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.