The propriety of politics in the church has been in the news for the last couple of weeks. The Charleston Post and Courier reported on Congressman Tim Scottâ€™s forty minute sermon from the pulpit of Seacoast Church – his home church – that included a healthy dose of partisan politics accompanied by a very politically conservative media backdrop. The Post and Courier also reported on what many politically conservative pastors labeled as â€œFreedom Sunday,â€ when their sermons were intentionally political and meant to challenge Internal Revenue Service rules against churches engaging in partisan political activity. While I have no affinity for the politics of Congressman Scott or those of my â€œFreedom Sundayâ€ colleagues, I acknowledge that politics and faith have been interwoven for centuries.
Israelâ€™s Old Testament prophets spoke truth to the political leaders of their day. Jesus fielded questions about how people of faith should relate to the political powers that be. Paul was successful in spreading the Gospel throughout the Ancient Near east because his Roman citizenship opened doors for him. Richard Harvey Cain, the founding pastor of Morris Brown, was also a reconstruction era Congressman. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century that challenged the politics of segregation was led by clergy and recruited marchers from the church.
Those who say that the church should only focus on â€œspiritual mattersâ€ as they define them not only ignore that history, they ignore the reality of Jesusâ€™ call for believers to make disciples. People are best able to hear the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ when their other needs in life are met, and those other needs – from health care to education to law enforcement to economic well being – are influenced by public policy. If we are to be the church, then we have to see to the well being of those that Jesus called â€œthe least of theseâ€ and take seriously the prophet Amosâ€™ admonition to let justice and righteousness flow freely.
The question really isnâ€™t whether the church should be politically active, but how the church should be politically active, and that question leads me to part ways with Congressman Scott and some of my politically conservative colleagues in ministry. Sunday morning is the time not for politics, but for praise to the God who doesnâ€™t side with any political party, and the pulpit should be the place to preach the Gospel, not to spout political rhetoric. Reducing worship to a political event not only cheapens the Gospel, it crosses a dangerous line and implies that only those who embrace a single political mindset are good Christians and good citizens.
Thereâ€™s no harm in public policy issues being elements in a sermon as long as they arenâ€™t the point of a sermon. Thereâ€™s no harm in churches sponsoring voter registration drives or engaging in voter education and voter mobilization. Thereâ€™s no harm in churches discussing issues, sponsoring candidate forums or having members attend sessions of elected bodies like the school board or city council to have their say. The harm comes in when the church becomes an extension of a single political party.
Thereâ€™s also no harm in candidates for office or elected officials visiting churches on the campaign trail, but unless theyâ€™re invited as guest speakers for occasions like Menâ€™s Day or Womenâ€™s Day, they have no place in the pulpit. Those who visit Morris Brown during the campaign season follow three simple rules: (1) Come to worship and not for a political â€œdrive byâ€ – arrive in time for worship and stay to the end of the worship service, (2) feel free to greet the congregation and say what you wish from the Sanctuary floor – not from the pulpit – during the time when all visitors are granted the same privilege, and (3) If you stay up too long or launch into your â€œstump speech,â€ the pastor will stand up and start humming a hymn – that means itâ€™s time wrap up quickly and take your seat.
There is a place for politics and political action in the church, as long as it doesnâ€™t take the place of worship or pull the church away from its core mission – making disciples, being the â€œsaltâ€ that improves the flavor of peopleâ€™s lives and being the lampstand that bears not the light of Democrats or Republicans, but the light of Jesus.