I have been part of a local church where the pastor was obsessed with politics. On Sundays the sermons told the congregation how to vote (Republican) on a variety of topics. He would even say that those who voted opposite of his ideologies were not Christians. It was horrifying.
For many years I held the view the pastors/preachers should refrain from political engagement. I hoped for an apolitical pastorate. Even now I get very nervous when I hear a sermon inch closer to addressing some “hot topic” in our society (e.g., same-sex marriage, individual health care mandates, particular definitions of “religious freedom,” et cetera). I don’t mind a pastor having politic views, but often politics can be very nuanced and when someone addresses politics in a thirty minute sermon it is not possible to be fair to the complexities of social engagement. For example, let’s suppose every Christian in the congregation affirms homosexuality as immoral, this does not mean that every one of them feel that the right thing to do is vote for legislation that prohibits homosexuals from this or that “civil right.” Another example: Christians might agree for the need for “religious freedom,” but they may differ on the HHS mandate. In other words, Christians might agree on broad principles while disagreeing on how to apply those principles to society.
That said, I understand things can become very complicated. One of the major critiques of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by J.D. Hunter (I haven’t read the book, though I was interested) is that it works fine for someone who is semi-comfortable to be apolitical. If life is fairly easy being apolitical may be a option. But it is not an option for all, especially the oppressed. So while I cringe when I hear Pat Robertson or John Hagee sound bites I don’t know that I am willing to make the statement “pastors should be apolitical” a universal one. Should Bonhoeffer said nothing about the Nazi regime? Should Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have refrained from using the pulpit to address civil rights?
Usually I struggle to agree with John Piper, but I was sympathetic of his recent sermon (see the video here) where he said these words in conclusion:
“My job is to feed the saints with such meals that they go out strengthened and robust and able to do the study and do the courage and do the action needed as salt and light in this world. And that will go away if you insist on the church and the ministry being the political leaders. It will and we can point to many where it has.”
I don’t expect to hear anything this Sunday from the pulpit on the Supreme Court ruling regarding Obama’s ”individual mandate” and I am thankful for that. I wish more pastors were humble enough to know their job is to exegete and proclaim Scripture so that the saints have a foundation upon which to approach sensitive subjects in society. But I don’t know that this is always true and I don’t know that I have thought through what makes Bonhoeffer different from Robertson or King different from Hagee.
What are your thoughts on this matter? How should pastors approach political engagement? Do you advocate complete abstinence in the pulpit or do you think there are some applicable principles that allow pastors to wisely avoid some subjects while necessitating that they address others?