The Church and Politics in America
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
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Evangelical Christians and Social Activism
The Great Commission and the "Christers"
The Presidential Election: A Christian Response
Picking Up the Gauntlet: The Church and Politics in America
Part 1 of the series "The Church and Politics in America"
Posted at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 19, 2004
In a recent post, Hugh Hewitt threw down the gauntlet to me and several other “faith-bloggers,” as he calls us. (I rather like this title. We don’t blog in our pajamas, but in our ecclesiastical vestments, which these days probably means a Hawaiian shirt or Levi’s.) When Hugh throws out a challenge, I’ve got to pick it up, partly because he is the “father” of my blog, as well as many others. Those of us among the Hewitt progeny fondly refer to Hugh as “Papa Hughie,” in the aftermath of the Republican convention.
|Okay, enough messing around. Hugh wants us to comment on the fact that the Archdiocese of New York has broken tradition by not inviting either presidential candidate to the Al Smith dinner. This dinner, for those unfamiliar with it, is a classic in American public life. It encourages all of us, including the major candidates, to step back from the from the intensity and meanness of politics for a moment, and to laugh at ourselves. For a couple of great examples of what happens at this dinner, read the remarks of Al Gore and George W. Bush at the dinner in 2000. They are truly funny, and they show the candidates actually making fun of themselves a bit. How refreshing! (I never thought I’d look back on the 2000 presidential election with nostalgia. Go figure!)
The guy in the middle is Cardinal Egan. You know the other two.
But we won’t be treated to such an interlude this year, unless Cardinal Egan of the New York Archdiocese repents and decides to invite the candidates. Hugh seems to have hope for such repentance. I don’t, but I'd be glad to wrong here.
Why has the Cardinal refused to invite Messrs. Kerry and Bush? A spokesman for the diocese gave this explanation:
The tradition of the Smith dinner is to bring people together. Given that issues in this year's campaign could provoke divisiveness and disagreement and could detract from that spirit, it was felt best to proceed in a different direction while maintaining all of the ideals and values of the dinner.
The diocese doesn’t specify which “issues in this year’s campaign” might ruin the spirit of the dinner. No doubt one of those issues is the tension between John Kerry the Roman Catholic and many of the bishops in his church, who would refuse to serve him communion because of his political views that contradict church doctrine (especially concerning abortion). But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinal is also concerned that overall high level of negativity in the presidential race would spill over into the dinner. Now, of course, given the fact that President Bush has already shown he can play by the rules of the dinner, it’s hard to see the Cardinal’s decision as reflecting a equal lack of trust in both candidates.
Instead of President Bush and Senator Kerry, the archdiocese invited the former President George H. W. Bush and the former governor of New York, Hugh Carey. Now this is quite clever, I must say. If anyone criticizes the archdiocese, the spokesman can respond: “But we did invite Bush and Carey! Oh, I see you. You meant that Bush and that Kerry! Ah, a mere oversight.” (Think about it. What are the odds that the replacement invitees would be a Republican named Bush and a Democrat whose name is pronounced just like Kerry. There’s something fishy going on here. Must be a pre-Vatican II Friday.)
Now that I’ve laid out the issues, I’ll give my response.
I’m disappointed in the Cardinal’s decision. In fact, I’m disappointed precisely because of the reasons given for not inviting the candidates. Here’s what I wish the diocesan spokesman had said,
The tradition of the Smith dinner is to bring people together. Given that issues in this year’s campaign have been filled with divisiveness and disagreement, Cardinal Egan believes it is all the more important to invite both Senator Kerry and President Bush. He is confident that the two candidates will honor the spirit of the dinner, maintaining its ideals and values.
I actually do believe that both candidates, had they accepted, would have done this very thing. It’s not as if Whoopi Goldberg is running for president, after all. Moreover, if one of the candidates did ruin the spirit of the Al Smith Dinner, he would simply look like an embittered fool.
