Are we witnessing a new awakening of religious conservatives to the political process? Is that a good thing? Or, rather, what safeguards might we put in place, what lessons might we learn from past failures, in order to make sure that this is a good thing?
I’m not eager to write another post that references Robert Jeffress, but the unflappable pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas raised several important issues when he promoted Rick Perry and called Mormonism a “cult” at the Values Voters Convention. Those issues were: (1) Is it legitimate to include religious beliefs as a part of our assessment of a candidate? (2) Is it fair and accurate to say that Mormonism is a cult? And (3) is it appropriate for pastors to endorse political candidates?
I agree with Jeffress that “a candidate’s faith matters” and voters are not remiss in considering a candidate’s faith and how it might shape his or her actions (although I believe we should have greatest concern for the candidate’s values and character and how they would shape the candidate’s policy decisions and responses in crisis). I do not believe a Christian should vote for a candidate simply because he is a Christian; but given equally qualified candidates, I cannot condemn a voter for choosing the one who shares his deepest convictions and intuitions about the world. I just happen to believe that Mormons share an enormous expanse of moral, familial and social values with evangelicals, so I disagree with him that Mitt Romney stands at a disadvantage on this point. Also, I’ve explained in two posts (here and here) why I disagree with the characterization of Mormonism as a “cult.” But I’ve not yet addressed the third issue. Should pastors endorse candidates?
Jeffress himself sought to thread the needle, as this video of his address to his congregation shows. He would, he says, “never officially endorse anyone…from the pulpit of this church,” both because the IRS frowns upon it and because “this pulpit is too sacred” and “that’s not what the pulpit is about.” At one point, Jeffress said, he did not believe that he would ever personally endorse a candidate either. In the midst of a series of sermons called “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” however, pastor Jeffress became convinced that we as individual Christians “have the responsibility to stand up, to push back against evil.” So as “a private citizen and an American,” Jeffress decided that he should “use whatever influence I might have to try to elect a godly leader and place him in the White House.” So he has personally endorsed Rick Perry, but will not officially endorse him from the pulpit — and people of all political persuasions, he said, should find a home at First Baptist, where the primary purpose is always to preach the Word and the gospel of Christ.
Now, before people get carried away, this is neither theocracy nor dominionism. Jeffress is not saying that only Christians should have positions of authority, or that Christians are called to exercise dominion over all the levers of power. Neither is he saying that the religious freedoms of non-Christians should be curtailed. He’s merely saying that our culture and our community as a nation have so deteriorated that it’s especially urgent right now to elect a godly leader. Since God blesses nations that honor him and honor his Word, “we must have godly leaders who embrace biblical principles.”
This is a live issue. The federal government’s reckless mismanagement of the economy, and the continued deterioration of our collective moral culture, has inspired a new wave of conservative Christian political activism — especially noteworthy amongst pastors. Take Iowa, for example. According to pastor Jamie Johnson of Story City, Iowan pastors were roused from their apolitical slumbers by legislation and a Supreme Court decision that seemed to attack Christian values and freedom of religion. Three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled with the majority were voted off the bench, and now pastors are “much more enthused than they were four years ago” to shape the election’s outcome.
Since some congregants prefer their pulpits without politics, says Kerry Jech of Marshalltown, Iowa, pastors like himself “take the fire” for their political activities. Yet the issues at stake in the 2012 election are so important, he says, that he only wishes more would join the cause, for failing to engage the political sphere in these circumstances is failing to defend the flock.And the phenomenon is not limited to highly politicized states like Iowa. In a Los Angeles Times report on pastors “increasingly heeding a call to speak out on politics,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, describes the nascent national movement of pastors engaging the political sphere as a reawakening of the Religious Right in a more localized, grassroots form—”a congregational version of the tea party.” Call it the Holy Water Party. Pastors who once avoided his calls are now calling him and asking to get involved.
Whether this constitutes a healthy development in the life of the American church, or a distraction from its eternal purpose, is a matter of dispute even amongst Christian conservatives. Controversial new books on the essential mission of the church and starkly different responses among evangelicals to religious-political events like Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally and Rick Perry’s “Response” suggest that pastors and religious leaders are finding it difficult to separate the right and wrong ways of bringing faith and politics together.
Seven out of 10 pastors, according to a 2010 LifeWay Research study, agree with pastor Jeffress that ministers should not endorse candidates from the pulpit. It’s one thing to educate and mobilize a congregation around biblical principles of life, family, and fiscal stewardship, they say, but quite another to make the church an instrument of political operators.
Obviously evangelical pastors, as Johnson says, “see this as more than just another presidential election.” We have not typically condemned African-American pastors who mobilize their churches on behalf of the candidates they believe will best serves the needs of their community. Should we condemn white evangelical pastors who promote candidates who, they think, will best serve to restrengthen the moral and spiritual musculature of the nation? Is this wrong, or manipulative, or a betrayal of the church’s fundamental mission? What do you think? When churches enter the political fray, do they compromise their witness and make the proper party affiliation a prerequisite for entering the kingdom? On the other hand, in the midst of social disintegration and the erosion of Judeo-Christian values, can churches and their pastors afford to stand apart from the fray, or do their moral and theological commitments compel action?
It’s going to take time to answer these questions. And the longstanding institution of the Democrat African-American Church, and of course the multitude of heavily-liberal-leaning Mainline churches, show that these are questions both for those on the Right and those on the Left.
My concern is twofold. First, I do believe we desperately need leaders who honor the principles of honesty, humility, integrity, stewardship, individual initiative and collective responsibility for the present and future generations. We stand in perilous times. Yet I’m not sure we need to endorse specific candidates in order to achieve that end. Second, our spiritual circumstances are far more important than our political circumstances, and I don’t want for conservative Christendom, or particular denominations, or even particular churches, to become colonies of one or another political party. It becomes a barrier to believers or would-be believers who will not pass through the doors of those churches because they know their hothouses of conservative or liberal political activity. It raises suspicion that we are more about access and influence than we are about confession and service. It hobbles the church’s prophetic voice, should the church ever have to speak against the party or the politicians it supported. And it ties the witness of the church to the performance of a particular party and its politicians. If that party, or that candidate, proves hypocritical, then the churches that held him forth as a secular savior will find themselves wounded.
No person should be made to feel that she must accept Rick Perry in order to accept Christ. And, as conservative as I am, I don’t want people to feel that they must share my political convictions in order to share the faith that God has given me in Christ. A grassroots movement amongst conservative Christians — a Holy Water Party, if you will — could, could, be a deeply restorative thing. But it must not confuse the Gospel of Christ with the gospel of the free market, and it must make perfectly certain that it retains the prophetic distance to critique and hold accountable leaders on both sides of the aisle.
Note: This post drew in small measure on a piece I wrote in World Magazine — and that piece, by the way, should (as I indicated to the editor) have credited Joel Hannahs for his reporting from Iowa.