Under the Sun: Depoliticizing the Pulpit

Each week in “Under the Sun,” Jonathan Sircy examines the history of a cultural practice that’s generating buzz at CaPC.

“When I warn against the politicizing of the church, I do so not to diminish her power but to increase it.” – John Piper

“Overall, it’s not the task of the church as church to take political stands or provide political information.” – Marvin Olasky

This November, Minnesota’s voters will see the following question on their ballots: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?”

One of the state’s most prominent evangelical ministers, John Piper, said from the pulpit he will not tell his congregation how to respond. In the same sermon, Piper argued, “Those who believe that God has spoken to us truthfully in the Bible should not concede that the committed, life-long partnership and sexual relations of two men or two women is marriage. It isn’t.” The sermon drew press (from the StarTribune here and from CaPC’s own Brad Williams here), but the conversations have been less about the specific issue—gay marriage—than the proper relationship between the church and political action.

While not condemning his members’ political participation, Piper made clear that he would not use his position as pastor to recommend or fight against specific candidates or legislation. That, he claimed, was up to each of the congregation’s individual believers. Most importantly, Piper closed the sermon by placing himself in a 300-year-old tradition of other American ministers who similarly withstood the “politicizing of the church.” In a follow-up post at desiringgod.org, Piper claimed to have provided “several historical illustrations of how [his stance] has worked.”

You don’t have to read Piper’s sermon closely to balk at the word “several.” Several, in this case, means two. More accurately, Piper appealed to this think-piece by WORLD Magazine editor Marvin Olasky who supplied the historical illustrations, and it’s after reading Olasky’s piece where things get even more difficult.

By way of a review of Norm Mason’s The Political Imperative: An Assignment from God, Olasky urges ministers to keep their pulpits free from explicit political ties. Olasksy’s choice of supporting material merits discussion. He first appeals to the 16th Century Belgic Confession, which advocated the “pure preaching of the gospel.” The only problem is that the word “pure” is exactly what’s at stake in Olasky’s argument, so pretending like the word obviously means “don’t be political” is a problem. Of course, Olasky is at pains to assure his readers that such ministerial purity does not mean that ministers should shirk their moral obligations. Olasky writes, “Pastors as they exegete Scripture can and should make practical applications to key moral issues such as abortion, but they should be wary of going further.” Olasky maintains that such an approach is a time-honored American tradition:

That pattern in the 18th and 19th centuries worked exceptionally well. New England pastors in colonial times preached and taught what the Bible says about liberty, and the Sons of Liberty—not a subset of any particular church—eventually sponsored a tea party in Boston harbor. Pastors throughout America during those centuries preached about biblical poverty-fighting, and in city after city Christians formed organizations such as (in New York) the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.

Olasky’s claims are, to say the least, problematic. First, there is the issue of historical accuracy. Is it, for instance, correct to say that colonial ministers walked Olasky’s fine line between politicization and moral engagement with the contemporary world? Second, there is the issue of counter-examples, moments in this nation’s history where Christian ministers became politically active with positive effects. Olasky completely omits the 20th century. Does this mean that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s connection to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was untoward? Third, there is the issue of how and why Olasky uses these specific historical examples. It’s crucial that the above paragraph limits itself to American history with all the patriotism that implies. Even as America drifts further from its Christian roots, Olasky claims that ministers should paradoxically become less political; in doing so, they are actually imitating rather than denigrating their liberty-loving forebears.

It would take a book-length study to support or refute Olasky’s two examples, so I’ll limit my comments to the colonial ministry’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. In this article from Christianity Today, Yale professor Harry Stout goes a long way towards complicating Olasky’s claim that ministers maintained their political distance from the conflict with the British. Through the use of  three representative examples–Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel Sherwood, and William Emerson–Stout shows that colonial ministers did some exegetically adventurous work to provide the moral basis for American revolt. From the quotations Stout provides, the New England pulpits seem incredibly politicized. Stout has the scholarly credentials to support his article’s claim, having written the definitive book on the topic, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford University Press, 1986). In his very positive review of Stout’s book, historian Mark Noll points out that Stout may have located the beginning of “a process of secularization in New England.” Noll seems to support Olasky’s and Piper’s stance on the politicized pulpit; the implication of his comment is that these New England ministers won the political battle but lost the spiritual war. However, he also gives the lie to the claim that ministers Stout investigates were apolitical. As Stout notes, these ministers were constantly “goading, consoling, and impelling colonists forward in the cause of independence.” This would hardly pass Olasky’s muster for a depoliticized pulpit.

As far as counter-examples go, it’s difficult to read Olasky’s piece and not think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Addressed to his “fellow clergymen,” King’s letter outlines sentiments that both Olasky and Piper would agree with in principle but does so in a way that their pulpit policy would prevent. In his letter, King talks discouragingly of the “white moderate” who has let segregation and racism reign unchecked. King sees a correlation between inactive lay people and passive pastors.

