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Pulpit Politics

Are They Oil and Water?

Though written from the perspective of someone living in the United States, the insights in this article apply to citizens of all nations. In the next issue of Reformed Worship we will address the same topic from a Canadian perspective. —JB

Many Christians contend that politics and Sunday morning worship are like oil and water—they just don’t mix. They reject the notion that politics has any place in Christian worship. Others, while not rejecting the idea outright, contend that pastors, worship committees, and liturgists need to be very cautious when interjecting political matters into worship services. Still others might welcome a stronger prophetic witness against contemporary cultural practices or social structures within congregational worship.

This article addresses the issue of politics in worship and examines how this issue is worked out in several different congregations.

A Political Act

Christian worship is, in essence, a political act. Our worship of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is a declaration that our ultimate sovereign is someone other than the duly selected head of a government or state. Through our worship we proclaim that our loyalty is not to a political party, a head of government, or even a nation, but to a different sovereign, a different kingdom, a different people.

In worship we gather to be formed as an alternative polis: the people of God. And we proclaim that a new political order is present, though not yet fully realized: the kingdom of God. Someday that kingdom will come in fullness, a fullness to which all kingdoms and republics will submit. In worship we assert by faith what will one day be manifest to all—that every earthly sovereign is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, Christians everywhere are citizens of an earthly kingdom or nation, and Christian citizens of every nation have a moral obligation to engage at some level in that nation’s political life.

Reformed Christians emphasize engagement with, rather than withdrawal from, the culture and polity of which they are a part. Since we know that God’s sovereignty knows no bounds, it follows that politics is not outside the domainof God’s sovereignty.

Likewise, Reformed Christians emphasize the creation, fall, and redemption narrative, as all of creation awaits redemption. The political sphere stands in need of redemption neither more nor less than any other sphere of human activity. Believing that God’s redemption is at work in this present world spurs Christians to engage in political activity. In submitting and contributing to the structure of public authority, Christians may bring Christ’s renewing influence to bear on public life.

Legal and Pragmatic Considerations

But interjecting politics within worship may risk violating certain legal statutes in the United States (I claim no knowledge of current legal provisions in Canada). For example, religious leaders may not endorse particular candidates for public office from the pulpit; doing so runs the risk that their congregation or denomination will lose its tax-exempt status. (Pastors may legally place campaign bumper stickers on their cars or campaign signs in their yards at home.)

Despite this particular restriction, pastors have long had the freedom to address the morality of political actions from the pulpit. American pulpits have been used as vehicles by which to examine and address the morality of institutional structures, public policy, and political actions on such topics as the abolition of slavery, the prohibition of alcohol, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and abortion.

Regardless of our political convictions, of our position with respect to the Iraq War, of whether we consider ourselves “conservative” or “liberal” or somewhere in between, it is important to protect the capacity of pastors to speak truth in their role as ministers of the Word and not simply as private citizens. That means, for example, that Christians of all political stripes should be troubled by the action of some IRS agents to challenge the tax-exempt status of a congregation in California because its pastor, an Episcopal priest, condemned the war from the pulpit during the 2004 presidential campaign.

Of course, there are other considerations than legal ones with respect to politics and worship. Churches and congregations tend to be composed of members of different political perspectives and party loyalties. Becoming enmeshed or linked to partisan politics runs the risk of alienating entire segments of the worshiping community.

Political issues, if they are to be addressed from the pulpit, need to be chosen with care and examined in the light of a clearly and thoroughly explicated biblical perspective. If God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, then it is important to address how the perspectives of neither party fully capture the biblical perspective.

What Pastors Say

Regardless of whether or not they address political matters within the worship context, religious leaders possess important political resources and enjoy important opportunities to influence others (Smidt 2004, pp. 6-7). In fact, clergy often provide political cues to their parishioners about issues andconcerns they should pay attention to, care about, and act

upon (Guth et al. 1997; Olson 2000; Smidt 2004). These cues generally transpire through four broad areas of worship: the sermon; prayers; nonliturgical announcements made in the course of the service; and the bulletin or other printed materials (Brewer et al. 2003, 127).

