Should pastors and congregations seek to transcend politics or is that an impossible or even illegitimate goal? Is there a difference between being political and being partisan?
Eleven pastors and theologians responded.
Lee Hull Moses, pastor at First Christian Church, North Carolina
In the past two years, our congregation has lost at least one regular attendee because we’re too political. At least one other left because we’re not political enough. Some folks wish we were out in force, wearing our church T-shirts, at every protest. Others wish I would tone it down from the pulpit and just preach about how to be a good person. I take some solace in the adage that if you’re making people mad, you must be doing something right.
It’s complicated by the fact that “politics” has now come to mean any contemporary issue on which people might disagree. In times such as these, the preacher’s task is to remind the congregation that the basic tenets of our faith—grace and mercy, radical hospitality, love of neighbor—go beyond politics but have political implications.
For better or worse, I imagine my own congregation will likely stay somewhere in the complicated middle. I’ll probably keep annoying the folks who don’t think politics has any place in the church, and the people who want to go to rallies will have to organise themselves most of the time. My prayer is that even as we disagree, we’ll stay true to the gospel call to welcome and to love.
James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology
You might expect the obligatory nod to the challenge of preaching in our polarized climate—except for the fact that our congregations are comfortably partisan and have been engines of polarization, not some lingering holdout against it. Like our housing and education, Christianity reflects rather than resists what sociologist Bill Bishop calls “the big sort.” Congregations are predictable clusters of the politically like-minded. I expect that many pastors, whether on the left or right, can count on a certain slant of “us” and reliably decry a “them” on Sunday mornings.
So the challenge is less how to avoid upsetting ideologically diverse congregations and more a matter of rightly upsetting the monolithic congregations in front of us. But how? What does faithful political discipleship look like?
We don’t want to avoid being predictably partisan by falling prey to the illusion that the gospel is politically “neutral.” If some partisan stands align with biblical concerns for justice, we shouldn’t soft-pedal biblical themes just to avoid appearing partisan. Here’s a way the lectionary is a gift. These biblical themes confront us. Preaching isn’t dictated by the pet priorities of a party but by the worldwide curriculum of the body of Christ at worship. And some days, by grace, that Word will come as a challenge to our own preferences.
Nor does the unique “politics of Jesus” give us license to sequester ourselves in alternative communities. Policy is how we love our neighbours, and purity doesn’t release us from the Great Commandment. The illusion of being non-political is a luxury of privilege that only leaves the vulnerable exposed.
With that in mind, I suggest two principles. The first is simple but hard: recover and renew eschatology. (As a refresher, I commend Fleming Rutledge’s new book, Advent.) The problem with the Christian political imagination today is not simply that it is predictably partisan but that it has ceded its elasticity and expectation to the here-and-now. We are all functional utopians who overexpect from the present and under-expect God’s sovereign grace. But the kingdom of God is something we await, not create. And while we hope for policy that bends the systems of society toward justice, we won’t legislate our way to the Parousia.
A second principle is related: we need to recover a wide-eyed Augustinian realism to countercultural Pelagianism. Our utopianism is nourished by an overconfidence in our own powers and a blinding self-righteousness, coupled with a generic belief in the goodness of human nature. The result is a political outlook that does not expect—or know what to do with—disagreement and disappointment, charging ahead with the frightening scowl of someone with good intentions. Mark Zuckerberg’s surprise at the ends to which Facebook could be put would never surprise an Augustinian. The Augustinian, knowing something of the human heart, would have planned for such dastardly machinations.
Which is just to say: we are waiting for another—doubtless very different—St. Reinhold.
Susan M. Reisert, pastor at United Church of Christ in Hallowell, Maine
While I occasionally feel called to preach about issues that are connected to politics, I try never to use the pulpit to advocate for a particular choice, as if faith can lead to only one answer or one way of voting on an issue.
Old South Church is a small congregation of well-educated and well-informed people that exemplifies something rare these days: a wide diversity of political perspectives. Yet somehow we manage to worship together Sunday after Sunday, supporting and encouraging each another on this journey of life and faith. Except for one or two who occasionally ask for more political material in worship, most people are looking for relief from the barrage of ugly and disturbing news. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the back-and-forth political barbs that have become part of our daily lives are just too much.
