America needs prophets

Rev. Jonathan Mayhew
Portrait of Jonathan Mayhew by John Greenwood, Congregational Library

The intense fight over Obamacare’s HHS mandate highlights a real disdain for religion in public life. Obamacare has had religious detractors from the start because of abortion concerns, but they have had their own detractors among the political and chattering classes.

While paying lip service to the right of Catholic bishops to participate in the conversation, for instance, one pundit actually said (before the bill had passed) that the hierarchs were holding America “hostage” by their refusal to back down on their antiabortion lobbying. In other words, yes, speak. But not much. And for all our sakes, shut up if you’re being effective.

Here on the Fourth of July, it’s worth noting that this sentiment would have stunned the founders. In researching the life of Paul Revere, I found time and again the active role played by church leaders in their day.

In 1754, for instance, Massachusetts legislators pushed for a new sales tax. Newspapermen and pamphleteers let the ink fly and fired off acidic squibs denouncing the measure. So did pastors. From the pulpit, ministers railed against the bill in harsh terms. Rev. Samuel Cooper of Brattle Street Church in Boston even called the lawmakers “bastards” for it. Rev. Jonathan Mayhew opposed the bill as well, pointing out the burden it would place upon the poor.

Mayhew was a force to be reckoned with in matters both ecclesial and political. He battled the imposition of an Anglican bishop in America on the one hand (he was a staunch Congregationalist), and on the other preached a stemwinding sermon against the Stamp Act, kicking off America’s decade-long protest against unjust taxation. For Mayhew, the role of the minister was to speak to any subject of weight in his community. And he did, along with most others.

The political outlook of Boston preachers was so demonstrative that as the Revolution inched closer, Paul Revere left his lifelong congregation because the minister was too supportive of the establishment. He began attending West Church, where Mayhew had previously pastored.

The prophet’s job is to confront power and hold it to account, to remind its practitioners that they answer to a greater sovereign. His job is not so much to predict when God will act in history as much as to insist that he in fact will.

That task was vital during our revolutionary beginnings. And while people can point to the cultural shift from that time to this (we’re hardly as religious as we once were), the job is arguably more important now.

As government becomes more intrusive, the role of prophet is ever-more important. Pastors need to become more active and more vocal, not less so. An interventionist government assumes the right to act in nearly any situation. It needs to be shown that such expansionist plans are not always acceptable — in fact, usually not.

Policy wonks aren’t up to that task. Neither are lobbyists. Or lawyers. Or journalists.

They’re all helpful, and they should be involved. But what America needs are more prophets who will speak truth to power, embolden their flocks, and live the gospel they preach. If personal faith means anything, it’s going to have (for better or worse, depending on the example) a public impact. It’s unavoidable. It would serve America well if that impact were more deliberate and pastors more aware of the role they can play.

This isn’t to say that pastors should get involved in every political spat, or push for new legislation. They primarily should lead their flocks. But when the state acts egregiously or proposes laws that are fundamentally unjust, they shouldn’t stand by. They should follow their forebears and speak out.

Politicians and pundits oppose preacherly meddling because they want freedom to scheme and act without regard to any authority higher than their own. Fine. But we don’t have to let them. Because of those meddling pastors in 1754, the proposed tax bill failed. What would happen today if America’s ministers took their calling more seriously?

Slightly updated from a piece published at, April 16, 2010.

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  • Aaron

    Great post especially on the fourth of July. Christianity in America especially has lost this edge. The cross has become wrapped with the flag of our country. We need to remember where are citizens of heaven first. It also reveals how much the church is losing its voice in this world. Let those who see have the courage to stand up and speak. Thank you for standing.

  • Amen! Many secular commentators have pointed out that the real source of our recent financial problems is greed. Where were the prophets speaking against greed? Why did it take the secular commentators to point that out?

    • There’s a reason the church has inveighed so heavily against it. Today in the name of defending free markets, we tout that greed is good. I’ve made that argument in the past, polemics eclipsing truth in such cases. Greed destroys the heart and corrupts a society.

  • erica

    Bleck. This post made me decide to unsubscribe from your blog. While I am no card carrying democrat, your contention that Obamacare will neccesarily increase abortions is maddening. Private insurance pays for more abortions than the government yet I don’t see very many people willing to cancel their insurance policies out of protest. Obamacare is much more humane and provides for the poor and disenfranchised far more than the profit driven, fabulously wealthy insurance companies. Painting the issue as one of religious freedom cloaks apathy to the plight of the uninsured. How convenient that your protests protect your pocketbook as well as your religious freedom

    • If my blog added so little value to you that one post with which you disagree could turn you off from the entire lot, then that makes sense.

      I am, however, a little disheartened to think that you don’t believe there might be actual and sincere differences of opinion on something like this.

      I’m further disheartened that you would presume that I’m apathetic to the uninsured — let alone that I’m apathetic on top of being greedy and inconsiderate (which is how I read your pocketbook comment; if I’m wrong, let me know).

