An interesting question came up during our recent diocesan convention. Raised in the form of a statement, it went something like this: “I believe there is no place for politics from the pulpit; what do you believe is the proper role of the church in politics? Before reading on, how might you answer that? Give it some thought.
My guess is that the guy who asked it is among those who voted for Trump and are nervous about the liberal bent of Episcopalian leadership. There are other parts of the country where the same question might be asked by a parishioner deeply concerned about the conservative bent of Church leadership in their area. It’s a sticky wicket for many reasons, among them, everyone assumes a general understanding of words like liberal and conservative, left and right. Moreover, they assume that what they think is meant is the same as what others think is meant. But none have agreed to definitions They’re always intended in the best possible way by one side, and the worst possible way by the other. Not only have terms not been agreed to, the sides have assumed attributes of opposing football teams where one must win, the other lose, in games inflicting as much damage as possible on each other.
Into that melee the Church is called to boldly proclaim Jesus as the one to whom Christians owe their primary loyalty. Not a country, flag, anthem, or political party, but Jesus. It is a loyalty that takes its instruction from what Jesus taught and did, translating it into word and work in the world, and it gets political. There is no way around it. But as I’ve argued in previous columns, politics is not distasteful, bad, or evil. Politics is the art of making decisions about how we live together in community. Like all citizens, Christians have an obligation to be informed participants in the political arena where public policy decisions are made. What Jesus taught and did sets, for them, the standards by which they are to evaluate information and options under debate.
What did Jesus teach and do? By now it shouldn’t be necessary to go back over the basics, but it always seems to be. Let’s begin with a few questions. How do political decisions reflect love of neighbor, remembering that the neighbor must always include those one least wants to like or love? How do political decisions reflect healing, reconciliation, elimination of barriers that separate, oppress, and marginalize? Where does loving kindness and doing justice fit in? How is peacemaking encouraged? How do they help feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked? You know the rest.
Christians can influence public policy decisions in godly directions in many ways. Some look liberal. Some look conservative. Some don’t look like either. Some things can be accomplished through voluntary charitable work. Some require the united efforts of whole communities through government action. Some issues are manifested locally in ways better addressed at the local level. Others are regional or national in scope. Most are complicated combinations requiring coordinated efforts from all levels of private and public sectors. Some political decisions address immediate needs. Others address conditions that oppress, marginalize, and create obstacles to health and economic well being. In every case, Christians can move the political conversation in a Jesus direction.
It’s not about making America a Christian nation. Trying to do that turns its back on the way of following Jesus, and is an abuse of his name. We had a taste of it in the post war years when public schools and community organizations featured a flavorless, generic Protestantism as the default American civil religion. Promoting the illusion of unity, it was a safe harbor for prejudice and systemic injustice. The Christian obligation is to follow in the Jesus way as they engage in their personal, business, and public lives. It means measuring decisions and actions by his standards. As citizens in a democratically elected republic, where every level of government depends for success on an active, well informed electorate, Christians have a special responsibility to inform and influence the public debate in directions that respond to the gospel imperative,
Christians recognize the urgency of addressing issues of social justice, but argue about the responsibility of government to address them. It’s a legitimate argument, but not one in which there are winners and losers. Instead it’s an argument that seeks a pragmatic balance. Some issues can be addressed by voluntary groups working together for the well being of all, and especially those in greatest need. Others need governments to help, but in what way? America is a large, complex society in which social problems have no respect for county lines and state boundaries. Global interdependence exponentially expands the realm of decision making. Governments at all levels are the agencies through which policies are enacted to guide private and make public decisions. That’s what politics is all about.
Christians living out their daily lives as followers of Jesus, with churches guiding them on Jesus’ way, cannot avoid being political. There are some who want to keep Jesus confined to the weekend in church buildings, but Jesus likes it better out in the community. He spent of his time wandering around the countryside, engaging people where they lived, worked, and socialized. Every time he entered the temple, he caused trouble, and still does. Jesus will not be confined, and neither can his followers. Having said that, conservative Christians can keep liberals from going off the deep end with elaborate unworkable schemes to end all injustice. Liberal Christians can force conservatives to face their reluctance to change, and willingness to tolerate injustice. Each can help the other understand that while they can’t do everything, they can do something. They can be dedicated to discovering truth and exposing falsehoods. Above all, Christians, both liberal and conservative, can treat each other, and all others, with respect, recognizing their dignity as children of God. But separating pulpit and politics? Not going to happen.