PULPITS AND POLITICS
By: Steve Beard
As early as 1633, the governor and council of the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to appoint clergymen to preach on Election Day. These sermons became a significant part of early New England life; they were discussed, printed and widely circulated. John Quincy Adams considered the ripe fruitage of this custom the highest glory of the American Revolution. “It connected,” he said, “with
one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”
How times have changed! Imagine the fevered reaction at the Boston office of the American Civil Liberties Union if Governor William Weld were to repeat such a practice today. Visualize the
hyperventilated full-page ads that would be placed in The New York Times and The Washington Post by Norman Lear and the People for the American Way: “Weld Declares War on the Constitution!”
The real issue is broader than Election Day sermons, The $2,000 question before us is this: Do Christian leaders have any role in the wild and woolly world of politics? Should they?
You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby
There was a time not long ago in America when most evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostals believed that the political realm was a jungle not to be entered for fear of contracting some
mysteriously unpietistic disease. Christians of a more liberal or “social gospel” stripe never fell for such notions – thereby never allowing their concerns to go unnoticed or unheard.
Despite a rich heritage of early American involvement in public policy, orthodox Christians felt a keen distaste for the theological meanderings of their more progressive brethren. They wondered if the theology of the social gospel directed its political creed – or was it the other way around? For fear that they, too, might be tainted with this modernist bug, conservative Christians headed for the religious bomb shelter, hoping naively that when they once again emerged, the world would be somewhat as they had left it.
In our curious evolution of maturity, most evangelicals have now come to grips with the fact that we do our country no great service by sitting on the sidelines while others toy with our taxes and disassemble our values in Washington, D.C.
In The Beginning
The fact is, people of religious conviction have been involved in public policy since the beginning of our democratic experiment. The clergymen of the American Revolution, the abolitionists, Martin Luther King, many of the anti-war activists, the Moral Majority – all have found hallowed ground in politics, albeit sometimes from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Our involvement in the public arena should not rest on this historic legacy. As Christian leaders we should be involved, however modestly, for a least three reasons:
* We are dual citizens – first, of a heavenly kingdom that requires the devotion of our souls, and second, of an earthly kingdom that extracts one-third of our income to pay the bills.
* God commands it. Consider God’s word to the exiles in Babylon: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers,
you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7), NIV.) This is not a health-and-wealth civics lesson. This is the loving and timely wisdom of God.
* We have been taught to love our neighbor. And believe it or not, politics can be an expression of Christian love. While Lord Action was certainly correct in asserting that power corrupts absolutely, the reverse is also true. Christian exile corrupts our nation’s political life – and absolute exile is just plain dumb.
Adios To The White House?
For a while it seemed that newly active evangelicals viewed the quest for the White House to be on par with the search for the Holy Grail. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Sure, we want
to keep getting invited to White House briefings and get our picture taken with the present, but today we seem to be even more concerned about who gets elected to our local school board.
Ralph Reed, executive director of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, told the Orange County Register that “there’s been a movement away from this fixation with the White House. The
Christian rights has learned political power runs upward, not downward.”
This new understanding of political upward mobility has many evangelicals scrambling to fill seats on city councils, which may springboard to even more prestigious and powerful positions down
the road. Given the current anti-incumbent mood washing across the country, this seems like an ideal time for Christian political novices to get baptized into the fires of politics.
As we approach the numerous national, state and local political showdowns in November, we must remember a few things about our political involvement:
1. Our concerns matter. We must overcome the fear that we are somehow imposing our background and grumpy values upon a happily secular society. No matter what Phil Donahue says, this is simply not the case. Americans, by and large, are not happy abut 4,400 abortions ever day, even though they may not agree with an all-out ban. They are not excited about our children learning sex education from summa cum laude graduates of the 1960s School of Free Love. And they overwhelmingly deny that it is the role of government to subsidize homo-erotic art that we wouldn’t even give to our worst enemy as a white elephant gift.
Upon our emergence as a recognizable political force in the ’80s, many in the press fingered our involvement as an “imposition of our religious views” or the “forcing of our values down the
throats of others.” Aside from being hysterical and preposterous, the notion is hypocritical.
The press has not worried about the imposition of values from the feminist movement or the abortion-on-demand crusades. Network news is hardly concerned about the values that are promoted within the homosexual agenda. Why is it that if you so much as mention God and country in the same breath, you are considered an ayatollah, a fanatic or, even worse, a fundamentalist?
Every bit of public policy in Washington is created with someone’s values in mind. The fight against racism and anti-Semitism reflects someone’s values. The welfare system, affirmative action,
the war on drugs, the laws protecting whales and spotted owls – all are derived from someone’s value system.
