“Is he crazy?” That may be what you thought when you saw the title of this article. That initial response is not unwarranted. A recent poll found that 75 percent of young adults outside the church think Christians are “too political.” So, a call for more politics in the church sounds like offering a drowning man a cup of water. The facts, however, do not support the perception.
A Pew survey showed that evangelicals, the brand of Christians perceived to be the most political, were no more likely to support political discussions in church than any other group, and a Lifeway poll found that evangelical pastors are overwhelmingly against bringing politics into the pulpit (90%). Based on these findings, as well as my own engagement with churches and pastors all over the country, I see very little evidence that Christians are “too political.”
Still, there remains an assumption among outsiders, and it’s reenforced by the religiously ignorant media, that Sunday worship gatherings are thinly veiled political rallies where pastors rail against the evils of Democrats, LGBTs, immigrants, and Muslims. This view sees the American church as taking its cues from the divisive rhetoric of political parties. In truth, over the last 40 years, the American church has modeled itself on the apolitical values of big corporations. Like businesses seeking to reach as many customers as possible, most churches try to stay away from any controversial topic that might alienate either current or future members. As overall church attendance declines across the country, the incentive for pastors to not rock the boat is only getting stronger.
For example, I was in Phoenix in 2010 during the height of the debate over SB 1070, the controversial immigration bill in Arizona. I spoke with a pastor from a large church about the issue. He spoke passionately for immigration reform, and he shared how the bill was directly affecting many families in his congregation. In our private meeting he even outlined a biblical and theological case for immigration reform.
“What are you saying to your church about this?” I asked. He laughed.
“Nothing,” he replied. “I can’t talk about immigration. It’s too political. I’ll have a mess on my hands. Besides, it would be a distraction from our call to preach the bible.”
I tried to challenge him gently. “You just gave me a biblical argument for immigration reform. Why don’t you share that with your church?”
“Look,” he said, “a lot of people at my church listen to conservative talk radio. They’ve made up their minds on this issue. It’s a fight I can’t win and preaching about it would only leave blood on the walls—including mine.”
Some will interpret his decision as pastoral faithfulness. He was wisely protecting his flock from division and distraction. Others will interpret his silence as pastoral malpractice. By not bringing the scriptures into an issue directly affecting his congregation, he was abandoning his flock to be led astray by bad shepherds in the media. We know, however, that 9 out of 10 pastors agree with his decision to stay silent, and I’m increasingly convinced that is exactly why Christians are viewed as “too political.” Let me explain.
By not tackling the complicated intersection of Christian faith and public issues, pastors have abandoned this area of spiritual formation to more partisan “Christian” voices on the radio and cable news. These broadcast bishops have convinced many Christians, and evangelicals in particular, that faithfulness to Christ requires fidelity to a single political party. In the name of unity and institutional preservation, churches have been left with an anemic, hyper-individual, privatized form of Christianity while the public and social aspects of their members’ lives are shaped by a false gospel preached by the media.
Rather than apologizing for breaking the unspoken commandment (“Thou shalt not preach about politics”), we need pastors who will boldly and unashamedly declare their mission to protect their flocks from the wolves in sheep’s clothing in the media by preemptively teaching the public implications of Christianity. Would such silence be applauded in matters of personal ethics? Of course not. Any minister who refused to address family issues would be seen as unfit for service. So why is refusing to address public issues not only accepted but applauded? Jesus Christ is either Lord over all of life or he is Lord of none of it.
I am not calling pastors to endorse candidates or discuss Hillary’s emails and Trump’s tax returns. There is a difference between being political and being partisan. Partisanship is about parties, candidates, and the scrum of campaigns. This is the ugly, mudslinging stuff many find beneath the church and its leaders. And I agree.
Politics, however, is something else. The word comes from the Greek polis meaning “city” and polites meaning “citizen.” Politics is simply how we live together; how we organize our communities and what we agree to do with our shared resources—from building a school to raising an army. Certainly we ought to carry the values of Christ into this aspect of our lives, and pastors ought to lead us by example with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other as Karl Barth famously declared.
A church in Arizona ought to be thinking carefully and biblically about immigration. A church in Chicago needs to seek God’s wisdom about how to address violence and rebuild trust between minorities and the police. Rural church leaders should be asking questions about how to partner with public agencies to reverse the heroin epidemic and endorse those policies that are most effective. If we care about our communities and love our neighbors, how can we not address these issues in our churches? And I’m aware that some churches and pastors are doing these things, but many others are not.
My call to talk more about politics is a call to engage the communal and social implications of the gospel rather than retreat into a hyper-individualized faith with no vision for the common good or application in the public square. When we ignore the corporate dimensions to Christianity, it severely warps the outworking of our faith; we become compartmentalized Christians who may view Sunday morning as sacred but fail to integrate Christ into our work on Monday or our vote on Tuesday. Even worse, we become Christians who are not equipped to love our neighbors, which means we really aren’t Christians at all.
To do my part, in October I will be starting a six-week class at my church about faith and politics that will run through the election in November. If you’re in the area, and possess a charitable spirit, I invite you to join us. Maybe together we can begin to make the church a little more political and a lot less partisan.