Surveys reveal that pastors approve of various means by which they may be politically engaged, both in and out of the pulpit. The overwhelming majority of evangelical, mainline, or black Protestant clergy, as well as Roman Catholic priests, report that they approve of clergy giving a sermon or homily on a social or political topic, and many report that they have done so (Guth et al, 1997; Djupe and Gilbert 2003; Smidt 2004).

In fact, “political messages,” broadly defined, are delivered quite often, though not all who approve of clergy addressing political issues from the pulpit report doing so. Not surprisingly, few clergy report that they have actually endorsed candidates for public office from the pulpit— though some clergy in every denomination report having done so (see, for example, Smidt 2004). When pastors do provide political messages, they rarely choose to address specific public policies directly; rather, they tend to give political messages more indirectly. (See “Political Norms and Activities of Clergy,” which presents data taken from random surveys of clergy across 11 evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations following the 2000 presidential election.)

Almost all clergy, regardless of denomination, approve of sermons in which the pastor takes a stand on some moral issues. And the overwhelming majority approve of preaching sermons that address some social or political topic, though clergy are more reluctant to express approval of taking a stand on a political issue while preaching. Nevertheless, even with regard to this more controversial area of taking political stands from the pulpit, sizable numbers of clergy in every denomination express approval of such action. (Interestingly, clergy in evangelical denominations were more inclined to express such approval in 2000 than were clergy in more mainline denominations.)

Of course, simply expressing approval does not reveal whether pastors actually engage in such behavior. The last three columns of the chart on page 34 examine what these pastors actually did during the course of the 2000 presidential election. About one-half to two-thirds of those who approve of clergy taking a stand on some political issue from the pulpit actually report having done so during the course of the election. More common, however, were reports about having prayed publicly about some political issue or about having prayed for political candidates (a nonpartisan prayer asking God to grant candidates health andsafety, provide them direction, or guide their decisions).

Agents of Renewal

Through worship, congregants seek spiritual renewal, the revelation of God’s Word to us today, and the call to service in response to the grace they have been given. As agents of renewal, Christians are called to be engaged politically, and many parishioners seek political guidance.

Within the context of legal and practical restraints, political messages on themes such as social justice may serve as a starting point of political communication in religious settings, as interaction and communication among congregants are important sources of political socialization among churchgoers.

Finally, in an era of declining denominationalism and increased mobility, it is likely that congregations are becoming more politically homogeneous than before. Worshipers seek settings in which they feel welcome and accepted, in which their theological perspectives and social values tend to reflect those of other members of the congregation. Such increased political homogeneity creates new kinds of challenges for worship leaders as well as for the church in its efforts to addressmoral and political issues within its cultural setting.

Political Norms and Behavior of Clergy (2001)
Denomination Norms: Percent Approving Behavior: Percent Reporting
  While preaching take stand on a moral issue While preaching take stand on a political issue Delivering sermon on social/ political topic Preached on a political issue Prayed about a political issue Endorsed candidates for office
Assemblies of God 99% 71% 78% 43% 62% 55%
Christian Reformed 96% 44% 57% 25% 67% 54%
Nazarene 97% 57% 67% 39% 65% 52%
Presbyterian Church in America 98% 62% 79% 39% 56% 39%
Southern Baptist 99% 66% 81% 32% 39% 38%
American Baptist 96% 57% 79% 28% 61% 42%
Reformed Church in America 92% 46% 68% 27% 68% 51%
Presbyterian Church USA 91% 53% 78% 21% 55% 33%
United Methodist 90% 50% 73% 30% 49% 29%
Evangelical Lutheran Church 92% 38% 69% 20% 56% 33%
Disciples of Christ 88% 45% 70% 20% 54% 30%

References

Brewer, Mark, Rogan Kersh, and R. Eric Peterson. 2003. “Assessing Conventional Wisdom about Religion and Politics: A Preliminary View from the Pews.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42 (1): 125-136.

Djupe, Paul, and Christopher Gilbert. 2003. The Prophetic Pulpit: Clergy, Churches, and Communities in American Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Guth, James, John Green, Corwin Smidt, Lyman Kellstedt, and Margaret Poloma. 1997. The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.

Olson, Laura. 2000. Filled with Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Smidt, Corwin. 2004. Pulpit and Politics. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.