It would have been refreshing to hear both candidates make fun of themselves for a few moments. It would have been good for them simply to shake hands in some context other than a debate. Maybe they could have sung “This Land is Your Land” together. (Warning: This link leads to a hilarious but PG-13 version of Woody Guthrie’s song.)
Perhaps Cardinal Egan is afraid that inviting Kerry to the dinner would appear to minimize the question of his fitness for communion. But I don’t think many people would confuse the issues here. The Al Smith dinner isn’t Mass. Communion won't ’t be served, just good food and good jokes.
Apart from the fact that I think our current election would be improved with a high-level injection of humility and humor, my disappointment in the Cardinal’s action reflects my broader vision for the role of the church in American politics. You see, I’m naïve enough to believe that the church could actually provide a place where people of differing political views came together for a bit of friendly fellowship, if nothing else. But sometimes friendly fellowship leads to something else, like genuine dialogue, or respectful argumentation, or even unexpected agreements. The more we demonize our political enemies, the less we are able to learn from them things we should learn. In the church, I believe, some of these demons could be cast out, and this would be good for America.
Yes, yes, I realize that in many quarters the church in our country is far left or far right when it comes to politics. But my vision is inspired more by biblical truth than contemporary American reality. Scripture makes it clear that Christians find their fundamental citizenship in heaven (Philippians 1:27; 3:20), and this citizenship should shape our thinking and behavior more than any other allegiance. So even though we are citizens of a nation, and even though we are committed to one political party or another, our heavenly citizenship encourages and enables us to step back from these secondary allegiances as we seek to view life from God’s perspective. Our heavenly citizenship enables us to see all of human politics in light of the broader and eternal reality of God’s kingdom. Moreover, as citizens of heaven we are called to imitate the kindness, graciousness, and humility of our divine king. I would hope that some of this might actually spill over into political discourse, at least when the church is involved.
Thus the church could be the place where people of differing political viewpoints actually came together to talk, to disagree respectfully, to discover reasons for their differences, to laugh at themselves, to find common ground, and, yes, even to learn from each other. Moreover, the church could be the place in American life where genuine, truth-seeking conversation about real issues happened in an atmosphere free from exaggeration, innuendo, and character assasination. The church could be a kind of benevolent referee in the political process, helping all persons and parties to seek the greater good, rather than to settle for life in the political gutter.
“Wishful thinking!” you may be thinking. “When are you going to wake up and smell the coffee of political reality in America and in the church?” I realize that what I’m saying sounds idealistic. It is idealistic. I admit it. But I have sometimes seen my ideals fleshed out in the life of real political people in real Christian churches. In my next post I’ll share some fascinating and, I believe, encouraging examples.
So, there you go, Hugh. More than you bargained for, I’m sure. And only Part 1! Stay tuned . . . .
The Church in American Politics: Idealistic Vision in Action
Part 2 in the series “The Church and Politics in America”
Posted at 9:30 p.m. on Monday, September 20, 2004
In my last post I responded to Hugh Hewitt’s challenge to comment on the decision of the Cardinal Egan from the New York Catholic Archdiocese not to invite the major presidential candidates to the Al Smith Dinner. I expressed my disagreement with the Cardinal’s decision, suggesting that this presidential race desperately needs what the Al Smith Dinner encourages: self-deprecating humor, humility, and a bit of human fellowship across party lines.
But my last post went further than this. I suggested that the church could play a crucial if not unique role in American politics, offering a place for serious, respectful interaction among people who differ politically. As politics in our country is getting increasingly mean, and when the real issues so often get drowned out by the din of distraction and deprecation, the church could play a desperately needed role as mediator, provider of safe space for open dialogue, identifier of common ground, and promoter of truth-speaking.
Now, given the tendency for so many churches these days to identify with one side or the other in political debates, I realize that what I’ve just said may sound naïve. But my conviction comes from biblical teaching about the identity and role of the church, not just in American life, but in the world. Because Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, we should be able to stand back from earthly, partisan matters and see them more objectively in light of God’s kingdom. Moreover, since Christians are called to love both friends and enemies, we should also be able to form a community in which even political opponents could learn to treat each other with mutual respect.
