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Tempted by Politics

Why many pastors want to, but shouldn't, endorse candidates.

Every pastor in America is just dying to tell their congregations how to vote. It happens every election season, but particularly during the presidential quadrennial. This yearning to lobby one's flock doesn't surprise me — it tempted me when I was a pastor.

What did surprise me was a report that said 31 pastors in 22 states this past Sunday endorsed a candidate from their pulpits. The nationwide event was orchestrated by the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, (ADF), which thinks churches should be able to take partisan stands without losing their tax exemption. The legal group hopes the sermons will prompt IRS reaction. In turn, the ADF will take the IRS to court and argue for a ruling that will abolish restrictions on church political speech.

Frankly, I hope they lose. I'm no legal scholar, and I have no idea whether current IRS policies deny churches' constitutionally guaranteed free speech. Who knows, they may just win. But good Lord, deliver us if they do.

This yearning to tell congregations how to vote arises out of a godly desire to teach how to live daily the Christian life, in political season and out. Politics is nothing if it is not about daily life. Whether it's the place of creationism in the local high-school curriculum, or how many immigrants to welcome into the country, or how much to spend on defense versus welfare — all political decisions affect our Day-Timers or our Form 1040. They influence things like how much our investments earn or what values our children imbibe in the public square.

Pastors are driven by a righteous desire to shape not just church members but also their communities according to biblical standards of justice and mercy.

But these same pastors often hanker to be relevant — and this is nothing but the Devil's third temptation of Jesus. When chatter about candidates and platforms fills the airwaves, when everyone pontificates about the last debate or recent TV appearance, you can seem out of touch with reality or too timid if you don't join in the national conversation and take a public stand. Who wants to go to a church led by an irrelevant coward?

These pastors — and congregations that are egging them on — don't realize that in endorsing political candidates or platforms, they are selling their inheritance for a mess of pottage. Two examples should suffice: the late Jerry Falwell, and the current Jim Wallis — both Christian ministers. When all is said and done, what are they both known for? Falwell was considered a champion of political what most call "the Religious Right", and Wallis is usually identified as a "[politically] liberal evangelical."

Both have said — sincerely, I believe — that their highest priority is serving and proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ. But given the insidious nature of politics (it aims to co-opt everything and everyone into its service), ministers' Christian identity gets swallowed up by their political views. They were ordained to be heralds of the Great King. Instead they end up, like it or not, being seen as marketers for a partisan agenda. What a waste of an ordination.

Do you want to be politically relevant? Then gather your people together each Sunday and lead them to worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Remind your people through hymns and prayers and proclamation that there is a Leader who can do something more significant for the nation than protecting their investments or providing cheap health insurance.

Gather your people not as Christian Democrats or Christian Republicans, not as members of the religious Left or Religious Right, not as evangelicals for the environment or fundamentalists for business — but simply as disciples of Jesus Christ. Remind them of the most basic truths, like this one: If "the nations are like a drop in a bucket, they are regarded as dust on the scales" (Isa. 40:15), how much more their elections?

You will get opposition from your parishioners, because some who worship the modern Baal will tear their garments and cry out, "If we don't advocate for a strong military, how will America survive?" And others will wail, "The U.S. budget is a moral document!" So you will have to soothe them, otherwise you'll lose your job. You'll have to remind them that, yes, politics is important, that it's a type of neighbor love to work for the welfare of the larger community.

But everyone is telling them that 24/7. For the next five weeks, the priests of political religions will be pandering for tithes and votes from anyone who can breathe, even evangelicals. They will be playing on their fears and manipulating their hopes. Is it too much to ask that for one hour, out of the other 168 given to us in a week, that another point of view be accorded equal time?

For that one hour, instead of joining the American political chorus and naming our choice for the next prince, perhaps we should be preaching from the prophet Isaiah:

Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. (40:21-23, ESV)

Pastors are right about this much: The election season is a unique moment in a church's life, but not because the pastor has the chance to lobby for his candidate. No, the Christian preacher has the unparalleled opportunity to act as the only sane person in a nation mad for power, the only voice in an ephemeral season filled with lies and half-lies to speak abiding truths — that elections (even "the most important in a generation") come and go, that princes (even "the most gifted in a lifetime") appear and pass away, that nations (even "the greatest in history") rise and fall.

And that something greater remains after the first Tuesday in November.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This column is cross-posted on his blog.

Related Elsewhere:

Religion News Service reported on the pastors' plans to endorse candidates and wrote about Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service. The New York Times and religion scholar Martin Marty also commented on Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.

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