In the fall I am planning on a sermon series addressing the intersection of political attitudes and the church. This article is precisely on point for that topic. Partisanship in America is becoming more and more hostile, as this NYT piece documents: Partisanship worsening-NYT. I think the import of this for the church is clear. The church needs to be a place where people can come together across the political spectrum, just as it was from the start a place where Jew and Greek, slave and free, and men and women could come together as one. The UCC and other churches have rightly focused on racism; but as the above article purports to show, prejudice is now worse across partisan lines than across racial lines. (Prejudice, it should be noted, is only one part of racism; the economic factor has no corollary in the partisan divide.)
Just bringing people together will do some good for our social cohesion. But it will not by itself help us mend our political vision to find commonality. Besides, it is not the church’s God-given mission to promote social cohesion. Jesus hardly did that! (“I come not to bring peace but a sword…”) So for both reasons, our coming-together needs to have some political content; we need to work toward crafting a shared political vision. (“Political vision” here just means ideas about how to live together in a society.)
I am thinking carefully about how we can do that as a church. I am highly critical of how churches typically do this, whether on the right or the left. Both sides have thoughtlessly promoted and even called down divine sanction on our growing partisan divide. Those on the right have done so more forcefully and therefore with more harm, I think, but those on the left have dominated small, old line denominations like ours (the UCC); so I feel a keen responsibility to challenge those nearest to me.
Here’s some guidelines I have come up with so far. Please comment on these and give me your thoughts and advice!
- It should be made clear from the outset that a pastor in the pulpit does little good by advocating particular government policies. I have no government officials in my congregation. The most I could do is sway some votes, which would almost certainly have no effect anyway. The real point of pronouncements on public policy seems to be to make the preacher feel like he or she is making a stand. But such a mostly ineffectual stand would cause political division for no purpose, unless the proper understanding of the gospel is at stake. As I’ve written about elsewhere, political advocacy from the pulpit should focus on local political issues that can actually be affected by our involvement.
- That also means that ‘hot button’ political topics should be avoided. Our political-media machine has effectively used polarizing topics to organize our political discourse into polarizing issues (abortion, gay rights, social programs). A dialogue on politics in the church will be refreshing if it looks at fundamental political ideas: what is the meaning of freedom? What is the nature of a human being? What is our highest good? These are topics that the Gospel can shed real light on.
- That the Gospel is the source of light here will be all the more evident and convincing if the preacher contrasts the gospel message with political views of both the left and the right. The worst offense is cherry-picking biblical passages to match one’s pre-determined political bias. A politics based on the gospel will not be nationalistic, nor will it be secularist; it will not defend tradition and our ways, nor will it defend individual rights as such; it will not justify economic disparities, nor will it take purely economic equality as the chief goal; it will not be libertarian in either a conservative or liberal way. I am convinced that partisan thinking and the polarized structure of our political discourse has resulted in simplistic and false thinking for us all.
- Because a gospel politics will provide little support for libertarian or nationalist views and will tend to be critical of economic disparity, a gospel politics will tend toward the left on these matters. (It is hard to square the Bible with the conservative side of these views. On the other hand, the personal moral relativism that crops up on the left will find little support in the gospel.) What needs to be made clear, then, is that this “gospel politics” applies first and foremost to the political values that the church considers as a body politic. The question of how they apply beyond the church to our national political institutions should be left quite open. For instance, it is impossible for the church as a church to subscribe to libertarianism, but one could still argue that libertarianism is the best ideology for governing our national political policy. In any event, public policy should be crafted by paying careful attention to social scientific research, which is not the domain of the preacher. But for the church’s political action, social science is not as relevant.
My thinking about how to talk about politics in church continues to evolve. It helps a lot to listen to people in my congregation as full-bodied, complicated human beings who also express political views! Again, please click on “comment” to share your thoughts.
I know most people–nearly everyone–is uncomfortable with the topic of faith and politics. But avoiding it, or dealing with it as we have done, is not really working. And the crisis in our society around politics is undeniable. If the church can’t find a way to bring us meaningfully together, we will be failing in our calling. And already the church has been horribly scarred by politics; the wound is already inflicted and we need to find a way to heal. Look at Protestantism: we are almost perfectly divided along ideological lines between the old-line denominations and the evangelical denominations and movements. Christ’s body is already rent asunder. Is this a peace worth preserving?