I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Part of King’s appeal to his readers is that, first, he is a preacher who descends from a long line of preachers and, second, early Christians actively chose to suffer for what they believed. That is, King too appeals to history. Tellingly, however, his references are to “early Christianity.” He quotes St. Augustine (“an unjust law is no law at all”) and takes as his model of extreme love Christ himself. King knows how his political activism could be interpreted, yet he still wants his readers to see him “not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.” King’s nonviolent resistance and personal advocacy were crucial to paving the road for the Civil Rights act of 1964. In at least this case, an engaged minister had a positive effect. No matter the specific political causes, King kept the ethos of a minister, not only giving his rhetoric prophetic overtones but calling several laypeople into action.

These historical complications do not on their own invalidate Olasky and Piper’s position. They do, however, call into question the stories these men are telling about their positions. Both men advocate strong Christians flexing their political muscles. The problem is that they support bodily exercise while maintaining that the body’s head should never enter the gym.

In his sermon, Piper emphasizes that every political community “legislates morality,” whether that be in the form of hunting and fishing laws or constitutional amendments about marriage. Piper’s point—and I think it’s a good one—is that Christians should not be cowed by claims that they are trying to “legislate” good or bad behavior. All laws do that.

But if all of political life is moral, then, why are Olasky and Piper so quick to say that the minister should refuse to “politicize the pulpit”? It’s already politicized. Olasky is afraid that if churches mobilize Great Commission Corps, specific congregations will get the label “Republican” or “Democrat,” as though Piper’s outright declaration about same-sex marriage is politically neutral, regardless of whether or not he says, “Support this constitutional ban.”

The genealogy for Piper and Olasky’s position has yet to be written. I certainly have not provided it. But such a move to historical context is necessary, even if it’s not to the history of America.

For instance, I can easily imagine a justification for a depoliticized pulpit based on the specificity of this historical moment. We live, the minister might say, in such partisan and politically fraught times that we are liable to forget that we are more than just secular bodies. Unlike the 1960s of Rev. King, the problem is not rampant moderation but extremism. In this storm-wracked political climate, the church offers a safe haven, not from all politics, but from the constant buffeting of polemical waves and barb-filled rains.

The minister would still appeal to history but in a self-conscious and humble way. The irony is that the minister who appeals to Olasky’s historical examples politicizes the pulpit as much in his rally-leading comrade; it’s just that he doesn’t realize it.

About Jonathan Sircy
  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Jonathan,

    I’m not sure I see what you are getting at in this article. Setting the quality of Piper or Olasky’s examples aside, it certainly IS the case that the American church has long struggled with the difference between having a perspective on right and wrong as proclaimed by God on the one hand, and making choices about how to exercise our voting rights as citizens on the other.

    I want to avoid putting words in Piper’s mouth, but it seems to me that the implication of his stance is that it is not usually the pastor’s job to make the connection between the Biblical principle and what that looks like in the voting booth. The pastor has an essentially a-political job with an a-political goal, and as such oversteps his bounds if he uses the pulpit to essentially say, “God says you have to vote this way.”

    Piper, it seems to me, is very aware of his widespread influence in the church. He also recognizes that for many (if not most) pastors it is very difficult to navigate the blurry lines between understanding God’s definition of sin and participating in votes that address moral issues. My sense is that he is trying to set an example here of keeping pastors focused on proclamation of the gospel regardless of what happens in secular government, because too often entanglement with affairs of state distracts from the central purpose of the gospel.

    In other words, Piper refuses to politicize the pulpit because the pulpit isn’t about politics. Whether it sometimes has a clear side to stand with is beside the point… pastors shouldn’t allow themselves to be compromised in their true mission by excitedly telling people how to participate in a secular arena.

    I guess I’m just not sure what you’re criticising here, when to me it looks like a very healthy ordering of priorities and separating of things which should not be mixed.

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Ben, my article isn’t about Piper/Olasky’s stance, per se. It’s about the “historical illustrations” Piper/Olasky use to defend that stance.

    So…
    1. The Revolutionary War is not a good example of what Piper/Olasky are calling for, even though they say it is.
    2. I think it’s useful to look at one counter-example. I offer Rev. King.
    3. I explicitly write, “These historical complications do not on their own invalidate Olasky and Piper’s position.” I propose that the best contextual support for Piper/Olasky’s policy is talking about *this* specific, historical moment (i.e. post-millennial America during an election season) rather than crafting a narrative for their policy built built on problematic/selective examples from American history.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Jonathan,

    That’s fine. I guess I just appreciate the meaning and purpose of Piper’s stance more than I care about the quality of the historical examples he cites. It’s kinda the same result even if he’d given better examples.

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Ben,

    Why do you think Piper feels the need to give historical illustrations at all? Not only did he use Olasky’s op-ed to provide them in the sermon, but he appealed to them again in his follow-up blog. The illustrations are not neutral. Their very use is politicized for the reasons I mentioned (drawn from American history, nothing from the 20th century).

