The fifth annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is coming up again this weekend. It’s organized by (mostly conservative evangelical) Christian pastors concerned that their rights to free speech from the pulpit (and, they would say, freedom of religion) may be at risk from an intrusive government and a dubious amendment back in 1954 to a pivotal section of the federal tax code.
The specific legislation in question, 501(c)(3) states that tax-exempt organizations (like churches) are prohibited from “participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” The Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization supporting these pastors, is trying to goad the government into attempting to act on this legislation. They are gunning for a showdown on freedom of religion. I confess to very mixed feelings.
I am not a lawyer or a tax expert, but it strikes me that in terms of the principles of the American Constitution the pastors may have a point. What is deeply troubling, though, is the thought that any pastors should presume to use the pulpit to try to influence the voting practices of their congregations. As the apostle Paul famously mused, in his inspired way: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient or helpful.” That would seem to apply to political pulpiteering.
There is something profoundly demeaning to intelligent church members to have their minister advising them on how they should vote. There is something profoundly inappropriate about a minister doing so from the vantage point of a podium designed for the faithful proclamation of the Gospel and revealed truth. Ministers should not over-reach themselves and their competencies, nor should intelligent congregations allow it. Ministers should stick to what they are (hopefully) qualified to do, and stop meddling in the affairs of state. Why regress to an activity that the clergy has historically never performed very well, and often with disastrous consequences?
America has been a shining beacon of freedom for many years partly because it has embraced the principle of the separation of church and state. Churches lose their spiritual independence when they get enmeshed in the details of politics and political intrigue. We have already seen too many cases in which naïve Christian leaders have been completely co-opted by smarter, manipulative politicians and political parties.
To listen to some preachers, Jesus Christ came to earth to give us clarity about free enterprise. They seem him as the Adam Smith of the first century. The truth is that Jesus did talk a lot about freedom and personal responsibility, but he also talked a lot about watching out for those in need, living simply and caring for God’s earth. It is a curious thing that when many ministers, around election times, start to opine on “biblical principles,” their lists bear a striking resemblance to the platform of only one party.
Just this past week, for example, the Fundamentalist Liberty University, founded by televangelist and Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, and now led by his son, invited Donald Trump of all people to speak at its Fall convocation, and with great hoopla and congratulations, awarded the thrice-wed real estate developer and reality TV show star an honorary doctorate. A university spokesperson described Trump as “a one of the greatest visionaries of our time” and a champion of free enterprise (including operating beauty pageants for profit).
In his convocation address Trump startled even the mainstream media by advising the Christian students to “get even.” He commented: “I always say don’t let people take advantage—this goes for the country, too, by the way—don’t let people take advantage. Get even. And you know, if nothing else, others will see that and they’re going to say, ‘You know, I’m going to let Jim Smith or Sarah Malone, I’m going to let them alone because they’re tough customers.’”
According to reports the student body at Liberty, who had initially cheered wildly for Trump, went quiet at this point. No doubt they were wondering how they should reconcile this with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, contained in the big Bibles many of them were carrying. That Donald Trump would advocate such things, being who he is, is hardly surprising. What is more surprising and troubling is Liberty University’s subsequent defense of Trump’s speech. Liberty vice-president the Rev. Johnnie Moore, Jr. confirmed his own conviction that Jesus would get even and did. Moreover, he explained, the Bible is filled with stories of God getting even with his enemies. God is portrayed as giving grace, but he is also portrayed as one tough character.
Christianity Today, the chief magazine for American evangelicalism, and one known for its somewhat right wing disposition, seemed not to be particularly aghast about the Trump debacle. A columnist suggested that universities are, after all, places where students need to be exposed to a variety of ideas. It failed to acknowledge that awarding an honorary doctorate to a convocation speaker is about the highest act of endorsement a school can grant to any individual and what they stand for. In the words of the late Francis Schaeffer, we just saw “nature eat up grace” in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Most ministers are remarkably good and gifted people, but some of them are excessively ambitious. And those are the ones to whom the media pay most attention. Their efforts to get into the limelight are ostensibly to gain a wider influence for God and good, but it often ends up being a lot about them. They also use techniques of power and persuasion that are virtually indistinguishable from those employed by their “worldly” adversaries. They are better at fueling conflict than facilitating reconciliation.
My father was a minister, and a good man, and I’ve had the privilege of helping to train hundreds of them through the years. I have a word for them all. If God has called you to be a minister of the Gospel, remember what an honor and privilege it is. And don’t stoop to playing politics. Speak to a balance and breadth of moral issues, to be sure, and do so courageously, but always do it from a vantage point above the fray. It will preserve the credibility of the pulpit, and keep you from dividing the church along party lines. In the end it is worth keeping in mind that God is not a Republican or a Democrat.
Let the church be the church. For years in French-speaking Quebec the Roman Catholic priests aligned themselves with the ruthless conservative government of that province, and told the people from the pulpit how to vote. The color of the government party was blue, and their opponents red. On the Sunday before an election the priests would say to their congregations: “Remember now, heaven is blue, and hell is red.” But then, when the people eventually rebelled against that oppressive government, they also turned against the church for being part of their betrayal. Today, sadly, Quebec is the most secularized corner of North America.
It is not the place for churches to dictate or even recommend how Christians should vote on candidates and propositions. When it comes to that final matter of how someone properly connects the dots between their Christian principles and a slate of electoral options, individual Christians are on their own. Anything more is an encroachment on the spirit of separation of church and state. Rather, the business of churches is to help form the thinking and character of believers along lines of truth and goodness so that they can go out and freely decide how best to respond to the issues on the ballot. Healthy churches form believers, and produce wise voters, but good churches don’t take political sides. The true church of Jesus Christ is much bigger than any single political party, and the institutions of organized Christianity, and the dynamics of Christian fellowship within them, need to reflect this fact.
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