Clergy in Politics?

on July 18, 2015

Canadian theologian John Stackhouse has suggested “Top 10 Reasons Pastors Should Avoid Politics.” They are thoughtful but some need response. Here they are in ascending order:

10. Because no one trained you properly to get involved with politics—and a little seminar, however exciting, won’t make up for that yawning deficit. (Do you think politicians can be trained to be pastors by attending a seminar?)

9. Because no one hired you to get involved with politics. (And if they did, they shouldn’t have: See #10.)

8. Because pastors are supposed to call us toward the ideal and the ultimate, while politicians have to compromise over the real and the immediate.

7. Because the Scriptures (your main area of intellectual expertise—right?) are, at best, only suggestive and regulative over the field of politics (a quite different area of intellectual expertise—right? See #10 again).

6. Because you’ll alienate a considerable part of your constituency who see political matters differently, and will hold that difference against you, thus losing the benefits of your pastoral care and authority.

5. Because you need to consider the troubling fact that you’re not alienating a considerable part of your constituency, so why is your church so uniform in its politics?

4. Because governments come and go, and you need to reserve the sacred right to prophesy to whoever is in power.

3. Because politicians come and go, and you need to reserve the sacred right to comfort whoever is not, or no longer, in power.

2. Because politics brings out the worst in people, and you’re supposed to bring out the best in people.

1. Because politics brings out the worst in people, and unless you’re an exception (like Tommy Douglas), politics will bring out the worst in you.

He concludes:

Pastors, by all means think about politics and study about politics so that you can preach and call people to politics according to Biblically grounded principles and insight into the major trends of our time. But leave the actual politics to actual politicians and political scientists.

Stackhouse is right to caution pastors against intense, routine involvement with political specifics. I would add that the institutional church as a whole (clergy, church employees, church agencies, church governing bodies, church officers in official capacities) should be hesitant about routine political specifics in the church’s name.

Yet I would disagree with some of Stackhouse’s emphases and their implications. God cares about politics because He cares about people. He in fact ordains government to uphold approximate justice in a fallen world. And politics, at least in a lawful society, is not just for the ostensible experts.

The Body of Christ is called to proclaim and seek righteousness in civil society. Some members of the Body have a more intense calling to political engagement than others. But all Christians are called to pray for society and its rulers and to seek God’s will for their community. Presumably all Christians are called to be well informed, societally engaged, shunning social despair and indifference, exploiting opportunities to exert influence for the social good of all.

In a democracy, Christians are certainly called to exercise their responsibilities as citizens by voting in a well informed manner. Some Christians have special callings to seek public office, to work or volunteer in political advocacy, or otherwise to serve in government. Ideally, Christians don’t instrumentalize the institutional church for direct political advocacy but identify or create other channels in civil society.

In less than ideal circumstances, the institutional church may have to play a direct political role. Under segregation, the black church was sometimes almost the only available outlet for political mobilization. The Catholic Church in dictatorships has sometimes politically mediated in the absence of other viable actors, as in Poland under Communism, or in the Philippines or Chile under Marcos and Pinochet. The senior Greek Orthodox archbishop took civil leadership in Greece against the Communist insurgency during Greece’s post WWII civil war.

But more typically, and ideally, clergy and churches preach the Gospel, which includes principles of human dignity that should undergird all politics, without exploiting ecclesial channels for routinely specific legislative advocacy. Hopefully the churches are inspiring their members towards applying these godly principles politically, as citizens or office holders. And hopefully churches, perhaps through their institutions of advanced education, are generating Christian intellectual life that will thoughtfully counsel in the ways of godly statecraft.

Politics and governance are sacred callings, so I disagree with Stackhouse that “politics brings out the worst in people” and are therefore uniquely dirty. People are sinners in every arena of human activity, not just in politics, and including in the church, perhaps especially in the church, whose own internal politics often match if not exceed the brass knuckles of secular politics. Christians should not delude themselves that they are too good for politics.

Stackhouse rightly observes that pastors point “toward the ideal and the ultimate, while politicians have to compromise over the real and the immediate.” Both are sacred callings upon which humanity depends.

Finally, Stackhouse omits that Christianity has historically settled teachings on some core issues with vast political implications while allowing for prudential judgment on many other important issues that are not directly addressed in scripture or universal church consensus.

Christianity has a definition of marriage for society, affirms the sacredness of all human life from womb to grave, asserts the moral and legal equality of all persons before God and the civil law, and recognizes the state as God’s instrument for restraining evil and punishing the wicked. There maybe disagreement on the best political paths to achieve these goals, but the goals are fixed. Christianity doesn’t offer similarly fixed objectives on the details of tax brackets, immigration rates, foreign and military policies, or the precise state role in welfare, health care, or environmental regulation, among other areas.

Hopefully Christians are seriously addressing all of these latter issues of prudential judgment while accepting there can be respectful disagreement within the Body of Christ. Hopefully pastors spiritually equip their flocks for public policy engagement without offering their own detailed views as intrinsic to the Gospel.

God has sometimes summoned some clergy across the millennia to direct, intense political engagement. But I think Stackhouse is mostly right that politics is not a vocation for most clergy. And usually I am relieved when a pastor is more focused on the eternal Kingdom than the temporal.

  1. Comment by Namyriah on July 18, 2015 at 11:01 am

    The American Revolution probably would not have taken place without a lot of support from pastors. Some in England referred to the Revolution as “the Presbyterians’ war,” which is appropriate, considering the Presbyterian Scots’ tradition (going back to John Knox) of resisting and even deposing tyrannical rulers. The Church of England generally kowtowed to the monarch, but the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and others did not.

  2. Comment by dogged on July 18, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    “Because politics brings out the worst in people, and you’re supposed to bring out the best in people.” Historically, the rules of politics are more likely to infect the cleric, not vice versa.
    For example: For a thousand years, how much papal energy was expended in defense of the redoubtable Papal State? Being a temporal ruler of one-third of central Italy while Bishop of Rome begs certain contradictions. In Great Britain, the House of Lords always distinguished between “lords temporal” & “lords spiritual”.

  3. Comment by Trevor Thomas on July 18, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    From the Puritan ministers who, over a century prior to the American Revolution, established the first representative forms of government in America and gave us the first attempts at a written constitution and a bill of rights, to the firebrand preachers of the first Great Awakening who helped light the fires of revolution in America, to the abolitionists who preached the evils of slavery, the Christian clergy in the U.S., both black and white, have been instrumental in American history.

    Written documents of governance from American ministers were the practice in virtually every colony founded in early America. Such practice laid the groundwork for the American Revolution. As my upcoming book notes, “for it was in the pulpits of American churches that the seeds of Revolution were sewn. The British certainly thought so,as they blamed what they derisively described as the ‘Black Robed Regiment’ for the thirst in the Colonies for American Independence. Modern historians have noted, ‘There is not a right asserted in the Declaration of Independence which had not been discussed by the New England clergy before 1763.’” (See: Preachers and Politics: An American Tradition)

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