Should religious people in America have a say in these and other matters? You bet! To exclude us because we believe in the Apostles’ Creed would be undemocratic and illiberal – downright
bigoted, as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, many of our opinion-molding elite believe that bigotry in the name of progressive politics is still honorable.
For some reason, many of us still feel reluctant, perhaps even a little guilty, about joining the political fray. The fact is, such feelings contribute to the exclusion of religiously based moral
judgement from the public debate and decision-making process, a situation that Richard John Neuhaus calls the “naked public square.” The only way to clothe this political beast is for
evangelicals to give a spirited defense of our values and beliefs.
2. We must be gentle as doves and wise as serpents. Like it or not, we evangelicals are perceived as cliquish. We read only Christian magazines and Christian books, we allow our children to
listen only to Christian rap music, and we throw our support only to overtly Christian candidates.
Take David Duke for example. Many evangelicals in Louisiana were convinced that Duke had actually become a born-again Christian. The candidate told them, “Look, I’ve been too intolerant, and I’m a Christian person, and I believe that we have a chance to find redemption in Christ, and we have a chance to move forward in our lives.”
Sounds good, but as columnist Doug Bandow pointed out, “The Christian faith requires both repentance for past sins and commitment to reformed future behavior.”
Duke’s own state coordinator, Bob Hawks, resigned after concluding that “David’s relationship with Jesus is not as he portrays it when he is on center stage trying to obtain public support.”
The candidate even underwent a “theological examination” by local religious leaders. Apparently, Duke was unable to say when he repented of his KKK and neo-Nazi activities, when he rededicated his life, or where he has gone to church since age 13. I don’t believe it is possible that someone who found Christ 28 years ago could have burned the cross or twisted it into a swastika.
While it is true that God can do all things, Christians would do well to withdraw from counting their spiritual chickens before they hatch. Have we become so gullible as a political force to
believe everyone who waves the Bible and shouts about conversion? As Scripture reminds us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
3. Washington D.C., is not the New Jerusalem. As Chuck Colson is wont to say, “The kingdom of God is not coming in on Air Force One.” You wouldn’t know that from chatting with many Christians today. Some of them are able to whip out a 10-point political plan quicker than a Campus Crusader can expound on the Four Spiritual Laws.
Those of us with a conservative bent must reject the notion that God is a Republican. Sure, He voted for Reagan, but He votes for the man, not the party. (Hey, lighten up! I’m only kidding.) But
seriously, Jesus never said, “And on this rock I will build my political party.”
In his book, Winning the New Civil War, Robert Dugan, the director of pubic affair of the National Association of Evangelicals, says it well: “As wrong as it would be to shape a church so that only the rich would be attracted, it would be equally wrong to shape it so that only Republicans would feel comfortable.”
The same could be said to many of our more liberal churches that sound like the Democratic Party at prayer. As Henry Hyde, the Republican congressman from Illinois, has said: “When the church becomes too immediately identified with any particular partisan organization or agenda, it has lost a measure of its crucial capacity to be a sign of unity in a broken world.”
4. The church has a redemptive call. In our enthusiasm to “get involved,” we are sometimes prone to lose sight of the command to love our neighbor – especially if that neighbor is our political
opponent. But the church must never lose sight of its call to be a temple of healing and a sanctuary of praise. Peter Berger, an influential Boston University sociologist, eloquently states the
predicament we face in many of our churches, both conservative and liberal: “Our congregations are full of individuals with a multitude of afflictions and sorrows, very few of which have
anything to do with the great issues of history. These individuals come to receive the consolation and solace of the gospel, instead of which they get a lot of politics. I can think of no clear case
of one asking for bread and being given a stone.”
5. God’s glory will not shine down because of a political victory. The angels in heaven are not waiting for us to vote for the right candidate The future of God’s kingdom is not attached to the
results of a ballot box.
Our Father in heaven will not be impressed by the number of signatures on our petitions or even our aggressive voter registration drives. Instead, He will ask us if we sought the welfare of the city by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the unwed mother and teaching our children the godly values that have been etched on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Taking Off The Robes
We are in the midst of what some have called a culture war. The stakes are too high and the future too important to have concerned evangelicals watching from the outskirts of the battlefield. We
must engage the battle.
In his farewell sermon to his Lutheran congregation in January 1776, John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg said: “In the language of Holy Writ, there is a time for all things. There is a time to preach
and a time to fight; and now is the time to fight.” After the benediction he took off his robe, under which he wore a military uniform. He then went to the door and enlisted 300 of his frontier
parishioners for the revolutionary army.
Now may well be the time to take off the robes.
(The above material appeared in the September/October 1992 issue of Ministries Today.)
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