In a recent interview with Treer Hardy and Jason Michelli who steer the “Crackers and Grape Juice” podcast, I found myself clarifying some of my views on pastoral responsibility and the up-coming election.
It will be tempting for clergy of all kinds to express their opinion on specific candidates and advocate for one of them this year. (I also have dear friends who will strongly disagree with me on this.) But, IRS regulations aside, I think it’s a mistake to do that and here’s why:
One: Advocating for candidates and parties is not our vocation.
We were ordained to preach the Gospel, witness to the faith of Christ crucified, and nurture the body of Christ. That responsibility inevitably involves providing our congregations with a knowledge of the Christian faith that will, in turn, shape the way that we live in the world. So, yes, our faith informs how we vote.
But, for that reason, our focus should be on the values that inform our faith and not advocacy for a particular candidate or party. Candidates and parties come and go. Political circumstances change. It is our responsibility to offer people something more enduring than our opinion on a specific election.
Two: When we advocate for a candidate we sacrifice our opportunity to minister to those who don’t share our views, and we destroy the potential for conversation about the way in which we navigate the issues as people of faith.
I have no doubt about that. I have lost track of the number of laypeople who have changed churches or simply stopped going to church because their clergy saw fit to preach their politics. Some clergy get away with it and they are shrewd enough at reading their congregation to know what will play well with them (or what’s left of them). But that’s a sad imitation of the church that embraced a world of differences.Three: The church is the Kingdom of God in the making. The nation is not.
Stanley Hauerwas and others are right. We are “resident aliens” and even if our country makes decisions that comport completely with what we believe are “Christian values,” the Kingdom will not come. If we really want to “serve the Kingdom,” then we should serve Christ’s church.
Four: I’m prepared to defend the foolishness of the cross, but I’m not prepared to defend the foolishness of presidential candidates.
Spin doctors may be paid to make night look like day and up look like down, but clergy who indulge in defending candidates at all costs destroy their own credibility and embarrass the Gospel. We should bear in mind that, on balance, politicians only care about clergy and churches to the extent that they add to the final tally of votes.
Less importantly, but no less a part of my thinking is this:
Clergy – by and large – lack the expertise to justify commenting from the pulpit on a regular basis on political affairs.
Very few of us have a background in political science, fewer yet a background in public policy or macro-economics, and – in any event – there is little or no justification for clergy to expect their congregations to get a steady diet of political commentary from an amateur. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend my Sundays that way and I can find better political commentary of all kinds without tying up 52 days a year.
I realize that getting involved in the cut and thrust of the political news cycle is heady stuff. When I worked in Washington you could smell ambition and there were endless examples.
A friend once, observed, “It must be something to find yourself preaching or assisting with a service in front of Senators, Supreme Court Justices, and even on occasion, a President.”
What I said then is what I still believe: “Oh, sure, it’s a little surreal at first, but then you realize that when you stand behind the altar or in the pulpit of a church you are standing before Almighty God and it’s all pretty much downhill from there.”
We should live and practice our faith as if we believe it.