Why We Need More Politics in the Pulpit

“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.

photo credit: National Mall/Lincoln Memorial Washington DC via photopin (license)




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12 Comments

  • September 16, 2016

    Paul VanderKlay

    In my tradition (Kuyperian Dutch Reformed) we talk about sphere sovereignty in matters like this. While I really liked your point about the church being a-political copying corporate America (which is under increasing pressure to be less a-political as seen in religious liberty conflicts in Indiana and North Carolina) the pulpit question has other factors involved.

    What ought the pastor in the pulpit to exercise expertise in? It isn’t uncommon to see pastors stumble significantly when dabbling in complicated areas such as science, medicine, law, finance, etc. all with the tagline “thus saith the Lord”. While the Old Testament admonition of welcoming the “alien within your gates” and the NT standard of hospitality certainly should inform a Christian’s perspective in immigration a lot has changed between those ancient circumstances and present geo-political realities. The entire modern framework of the nation state, whether that be pluralistic ethnicity as in the US and Canada or ethnic identity self-autonomy as in the effort for a Kurdistan or racial nationalism such as in pan-Africanism of the 60s or the vision of an Islamic state. In your twenty five minute message which attempts to give fair treatment to a text there isn’t a lot of time to get into much of this.

    The vision of sphere sovereignty steps in to say that informed Christian political scientists and politicians who are informed by the church and its resources but are also formed by their expertise in an area are best equipped to inform the broader Christian community on the panoply of subjects that face us in this information age.

    In a democratic context the use of the pulpit for political discourse is imagined to be instrumental in moving policy. Political operatives look at various networks of trust in the hopes of using them to score political points. I find that use of the church repugnant.

    The church should of course preach love of neighbor and love of enemy but figuring out the specific political application of that love is probably not best done in the context of a sermon.

    I would also differentiate addressing things “in our churches” from addressing things “in the pulpit”. The informed Christian doctor, politician, social worker, mother, contractor can all participate in a conversation in church. That’s a function of the broader body of Christ informed by the pulpit but not necessarily dictated from there.

  • September 16, 2016

    Kathy Krivacek

    I am in the area, but don’t know how to find your class. 🙁 I find you to always be a voice of truth and reason in a world, very often, run amuck. I enjoyed reading The Voting Booth very much and came away from that experience feeling a lot more grounded about voting in November. I would LOVE to get more of your perspective on faith and politics. Can you please provide me with the location and dates of your class? Thanks so much!

  • September 16, 2016

    Sam Dunckhorst

    I’m a long way from Wheaton, but would love that class. Any teaching notes, resources, or parallel learning opportunities you can share?

  • September 16, 2016

    Tim

    Skye,
    Thanks for sharing this. I agree. The example I always think of is William Wilberforce. What if he hadn’t pursued political change based on his theological convictions?
    I think the fear for many people is that talking about politics will become partisan so quickly. We are such a balkanized country (growing more so every day!) that most if us have little experience engaging in respectful and earnest conversations with people that may have different points of view, so it is a skill few of us seem to have. It would be great if more in the church would start to lead in this area! Who are some Christian writers and thinkers out there skilled at this? David Brooks? Bryan Stevenson? The people at Q Ideas? I’d love to hear your take on specific political issues — perhaps it’s material for your next book?

  • September 17, 2016

    Laura

    On one hand I resonate with what you are saying. Being political but not partisan makes a lot of sense. I liked ‘the Voting Booth’.

    On another hand I think due credit needs to be given to the fact that human governments and the kingdom of God have two distinctly different modes of functioning. National governments rely on the use of force and apply to all who live in that land. In the kingdom of God we don’t rely on the power of force, but have a cross like way of operating. Plus, the kingdom of God is something people opt in to, not something we can apply to all who live in a certain place. Greg Boyd contrasts it by speaking of the ‘cross and the sword’. It can be incredibly nebulous to establish a “Christian” policy when talking about national governments- most especially in relation to thinks like war. I’d be curious if you’ve read much of Boyd or other new anabaptists and if so what you think.

    Personally I have serious anabaptist leanings in that I’m very pro separation of church and state and a Christian almost pacifist… But also feel compelled to vote in a way that I feel like will best help soceity and the world as a whole. It seems good to use what little say so I’ve been given to nudge our government in a just and healthy direction, but I’m wary of putting much (if any) kingdom stock in the government.

    • September 18, 2016

      admin

      Laura-

      I have read Greg Boyd and interviewed him in the past. I also have a lot of resonance with the anabaptist view and completely agree with the Christian rejection of coercive power. Where I think the anabaptist theology can be insufficient is regarding vocation – the the idea that God calls people to different work in the world that necessarily brings them into un-Kingdom power structures. For example, is it wrong for a Christian to be a police officer and use physical force at times to restrain evil? Some would say it is wrong. I do not. I’m not a pacifist. Similarly, what are we to tell those Christians who are called to serve the common good in government? The anabaptist view, taken to its logical end, leads to a strict separation that we see in Amish communities. There is a lot of wisdom to be drawn from this theological tradition, and I think Boyd does a good job at mining those gems, but we need to pair them with the insights of other traditions as well.

      -Skye

      • September 18, 2016

        Laura

        Thanks for the reply. Are your interviews with Boyd online in any form? I’d be fascinated to read/watch.

  • September 17, 2016

    Charlie

    By any chance are you going to record those classes on faith & politics? Podcast them? I’d be interested in hearing them. I’m sure others would benefit as well, as long as you don’t vote for Trump, that is (just kidding.)

    • September 18, 2016

      admin

      Charlie-

      I am thinking about recording these classes, but no decision has been made just yet. There are some details that make it a bit complicated. I’ll keep you posted via my social media.

      Skye

      • September 20, 2016

        Bob

        I’m a conservative talk radio listener and find politics fascinating. Although this time around more disappointed than fascinated. I would love to listen to your podcasts of the classes in October or perhaps visit your church (which is where?) I get your email notices when blogs are posted so I’ll look to see if there are podcast of these classes. Thank you!

  • September 19, 2016

    Tim

    “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”

    I agree with much of this article, but have to object to the idea that this only exists amongst the religiously ignorant media. Sadly, I have experienced exactly that several times in church around Indiana and Michigan. Ok, not all 4 at once, but definitely railing against the evils of one or more of those groups under the guise of a sermon on class. I hope pastors are able to embrace what you’re saying, but not continue these practices that you were optimistically thinking didn’t happen much anymore.

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