I don’t believe that they are looking for an escape, exactly. They simply want something different, an opportunity that might offer a balm for their weary souls.
And that’s what I try to do. Although I often lift up justice and love, I endeavour to create a space for a little peace and quiet, reflection, consideration of the big picture, and renewal of our individual and collective relationship with our Creator.
There are plenty of politicians and clergy of various perspectives who claim that God is on their side. I am not one of those people. People of faith ought to recognize that to worship God is to know that we are not God. And, therefore, we do not know everything there is to know about the mind and desires of God.
Sunday morning worship should not be another place where we get our political ducks all lined up in a row. Worship is for praise and prayer, for singing and silence, for renewal of hope in a violent world, and a place to connect with what it means to be God’s people, appreciating that we can only barely glimpse the enormity and wonder of what that is.
Worship offers respite for the weary traveller so that when worship is over, we can be the people we are called to be, sharing love and hope, even in—especially in—these difficult and challenging times.
William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
Whenever we deploy words, especially in the service of God, we are acting politically. There is no such thing as nonpolitical language, especially when that language is bold to assert itself theologically, homiletically, or ecclesiologically. The church is a praying, singing, preaching, witnessing body. We witness to the in-breaking of God’s reign of love, justice, beauty, and abundance in time and space. We lament brokenness, evil, and violence. We proclaim that these dastardly realities are ending even as we groan and press toward God’s redemption of humanity and all of creation. Our prayers, songs, sermons, and testimonies are acts of political speech.
Servants of the church who claim that they are not political are indeed political. However, they are often servants of a politics contrary to a Christian understanding of God’s reign.
Our speech is political because it is the speech of God’s new creation. The church’s language is not spectator language. It does work, and it has work to do. The church’s language has the ambitious agenda of making all things new. And that is political.
My goal as a preacher or pastor is never to be non-political. I bear witness through language and action that the God I serve is the author of the politics of abundance. There is more than enough of the physical, economic, and spiritual requirements for human flourishing in this nation and the world.
We cannot transcend politics. The gospel is a word that was used to declare the birth of a new emperor. Our speech heralds a new ruler, one hated by the Caesars and Herods who continue to kill innocents and crucify dissidents in an attempt to hold onto their power and thwart God’s reign.
I am not partisan. One political party often tracks more closely to my vision than the other. But both parties are woefully politically inadequate when measured against the politics of Jesus. They make decisions in the service of retaining power. When they do justice, it is done incrementally, and they are always wont to undo the little good that they have done.
We must be bold to advocate the politics of God’s realm in the church and outside of the church. The church has often abandoned these politics for access and power. Like Jesus, and many of my ancestors in faith, I want to live and to die for the politics of God’s reign. If these politics do not animate our prayers, songs, sermons, and testimonies, our speech is reduced to sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
Scott Anderson, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wisconsin
Like most mainline Protestant churches these days, we are a “purple” congregation, a mix of both Republicans and Democrats, though mostly Democrats, I suspect. Because I believe both political parties have contributed to our nation’s current political dysfunction, I regularly offer an equal-opportunity critique of the political arena. Our faith stands in judgment of our nation’s lawmakers—of whatever ideological stripe—when they fail to uphold the values implicit in the gospel demands for justice.
I do not use the terms progressive or conservative in my preaching and teaching because these are labels rooted in secular ideology and are not Christian terms. Reclaiming a Christian vocabulary as we talk about politics, which includes the fallibility of every political party or ideology or leader (i.e., human sinfulness), is one of the most important roles of the pastor, especially in our divisive political climate right now.
Stanley Hauerwas, author most recently of The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson
Religion and politics do not mix. In particular, they do not mix if the pastor uses the pulpit to lay down what she or he thinks should be said politically about. For preachers to use the sermon to declare their opinion on some issue can be seen as a violent act, given the presumption that the congregation cannot respond.