I know this sounds idealistic. And, as I confessed in my last post, it is idealistic. I freely admit that my vision of the church is a response more to biblical ideals than to earthly realities. But being idealistic isn’t the same as being a utopian dreamer. I know this because I’ve seen my ideals fleshed out in human reality every now and then. Let me tell two stories to illustrate my point.
Several years ago I was talking with two men from my church after a worship service. In this conversation one of the men began lambasting the mayor of our city. Man #1 went on for at least a minute chronicling the mayor’s political missteps. Meanwhile, Man #2 watched quietly, though with a rather odd look on his face. When the Man #1 finally stopped blasting away, he noticed the strange expression on Man #2’s face. “Why are you looking at me so curiously?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you support the mayor!” “Well,” Man #2 replied, “actually, during the last election, I was his campaign manager!”
||At this admission Man #1 almost fell over from astonishment, like Mr. Monopoly when he learned that a bank error in his favor was worth $200. How could a brother in Christ, even one who worshipped in the same church, be such a fool? After he recovered his senses, Man #1 said, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m sorry I said those things in your presence. I didn’t mean to insult you. Please forgive me.” Man #2 offered his forgiveness readily. But then the Man #1 added, “You’ve got to help me understand how you could support the mayor. I just don’t get it. Can you explain it to me?” And so Man #2 began his explanation. When I left them, they were engaged in a passionate but respectful conversation about politics. And, I daresay, they both learned some valuable lessons that day. I know I did.
My second story is more current. When I go into the voting booth this November, I will see the names of three members of my church on the ballot. One is running for city council, a non-partisan race, at least in principle. Another is running for State Senate as a Republican. And another is running for Congress as a Democrat. Ironically, the Republican and the Democrat are both named John.
I know both Johns as members of my church. Moreover I’ve spoken with them about their political views and I’ve read things they have written. Both of them are quite independent in their thinking, not always toeing the lines of their respective parties. I wonder if their independence might reflect, in part, their Christian viewpoints. Be that as it may, however, I know for a fact that these two men make an effort to live out their Christian faith in their political lives, both in their positions and in their behavior.
Let me provide an example of the latter. The man I’ll call John #1 was in a gathering of local party leaders. He overheard several of his partisan partners running down John #2. They weren’t just criticizing his views, but his character. John #1 intervened. “Look,” he said, “I disagree with most of John #2’s views. You know that. But I know him personally. He and I attend the same church. And what you’re saying about his character is inappropriate. It’s not true and it’s not right.” John #1’s political cronies were shocked, but appropriately ashamed. They stopped talking about John #2 in the way they had been talking.
I greatly admire John #1, both in general and for what he did in this meeting. It took courage to break out of the partisan mold and stand up for John #2. It also took perspective, the kind of perspective one gets from being first a citizen of heaven, and then a citizen of the USA, and then a Democrat or a Republican or Libertarian or a Green or . . . . (For the record, I don’t know if John #2 has ever had to defend John #1 in this way, but I expect that he would show the same sort of integrity in such a situation.)
So I hang onto my idealism about the role of the church in America, mostly because of what I learn about the church from Scripture, but also because I’ve seen biblical ideals lived out in real life by very political people who understand that, above all, they are citizens of heaven.
Yet my vision of a non-partisan church may still not be convincing to you. “Shouldn’t the church speak out on the issues of our day?” you may object. “Doesn’t the church have a prophetic calling in our society? And doesn’t this calling necessitate advocating one side or the other in political debates? How can the church be non-partisan and still fulfill its prophetic role in the world?” I’ll venture an answer to these questions in my next post.
