A new study by political scientists notes that clergy, on the whole, are more partisan than their parishioners. You can read the study here.
Which raises the question: If clergy are tasked to “keep the faith,” exactly what “faith” is it that they “keep?” The faith of their respective religious traditions or the faith of their partisan political commitments? The study would suggest that far too often, it’s the latter.
And that’s not a good thing.
The immediate protest to that judgment in progressive Christian circles and, perhaps, in some parts of the evangelical camp as well, is that the Gospel is inherently political and incarnational. Hence, political commitments are not only inescapable, they are vital to an expression of the Christian faith.
There are considerable problems with that position, however:
The ministry of Jesus and the setting in which early Christianity took root provides no obvious analogies for keeping partisan politics front and center:
Jesus lived in a theocracy, occupied by a foreign authority. Religion and politics (construed loosely as the orchestration of life together as the people of God) were one and the same.
Jesus had no political affiliation. He issued nothing that could be construed as legislative policy. By all estimates, in fact, one supposes he would have found the quantification of mercy and justice deeply problematic.
Neither he, nor his followers had a vote. They lived in a world without nation-states.
Confrontations with his contemporaries revolved around the fidelity to the purposes of God in the face of foreign domination.The economy he and his followers lived in was largely agrarian and trade-based. He argued for a sharp delineation between the claims that God made upon people and those made by Caesar.
People approached him about present-tense needs, but he had an annoying tendency to focus on God’s forgiveness and the Kingdom of God. He preached about a Kingdom that was “not of this earth.” He envisioned a new heaven and a new earth. And the agent of both was, finally, God, not humankind.
Partisan political positions are never an adequate expression of Christian values. Categories like “justice,” mean a number of different things politically. But in the Christian tradition, categories of that kind find perfect expression in God alone and, it was, in calling attention to the will of God, that Jesus challenged his contemporaries. The clergyperson who criticizes one partisan position armed with another partisan position surrenders the challenge to bring his or her faith in God to bear on the issues of the day. He/she also runs the risk of obscuring the message that the Gospel brings to bear on the very issues he/she claims to address.
If partisan positions are an inadequate vehicle for bringing the Gospel to bear on our common lives, politicians are an even poorer substitute. If the pre- and post-election conduct of the candidates for President should have taught us anything, it should be that tying the message and integrity of our faith to individual politicians is a good illustration of trading our proverbial birthright for a mess of pottage. As more than one figure in Christian history has noted, we point beyond ourselves to the love, grace and wisdom of God, not to any human being.
In what has to be one of the most deeply partisan chapters in American history, the last thing the church or the nation needed from clergy was the news that they are this committed to keeping their partisan faith.