you may find that one party gets one set of issues right, and another party gets another set of issues right. And to add to the complexity, on some of these issues, thoughtful Christians disagree about how best to flesh out the principles of the Bible in addressing various matters, such as with immigration or welfare, when a war is just and when it is not, or how best to care for the environment.
But however you vote, vote. Christians should dig deep into the issues, even deeper into the Scriptures, and emerge with a resolve to care deeply and work passionately while behaving in a civil and loving manner. They should run for office when God calls them to it, and strive to make a difference in that realm – not as a partisan Democrat or Republican, though they may be aligned with such a party, but primarily as a Christian attempting to be salt and light.
Because it matters.
In my study, there is a small, brass bust of Winston Churchill. It is the only such sculpture I own. I purchased it at his birthplace, Blenheim Palace, in England. I have it there because it reminds me of a life that reflected passion, resolve, and conviction. Almost singlehandedly, Churchill resisted one of the greatest onslaughts of evil the world has ever known, willing the world to victory. His words to the English people, particularly during that dark summer of 1940, still stir the human heart:
"Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known or cared for, will sink in to the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"
Later, biographers would call it his finest hour.
Compare that to the confession of Martin Niemoller, a pastor who initially sent a telegram congratulating Hitler on his rise to power:
"In Germany, they came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up became I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
Let that never be our confession.
James Emery White
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).
On what a pastor, or church, can “do” politically, a good primer can be found in “Politics from the Pulpit,” posted January 7, 2008, on the “Out of Ur” blog as compiled by Allen R. Bevere. Link: http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2008/01/the_bully_pulpi.html#more.
“‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ Tally: 31+ Sermons, 6 Complains With IRS,” September 30, 2008, Adele M. Banks, Religious News Service, at http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctpolitics/2008/09/pulpit_freedom.html.
Churchill’s speech was delivered on June 18, 1940, and is quoted here from Norman Rose, Churchill: The Unruly Giant (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. 329.
Martin Niemoller’s confession was actually a poem and has been represented in various ways with minor variations. This is the version that Niemoller himself said he preferred, when asked by Richard John Neuhaus in 1971, as relayed in the November 2001 issue of First Things.