Political Diversity Among "Good" Christians
Part 3 in the series "The Church and Politics in America"
Posted at 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 21, 2004
In my last two posts I’ve argued that the church can play a unique role in American politics, offering a safe haven from extreme partisanship, a place where people of differing political persuasions can come together for gracious fellowship, honest conversation, and respectful dialogue. Moreover, in a time when genuine debate about real issues is so rare in the political arena, the church could be a place where such desperately needed deliberation actually happens. In this way the church could serve as salt and light in the political arena.
|But I freely admit my vision of a politically-neutral church isn’t shared among many Christians today. Vast numbers of churches in America are solidly committed to one political agenda, either on the left or on the right. In fact, it’s increasingly common for Christians in our country to believe that Christianity, perhaps even God himself, favors one party over the other. Members of the religious right have made headlines this year as the relationship between theologically conservative churches and the Republican party has become cozier. As you’d expect, liberal media and liberal churches haven’t been happy, decrying this frightful mixing of religion and politics. But a similar marriage between liberal churches and the Democratic party has been around for decades. How many times have I seen a news clip of some Democratic candidate speaking at some liberal church while the pastor nods approvingly in the background? Fifty times? A hundred? Maybe more? (Remember, I lived for eight years in Massachusetts!)
Senator Kerry speaking to the congregation of the Greater Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Faith Church in Jackson, Mississippi
I realize that for many Christians, the issues of faith and politics are so completely intertwined that they can’t imagine how genuine faith could lead in a political direction other than the one they themselves have taken. It can come as quite a shock, therefore, when Christians realize that other Christians with faith convictions similar to their own actually support the opposite political party.
Even among conservative evangelicals there’s no one “party line” in politics. Though we tend to associate evangelical Christianity with the Republican party, a recent survey found that almost a quarter of white evangelicals in American plan to vote for John Kerry for President. This percentage would be greater if non-white evangelicals were included. So we mustn’t assume that theologically conservative Christians are necessarily politically conservatives as well. If this seems odd to you, check out Evangelicals for Social Action. This is an organization of theologically conservative Christians whose social views often sound like Democratic positions (but not always, since, for example, the organization opposes abortion).
I used to believe that genuine, informed Christian faith led necessarily to certain unassailable political conclusions. But experience showed me the error of my ways and forced me to re-examine my personal dogma in light of Scripture.
When I was getting my Ph.D. in New Testament at Harvard, some of my closest friends were Mennonites. They were rock solid in faith and committed to following Jesus in every aspect of life. I was deeply impressed both by their piety and by their activist discipleship. As Mennonites, they were members of one of the classic “peace churches,” churches that have a long tradition of gutsy pacifism.
I attended grad school during the early 80’s when Ronald Reagan was President and the issue of nuclear weapons was the hottest and most divisive in our country. My Mennonite friends were passionately anti-nuke, and therefore passionately anti-Reagan, though I must say I never heard from them the kind of vitriol that is so common among political opponents today. My friends saw their political commitments as part and parcel of their Christian faith. The more I spent time with them, the more I came to share their political views. Though I never became a full-frontal pacifist, I was strongly anti-nuke and vehemently anti-Reagan. At the time I didn’t see how a well-informed Christian could be otherwise.
In the mid-80’s I left Harvard to join the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. There my one-sided perspective on faith and politics faced a stiff challenge. I had a dear friend in the church, a man I’ll call Carl. Carl was a deeply committed Christian who loved God and sought to live out his faith in every part of his life, including his professional life. Carl was deeply committed to working for justice in the world, and invested his life in Christian ministries one might associate more with liberalism than conservatism. But here’s the kicker: Carl worked for the defense industry, helping to make guidance systems for, you guessed it, nuclear missiles. When I first learned what Carl did for a living I was shocked. How could such a godly, thoughtful, justice-seeking Christian be working in such an ungodly industry? How could he justify what he was doing in light of his faith?