    Is the real message, “Don’t politicize the church…in this specific way” (i.e. asking for specific voting recommendations or candidate endorsements)?

  • Ben Bartlett

    Jonathan,

    I think the message has to do with responsibility. The responsibility of the preacher is to proclaim and explain God’s Word in a way that is clear and gospel-centered. There is an inherent danger every time a preacher decides to take the further step of telling individuals HOW to apply the truth found in Scripture.

    What I think Piper is correct about (whatever his historical examples prove, they were clearly of less interest to him than the principle itself) is that the pastoral role gets into trouble quickly when a person uses the pulpit to make blanket statements about how individual Christians ought to interact with their government. That is not to say that individuals cannot DO anything… it’s merely saying that’s not the role of the pastor when in the pulpit.

    The Martin Luther King Jr. example is an interesting one. Of course we agree that segregation and racism are wrong, no question. I think a pastor preaching Scripture accurately would be against inequality, would be against racism, and would emphasize the dignity of all persons before God because those things are taught in Scripture.

    However, a pastor who turns the focus of his pulpit away from teaching Truth and toward “how you should vote” or “how you should live as a political actor” runs a very serious risk of distracting from the message of the gospel. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was an amazing civil rights leader… but his purpose in that role was racial equality, not gospel proclamation.

    I don’t think Piper would say King was wrong in any sense… only that his civil rights battle was the battle of a civil rights leader, not the battle of a pastor. At the same time, King should have found support from pastors in proclaiming the underlying assumptions of the civil rights movement with regard to human dignity and equality.

    If Piper were preaching in the 60′s, I think his hope would be that an individual congregant would hear God’s truth on Sunday, then make the decision himself to go and participate in the civil rights movement. If Piper were preaching on civil rights himself, there would be a danger of the church falling into a sort of moralism/legalism rather than recognizing the gospel as the central reason they organize and come together. All political life may be moral, but the purpose of the church is not to spend all its time making various stands on moral political issues.

    My guess would be that his use of the examples was designed to help highlight how that pastor-congregant-political issue relationship should work. I’m not convinced that citing examples of three Revolution-era pastors who did NOT handle that relationship well invalidates or even has much to do with the point being made.

  • Jeff

    I think we’ve lost an important distinction between partisan political activity, on one hand, and on the other hand having and speaking opinions about issues in the public square. When everything that is public is political (i.e., partisan), pastors face a false dilemma – remain silent on how the Gospel applies to public society, or make common cause with a political party at the expense of the Gospel’s distinct witness?

    I don’t think we have to choose either option. Pastors can apply the Gospel to public issues – abortion, care for the poor and love of neighbor, marriage, stewardship of creation – without going all the way and saying, “Vote Democrat” or “Vote Republican.” And when they do speak to issues in the public square – even when, like King, their speech is in the public square, rather than in the church, they shouldn’t be censured for being “political.”

  • Ben Bartlett

    Jeff,

    I do think your distinction is correct (i don’t know that we’ve lost it, that’s what the conversation is about). Piper fits that perfectly… he is clear on moral stances without telling anyone how they have to interact with the secular political realm.

    I don’t think Piper would censure King for his participation and leadership in a clear moral cause. I think he would simply say that King is rightly fulfilling his role as a civil rights leader, and that that role is separate from the pastoral role.

    If a pastor is called to lead a church in proclaiming the gospel, but the only thing he ever did was talk about civil rights, then he would definitely be a failure as a pastor in Piper’s understanding.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GargamelGold?feature=mhee CriticalDragon1177

    Jonathan Sircy,

    There’s also some constitutional and legal issues with all this. The U.S government is not supposed to favor one religion or one religious view point over another. Also churches, or any other house of worship can loose their tax exempt status if they endorse any particular political party or candidate.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GargamelGold?feature=mhee CriticalDragon1177

    Jonathan Sircy

    Note, I’m not a Christian, but I do find this compelling, and I don’t really blame Christians or anyone else who wants to involve themselves in the political process.

  • Jonathan Sircy

    CriticalDragon, great point re: the legal ramifications of this issue. You’ve given me something to think about/research.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GargamelGold?feature=mhee CriticalDragon1177

    Jonathan Sircy,

    Thank you.

  • Jonathan Sircy

    Some follow-up re: the question of Tax-Exempt status. A church can lose this status if they:
    1. Spend an inordinate amount of their budget on lobbying
    2. Back a specific candidate in a local, state, or federal election.

    Note re: #2. A preacher can declare his support for a candidate *as an individual,* just not as a the official head of the church.

    More info: http://www.nonprofitrisk.org/library/articles/How_to_Lose_Your_Tax_Exempt_Status.shtml

    Also: Desiring God definitely claims tax-exempt status. http://cdn.desiringgod.org/docs/financials/Financial%20Statements.pdf

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GargamelGold?feature=mhee CriticalDragon1177

    Jonathan Sircy,

    Thanks


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