In many faith spaces, you’ll hear the following refrain: “Let’s not get too political. We don’t want to hurt the gospel.” Sometimes ministry leaders will say something like, “I don’t care what you believe politically, but . . .” and they’ll go on to make a point about the Christian practice.
It’s understandable why pastors would shy away from political issues. Dangerous political faultlines run through most congregations, and pastors want to avoid friction that could result in a churchwide earthquake. Unfortunately, shying away from political issues is precisely why churches find themselves in this precarious position. There is simply no way that the church can be salt and light while avoiding political topics.
Many of the issues closest to God’s heart are political issues. We hurt the gospel by avoiding them. The problem in churches isn’t politics—it’s partisanship.
The trap the church fell into
For the last 60 years, partisan political voices have groomed the church. They’ve worked hard to convince Christians that they shared their interests. They convinced the American church that by aligning with their party, they’d strengthen Christianity’s influence. They’d end abortion. They’d usher in an era of moral righteousness. And while history has proven repeatedly that the church is the most dangerous when aligned with the state, partisan voices still convinced the church that this partnership would turn out differently.
But that’s not what happened. The church hasn’t helped to elevate the nation; it’s only diminished the faith. The church now finds itself in the untenable position of overlooking behavior God hates in politicians to fulfill strategies that parties have no real interest in delivering upon. Too many Christians find themselves justifying behavior that God hates, things like mistreatment of immigrants, growing militarism, cronyism, racial injustice, and nationalism.
Shrinking away from responsibility
At any time in this multi-decade process, church leaders could have pulled us back from the precipice. They could have shouted down the partisan political interests that wanted to exploit their flocks. They could have discipled church members better, teaching them that their allegiance was with the kingdom of God and not with political parties.
Billy Graham tried to warn the church back in 1981 not let party politics get its hooks into her:
“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
As time went on, kids raised in Republican-leaning churches were going into ministry themselves. Partisanism became institutionalized—sewn into the tapestry of American Christianity. A mindset that would have been easy to root out in its infancy had now reached maturity. And now that it was full-grown, it had become ugly, dangerous, and more challenging to remedy. As believers began embracing messages of hatred masquerading as theological and moral purity, these leaders were silent.
In response to this problem, many Christians threw themselves in the opposite direction. Now many churches find themselves in an explosive situation with churches divided down partisan lines. And well-meaning pastors, afraid to alienate either side, found themselves walking a tightrope—and avoiding America’s most pressing issues.
These ministers chose to be “peacekeepers.” They decided not to get “political.” And their influence was handed off to more sinister voices, ones who weren’t afraid to alienate and divide. Many attempted to correct the problem with kind, soothing words. But they didn’t want to come across as stern. They didn’t want to seem defiant. They didn’t question anyone’s commitment to the ways of Jesus. When they spoke out, it wasn’t with bold, clear, forceful language; they tread warily around the topics of immigration, racism, and nationalism.
And here we are.
The church has sold its influence, and it only cost us future generations. But what did we actually gain?
So what do we do now?
If the church has any interest in aligning itself with Jesus, it needs to become prophetic. And compassionate. And empathetic. It needs to take itself off the market and quit selling out to worldly interests who promise little and deliver even less. It needs to clearly communicate that a Christian’s identity is found in Christ and not political parties. But this won’t be easy. If churches want to serve Christ, it’s time they piss off some congregants. The tail has been wagging the clerical dog for too long.
We cannot afford to avoid political issues for fear of stepping on toes. God is for the immigrant. God is for the poor. God is opposed to the misuse of power. God rages against the exploitation of others. God’s love is inclusive and generous. We fail our calling when we neglect to speak into the issues God cares about—even if they’re “political.” Churches in America are packed with people worshiping the idols of sectarian nationalism, and our unwillingness to speak up and name this behavior guarantees that our churches will continue to look less and less like Jesus.
Let’s be honest. We avoid “politics” because we can’t afford to alienate people. After all, we have budgets to meet. The apostle Paul could afford to speak sternly about Judaizers infiltrating the church because he wasn’t worried about payroll or the mortgage on his facility. The church’s prophetic role has been tempered by its reliance on the sacrificial giving of its congregants to cover its growing overhead. So instead of speaking prophetically to our congregations, we’re tempted to cater to them (or at least avoid divisive topics). But the kingdom of God cannot be built upon manufactured unity. The church needs to be unified around the person and priorities of Jesus Christ—especially where it challenges the status quo.
It would have been a lot easier for church leaders to speak the truth years ago. If we want the church’s message to be powerful and effective, it’s going to need to be bold and unapologetic. So what’s it going to be? Will we take up our cross or our offering? We might not be able to have both anymore.