When I asked Carl these questions, I learned that he actually saw his work as an extension of his faith. Carl, ironically enough, was deeply committed to peace, not unlike my Mennonite friends. But he truly believed that the best way for the United States to achieve peace in the world, and with the Soviet Union in particular, was through military strength. A staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan, Carl believed that by helping to engineer excellent guidance systems for nuclear missiles, he was actually promoting the cause of peace in the world. Carl prayed that his systems would never be used in combat. He fervently hoped that U.S. strength would one day lead to the end of the Cold War and the nuclear threat.
||How could it be, I wondered, that friends who loved the same God and were guided by the same Bible could come up with such different, indeed, polar opposite views about nuclear weapons? The typical answer, that conservative Christians are conservative politically and that liberal Christians are liberal politically, didn’t work in this case, because my Mennonite friends were quite orthodox in their faith. They would have lined up closely with Carl on most matters of Christian faith and practice.
Harvard Divinity School, a long way from Hollywood, California
What I came to understand was that solid, biblical, orthodox, thoughtful Christian faith didn’t always lead solid, biblical, orthodox, thoughtful people to the same political conclusions. Why? Because most political convictions depend on beliefs that are extrinsic to basic Christian faith. Our political viewpoints are shaped by more than our understanding of biblical truth. Political and economic theories come into play here, as well as our experience and observation of political reality. Both my Mennonite friends and Carl were deeply committed to Christ and to forging peace on earth. But they had widely differing views on the role of military might, the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence strategy, and the way faith should influence government policies. These views, though not essential to the core of their faith, strongly determined their political commitments.
Of course one could reply that either my Mennonite friends or Carl were simply inconsistent or mistaken. “Good Christians wouldn’t believe that way,” one might argue. But I think this perspective is wrong. All of my friends were good Christians, if this description has any meaning at all. There’s no escaping the fact that good Christians often differ considerably in their political views.
Perhaps the main reason this seems wrong to many “good Christians” on both right and left is that they rarely talk to anyone outside of their own little circle of agreement. If I talk politics only with those who agree with me about politics and faith, then I naturally come to assume that all who share my faith also share my politics. Not only do I end up with a skewed perspective on reality, but also I miss the chance to clarify and correct my political viewpoints through thoughtful discourse with people who disagree with me. Wouldn’t it be something if the church could become a place for this kind of political conversation?
Yet I know that some Christians would still be unhappy with what I’m proposing. In their view, the church’s responsibility to address the issues of our day from a biblical perspective necessarily leads it to take stands that are more or less partisan. Neutrality, they would argue, is backing away from the church’s prophetic calling.
In my next post I’ll respond to this position by talking about my calling as a preacher and how I relate this calling to political issues.
Can the Church Be Both Faithful and Politically Neutral?
Part 4 in the series “The Church and Politics in America”
Posted at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 22, 2004
So far I have laid out a vision for the church as a non-partisan context in which people of differing political views might engage in open, respectful dialogue. But not all Christians would agree with this vision.
Many Christian pastors from all along the theological and political spectrum claim that their churches must take sides in partisan debates, and that they, as Christian preachers, must speak out on issues in ways that are generally in line with one or the other of the major political parties. Of course there’s no agreement among these folk over the political implications of Christian faith. Some churches, for example, support the war in Iraq as a just war, and a necessary step to establishing peace and justice in the world. Other churches decry the war as a moral outrage, utterly inconsistent with true Christianity. (To cite an extreme example, three leaders of the United Methodist Church have recently alleged that President Bush and Vice-President Cheney are guilty of “chargeable offenses” under the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Their most egregious offense is committing the “crime” of leading the United States into an illegal war in Iraq.)
I believe that both preachers and churches are called to proclaim theological and moral truth. We do have a prophetic role, especially within the church, but also in the wider world. When I preach, I am unflinching as I urge my congregation (including me!) to believe and obey God’s revealed will. But I do not call people to take stands or to act publicly in ways that one might associate either with the Republicans or with the Democrats. I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of, or praised me for, being partisan in the pulpit. On the contrary, I’ve been censured by people from the right and the left for failing to speak out on issues they consider to be crucial (abortion, war, etc.).
