Anybody but me notice that this is an election year? It's an odd thing. The church—where we're supposed to be fearless, where we're supposed to challenge people on sin and be prophetic and face martyrdom—the church is also the place where we're told, "Don't talk about politics!"
Or at least we're told that in the kind of churches where I grew up. Other traditions are different. The African-American church, for instance, was for decades the one place where politics could be safely talked about, leaving a legacy that is reverberating pretty loudly this year.
Here's the problem: politics is an important sphere of human activity, and as such God is keenly interested in it. It was the Dutch theologian and politician (why don't we have more of those in America?) Abraham Kuyper who famously said, "There is not one inch of creation about which Jesus Christ does not say, 'This is mine!'"
However, as soon as human beings (including church leaders) start assuming they are in a position to pronounce God's political leanings, things get a little dicey.
Sometimes I have erred under the simple category of general stupidity. Years ago a national news story described how an East coast school district decided to distribute free condoms to public education students of an alarmingly young age. I gave a prophetic denunciation of this action in a sermon. I spoke of the problems of moral relativity, the lack of an adequate sexual ethic, of what happens when faith-based understandings of human sexuality are no longer welcome in the public square, and how all of this was resulting in the passing out of condoms in a public school.
I just forgot that it was Awana Sunday.
Suddenly I looked down and saw the open-mouthed stares of more Awana Cubbies than I could count, and I did an anticipatory imagining of all the angry letters I was going to get (an exercise in prevenient grace, without the grace) from parents of little merit-badge winners wanting to know what a condom was.
Knowing your audience before getting into public policy issues is important.
Sometimes we make the mistake of presumption. Video footage is still circulating of a prominent pastor saying that Hurricane Katrina occurred because abortionists and feminists and homosexuals had called God's judgment on America. Of course, thoughtful people want to know how he knows it was an act of judgment. And how does he know it had nothing to do with racism or materialism or (to name the sin Jesus most often went after) pride? When a church names sins only from one side of the political divide, it not only distorts the gospel, it sends a powerful message of exclusion to folks who desperately need Jesus.
In Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural, which remains the high water mark in presidential theological reflection, he notes that "Both (the North and the South) read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.