The only problem with “religion and politics do not mix” is that the phrase is one of the strongest examples we have of political rhetoric. There is no escaping “the political.” To refuse to take a political stance is to take a political stance. In particular, the presumption that the church is above politics underwrites the distinction between the public and the private that serves to relegate strong convictions, particularly if they are “religious,” to the private. Private, moreover, is the word we use to describe a fictive political agent, that is, the individual whose political views are to be respected no matter what they may be.
Moreover, the politics presupposed by the slogan “religion and politics do not mix” is issue politics of election years. “Issues” are what politicians use to distract “the people” from considering the fundamental injustices of our political arrangements. We assume we can concentrate on the issues because given that we are a democracy all we need do is vote. Christians take it for granted that democracies are the Christian form of government, though they seldom ask what makes democracies democratic.
So when Christians are in church they should be at their most political. But what is essential is how to avoid letting what passes as politics determine the political agenda of the church. Christians must learn again how to reframe issues in a manner that makes clear that the politics of Jesus is different. The church is its own politic, which means Christians cannot avoid being “political.”
Sandhya Rani Jha, founder and director of the Oakland Peace Center
In my current itinerating ministry, I have visited a lot of churches that are proud of their commitment to being nonpolitical because it makes them more inclusive. But a nonpolitical church’s politics support the way things are. That doesn’t make it an inclusive church. It makes it a church that is unwelcoming to people who want a different world.
Jesus resisted an oppressive empire in ways both overt and subversive. His message wasn’t inherently political, but it was a message that demanded people act out of a certain ethic. In these days, as in all times when people are suffering, a church that is proudly nonpolitical would be well served to reflect on what it means to reinforce the best part of a community’s identity and what that looks like in practice.
Peter Bouteneff, professor of systematic theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
When committed Christians are asked to weigh in on politics—especially as politics bear on morality—we speak about “the values of the gospel.” With this, we are really talking about Christ values. And that entails identifying who Christ is, what he does, and what he teaches us. Who is Christ? He is the God-man: the eternal Son of God who becomes human. What does he do? He lives among us as a human being and suffers the full consequences of fallen human society, all the way up to his death—which became a path to our eternal life.
Now let’s consider what he teaches us. Christ values are set out plainly, in Matthew 5–7. Those are the commandments that spell out the love of God and neighbour for all its implications as we live our lives. Christ’s identity, actions, and teachings converge: Love, to the end. Cultivate and preserve life. Check your anger and lust. And if we want to see further how these principles are to be lived out, we can look at Matthew 25:31–46.
The gospel obviously couldn’t have envisaged the political systems in place today. “Gospel values” do not prescribe for us how to shape our governments. They tell us how to live. This leaves us with the responsibility to make our political decisions on the basis of our best judgment as to which actions will yield the most life-giving results. Many Democrats and many Republicans feel with great conviction that their choice is the truly Christian one, but let’s face it: neither party today truly and fully embodies Christ values, and neither presents the only right solution.
Our secular political culture feels less and less inclined toward respectful dialogue and creative political thinking. Our church culture sometimes feels just as divisive. This is a time for us in the church to come together, across political disagreements, to articulate and reaffirm the Christ-centered goals that we do share, even as we will argue reasonably and prayerfully for different ways of reaching them.
Rob Schenck, president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love
I do not advocate for apolitical sermons. Instead, I advise fellow pastors to approach political subjects with great caution, contemplation, and consideration for the spiritual, social, and relational needs of their flocks. The pulpit is not a place for a minister to flippantly air narrow, personal opinion on anything, especially politics; it is a place to form disciples, strengthen bonds, and announce the gospel.
So how does a preacher deal with the political and remain faithful to the Christ who seemingly eschewed a political interpretation of his mission? I recommend implementing a careful and prayerful vetting process. First ask, What is my purpose? If the answer is tied to a political outcome, ask, How does this outcome reflect the transcendent, the supernal, the universal? How will this sermon make new Christians, better form existing Christians, or project God’s love and benefits to the whole of humankind?