“How can you preach theological and moral truth without taking political sides?” you might wonder. Actually it’s quite simple. I believe that Scripture makes very clear what our basic moral and religious commitments should be. But the Bible does not clarify how these commitments are to be worked out in a republican democracy in the terribly complex world of the 21st century. One can believe biblical truth and seek to live it out in daily life, and yet do so in widely divergent ways, as a Republican, or a Democrat, or a Libertarian, or . . . . Similarly, I can preach biblical truth boldly and clearly without telling people how they should vote in the next election.
There are certainly times when churches and preachers must speak out about political evils, the current genocide in the Sudan would be an example. But, even then, we must recognize that there are many possible political responses that would be consistent with the biblical priority of justice for the oppressed in the Sudan. It’s my job as a preacher to call my people to work for justice in the world. But it’s not my job as a preacher to tell the U.S. government exactly what its policy should be in the Sudan. I have not been authorized to do this and, frankly, I don't have the expertise to do this wisely.
Let me offer an example to illustrate this point. I believe the Bible calls all Christians to care for the poor. The pages of Scripture are filled with God’s concern for the poor and with many exhortations to reach out to those in material need (for example, Deuteronomy 15:10-11; Isaiah 58:6-9; 1 John 3:17). So, when I preach from such passages, I call my congregation to care for the poor, not only through individual acts of charity, but also by working in society to eliminate the causes of poverty.
Now I know Christians who believe, on the basis of what I’ve just said about poverty, that my preaching at this point should take a sharp turn in the Democratic direction. After all, this is the party that tends to talk a lot about caring for the poor and ending poverty. Democrats generally believe that the government should lead the effort to alleviate poverty through a wide variety of federal, state, and local programs. Since these programs cost money, Democrats argue that it’s necessary to raise taxes on the wealthy to cover the costs, and that this will ultimately lead to a more just society. All of this sounds consistent with biblical teaching. So does the Bible support the Democratic agenda, at least when it comes to the problem of poverty?
Not necessarily. I also know Christians who are deeply concerned about the problem of poverty and do much in their own lives both to care for the poor and to bring about social change that will eliminate poverty. But these Christians do not believe that the government should take the lead in this effort. Rather, they see the ultimate solution to poverty coming from the jobs that will be created by a strong economy and a thriving business community. They believe, not only that government efforts to alleviate poverty are ineffective, but also that government involvement often makes matters worse. They believe that the most successful care for the poor comes, not from government, but from faith-based ministries, such as the Salvation Army or World Vision. So these faithful Christians who care profoundly for the poor find the Republican party to be the one that generally shares their perspectives on how best to eliminate poverty.
What accounts for such political differences among Christians who are united in basic faith and even in basic moral convictions, such as the need to care for the poor? I’ll address this in my next post, and draw out a few practical conclusions as I wrap up this series.
Choosing the Narrow Gate
Part 5 in the series “The Church and Politics in America”
Posted at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 23, 2004
In my last post I began to talk about my role as a preacher in relation to moral and political concerns. I used the example of preaching about poverty, noting that faithful Christians who seek to care for the poor could very well support either Democratic or Republican positions. Yet it seems like an odd paradox that people of similar faith could have such divergent political views.
What accounts for the difference between Christians who are united in their concern for the poor, but divided in their understanding of the best political solution to the problem? Often it has nothing to do with theology. Rather, the difference has to do with personal political and economic theories, as well as with personal experiences and observations about what actually helps overcome the problem of poverty. So a solidly evangelical faith can lead you to support either the Democrats or the Republicans, depending on your ideas that have little to do with the core of Christian belief and practice.