      It’s easy to believe that there are no legitimate differences of opinion over a significant policy initiative if you simply prejudge people who don’t agree with you. I don’t see how that’s helpful for anyone.

      The principal problem with ObamaCare is compulsion. Insurance companies are voluntary. Laws are not. When those laws mandate actions that violate conscience, that’s problematic (to say the least).

  • Prophet of Yahushua

    True prophets get to the root of the evil and attack its roots.Repentance is the only attitude that will open the heart of man to receive a prophet.The ones who heard were blessed because if you receive a prophet you will receive a prophets reward.Ah,but aren’t there FALSE prophets.Yes.But doesn’t that also prove that there are TRUE prophets.Yahushua said that He would send His prophets in the time of the end.They would declare His NAME! As moses declared “Yahuah,as Isaiah prophesied the coming of MESSIAH ,whom mary named “YASHUA” and HE grew in ths SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH to be manifested as the DELIVERER OF MANKIND !!!! His apostles declared His NAME and the Romans changed it to A LIE ! J – ZEUS ( ? Zeus ,really?) Christ ( pope- title ? c’mon ,a little INIQUITOUS don’t you know? NO! Because if we knew what our sickness was and who could heal us then we would surely want that wouldn’t we? Thus saith Yahushua” Be wise oh you sons of men! Kiss the SON ( yashua-His precious blood) lest you PERISH from the WAY ( peace and charity -His goodness) when HIS WRATH IS KINDLED BUT A LITTLE! i AM GOING TO JUDGE THE

  • Prophet of Yahushua

    WORLD FOR ITS INIQUITY !Iniquity,the mystery of it! The apostle Paul spoke of this “iniquity”.He experienced its posionous venom! He was so “self-indulged with pride” that he actually killed poor people who believed in their creator and His ability to keep His promises!!! That is why Yahushua said to him that “you will suffer great things ( perils and tribulations) so that through them I will teach you about a MYSTERY! Man’s self righteous pursuits ofmorality that they suppose they will earn them a RIGHT to Heaven! Man’s self-detemination shall be his ruin! Iniquity is the nature of The Enemy! Lucifer! If we were truly wise we would join together and rid the earth of him,wouldn’t we/After all,we say we want peace and prosperity.Return to your creator! Call on the Elohaim of Abraham! Because the world belongs to himand His seed forever.Be you reconciled to your creator! Turn from all vain and earthly distractions that keep you slumbering as His disciples did in the garden of gethsemene!Watch and Pray! The harvest is ripe.Pray that He will send His prophets! Before His face of wrath show its self to the entire universe.

  • RMM

    I don’t necessarily agree with the ‘America needs prophets.’ What I do believe is, America needs true God fearing Americans built on the foundation this nation came under, but also understanding the division it faced, even before it became a nation.
    The split was almost one-third, in those that stood, those that stood against and those that stood around.
    The seeds that planted the eventual movement, against the country they were a part of, but recognizing they were trying to get way from…and those that were not going to let their freedoms, of religion for one, stand very much longer.
    The corruption was so intrenched, most of the churches were a part of the immorality, and the cleansing had to come from the outside, in clergy that had no churches, and talked to everyone. Not just those that had status and wealth.
    Once, those that could not read or write, were shown they were the very fabric of Gods children, and that all could become saved, the corruption, much like that of the Jewish Pharisee’s, lost their hold, their double talk and double standards. and those clergy who were truly God fearing and loving, knew the personal responsibility for actions and lifestyle, had to be faced, before the cleansing could call out the immorality that would not change, did not want to change, and were not really Christians.
    Many ‘churches’ are not Gods, and the warning is shared to all that open their eyes and ears, as Jesus warned, in parables and judgement to come.
    I get a kick out of those not of God, who use the Bible to try and tell Gods children, what is what, when Jesus is quiet clear in warning those that are not Gd’s children won’t understand the Words or meaning behind it. They will try to manipulate out of content and context, and even warns sharing His ‘Pearl’ to ‘swines’ is fruitless, as a rabid dog would rip us apart, if we allow it to.
    Many in power today are those ‘rabid dogs’ trying to get us off the path of reading Gods Word. Many will even come to Christian sites to try and manipulate the WHOLE TRUTH of God. Jesus lets us know they are not our problems and not to waste our time on them. He will take the responsibility of their actions, not us.
    Anyways, I believe the awakening has to happen from within those of us that call ourselves Christians. Not to pick and choose what is sin, but be guided by God, through His Laws, Commandments and the Holy Spirit in our daily walk in learning more about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Disciples and those in the Bible that were so off the track in their lives, many times, yet God had a purpose and path for them to take. I believe that calling is taking place. For real men to start standing. Real women to stand firm in morality and value. More children to get the guidance, restitution and some times discipline to guide Christian values, behavior and their path to God. God Bless.