When it comes to the political, we must also ask, What is my source of guidance on this subject? Political opinions are often temporal, earthy, and narrow, not to mention divisive. Before preaching a sermon with political implications, the preacher needs to settle what informs his or her political thinking, viewpoint, and passions. For evangelical preachers, the sermon must follow from a clear biblical mandate; it must be consistent with the teaching and model of Jesus, and it must advance the “good news.”
Political questions are often good ways to get at the moral, the ethical, even the spiritual. For the sermon to stop at a political end is to truncate its potential. Politics, at its very best, reflects our principles, values, convictions. Like Jesus and the Roman coin, political responsibilities point to greater obligations: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.”
Teresa Hord Owens, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
I serve a denomination whose heritage is grounded in an embrace of theological diversity. We live in the tension of difference, believing our witness of unity to be more powerful when we find a way to minister together despite differences. In today’s divisive political climate, the ability to engage not just civilly but respectfully requires a theological framework that focuses on a unity that is, as a noted Disciples theologian says, not a human agreement but a gift from God. Living into unity does not mean that one cannot speak one’s mind, only that one seeks to respect those with whom one differs, holding the gospel of Jesus Christ as the ultimate value and believing that living into the tension that unity requires is a reflection of Jesus Christ’s boundless love.
As Christians, we are often comfortable addressing daily human needs but not so comfortable in speaking to the systemic injustices that are at the root of the problem. When we talk about “justice” rather than “mission,” many will be uncomfortable, saying that the church is being “political.” And yet some would argue that addressing these unjust systems is indeed evangelism, and a witness to the love of God for all.
All of these perspectives are present within our church, and I seek to respect all voices, even those with whom I disagree. I argue for biblical literacy and spiritual disciplines as a way to build a theological foundation that allows for unity in the midst of theological diversity. That we might all bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ despite those differences is, I believe, the heart of the gospel.
As Christians, our work must always be theologically grounded and focused on aligning what we do with the command of Christ to love one another as he has loved us. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study help us to articulate how we understand God’s call to follow the example of Jesus Christ. When we speak, we must speak from that theological grounding, not from loyalties to tribe or politics. We are on dangerous ground when we identify a particular theological perspective as “American” or when we insist that only certain political positions are “Christian.”
We serve, we advocate, we speak in accordance with an understanding of the teachings of Jesus, even when we struggle and disagree with specific interpretations of text or teaching. Within our church, we seek to ensure that all voices are heard. If we start with love, we will understand that the way in which we engage one another, even when we disagree, is a hallmark of Christian discipleship. These commitments to love and diversity can enable the church to model faithful engagement with the world’s concerns that respects the humanity and dignity of all.
Matt Croasmun, pastor at the Elm City Vineyard Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School
Discerning the way of Jesus is challenging in any time. It is more so in our day when political discourse threatens to drown out all other modes of reflection.
The challenge is that political discourse and theology both have to do with discerning the shape of the good life—the flourishing life we ought most desire for ourselves, our communities, and our world. In our polarized political climate, the ever-present temptation is to reduce our theological discernment of flourishing life—our seeking of the kingdom of God—to a vote for one of two political visions. This is the way of partisanship. A second option is to assiduously avoid “political” talk altogether. When we do that, we strip the gospel down to a privatized husk: theological individualism bereft of God’s intentions for the whole creation.
Both partisanship and quietism aim to save us from the theological work of discerning the good life; that is, they aim to rescue us from the burden of being the church. Only by owning our ecclesial responsibility for theologically discerning the good life can Christians relate rightly to politics.
The work of theological discernment leads us to strange places, standing against police brutality while nevertheless engaging the police as community partners. It leads us to stand with our Muslim neighbours because of—not in spite of—our passion for Jesus.
And we get things wrong. We move too slow. Or we move too fast. We do the right thing for the wrong reasons—and vice versa. There is no great victory to report.
Perhaps this fallibility most starkly distinguishes theological discernment from political ideology. Political pundits—both paid and pretend—win points at all costs. Theologians pray time and again: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.”
Nevertheless, we earnestly seek the true life. We listen, we discern, and, always imperfectly, we seek to follow the One who proclaims and demonstrates a kingdom beyond—but not apart from—politics.
This article was resourced by The Christian Century
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