When I preach about poverty, therefore, I call all people to open their hearts to the poor, to care personally for the poor, and to work for social and global change to eliminate poverty. But I do not tell my people that they should do this in either Democratic or Republican forms. Why not? Because I don’t believe I have the expertise or authorization to draw out these implications as a preacher. Now of course I have my own personal views on these matters, and I express them when I vote in private or when I argue politics with my friends. But when I preach, I’m called upon to deliver God’s truth as it is revealed in Scripture, not to share implications that depend upon my pet economic or political theories. I know very well that some of my members will take what I hand off to them from Scripture and run in Republican directions, while others will run in Democratic directions. This is just fine with me, just so long as they run in some positive direction. I happen to believe that if both Democrats and Republicans would care more and do more to end poverty, the world would be much better place for all people, especially those who are now poor.
|The role of the church is not unlike mine as preacher. Rather than telling people, “You must care for the poor, so support Democratic causes” or “You must care for the poor, so vote Republican,” the church’s task is to teach and proclaim biblical truth, including biblical truth concerning poverty. The church’s job is to call our members, and, indeed, all people, to care for the poor. It is to point out the distressing reality of poverty, both in America and throughout the world, and to inspire action that will lead to the alleviation of poverty. Moreover, our task is to work for the transformation of human hearts, so that people might be less materialistic, more generous, and more compassionate. This last task, one that the church uniquely embraces, is perhaps the most important of all.
|This bumper sticker is part of a petition drive by Sojourners, a Christian organization that rejects the claim by some members of the religious right that God is on the side of the Republicans. Though I find myself in substantial agreement with the intent of Sojourners, the wording of this sticker and of the petition shades matters too far in the direction of supporting the Democrats, I think.
Now of course there will be times when political realities are so obviously evil that the church and its preachers must speak out. I am not suggesting that the church should have been silent on the horrors of Nazism, for example. But, even so, we must be aware of the differences among Christians when it comes to evaluating when and how the church must speak out. Right now there are many churches in America that have condemned the war in Iraq as immoral. And there are many other churches in America that have called for abortion to be illegal in almost all cases. I worry sometimes that churches can put so much emphasis on the political implications they draw from biblical truth that they can take attention away from the clear proclamation and teaching of that truth. For example, I’ve watched Christians squabble in the public square over whether laws should prohibit all abortions, or allow them in the cases of incest, rape, or danger to the life of the mother. This argument about laws can distract people from the church’s primary calling in this issue, which is to proclaim the dignity and sanctity of all human life. I believe that our churches and our country would be better off if, for the most part, preachers talked more about what is clear in Scripture and less about what they think the government should do about it.
But, even beyond proclaiming biblical theology and morality, I believe the church could actually facilitate conversations that would help people sort out the political implications of their faith. I began this blog series with a vision for the church as a safe haven for open, honest, respectful political dialogue. Even though I don’t believe it’s the church’s responsibility to dictate people’s political views, I do believe the church could and should provide a context in which these views could be formed thoughtfully and carefully, with input from all colors in the political spectrum. By doing this, the church would play an invaluable role, not only in the lives of its members, but in our country, and ultimately in our world.
I have a Christian friend who pretty much thinks I’m crazy to hold out this hope for the church. He has been directly involved in electoral politics and has not found the church to offer a neutral or even particularly Christian environment. (He is a solid Christian, but did not fit in with the religious right, so they made his life rather difficult during his stint in politics.) Once again, I admit my idealism. But I continue to believe that, even in the midst of our political differences, Christians must at least strive to be Christ-like in our relationships. Though we can’t be sure how Jesus would weigh in on the political issues of our day, we can be quite sure that he would call us all to walk the second mile, turn the other cheek, and love our enemies, yes even if they might turn out to be Democrats or Republicans. Though the wide gate of political discourse in our day leads to the path of viciousness and vitriol, the narrow gate of Christ-likeness opens to a way of honesty, humility, and mutual respect. I pray that I, and all those whom I pastor, will have the courage and Christian maturity to enter through the narrow gate, to choose the road less traveled by. And I pray that my church, and many other churches beside, will indeed become a demilitarized zone of decency in the midst of our nation’s partisan warfare.