Today Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. A young northern Virginia pastor whom I know and admire made a motion yesterday to cancel the speech, tweeting:
Mr. Pence may well be a believer, but mixing politics and Gospel ministry works against unity, love, and Gospel progress. This is a tone deaf move. Yes, we should pray for him and other leaders as God calls us to, but he shouldn’t be speaking at the convention.
The pastor in his motion warned the convention, which represents America’s second largest religious body, against “publicly associating with any administration.” Previously Presidents Ford, Carter and George W. Bush have addressed the Southern Baptist Convention, as have Vice Presidents George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle, as recalled here. Bill Clinton and Al Gore, although both Southern Baptist, were not invited.
United Methodism, America’s third largest religious body, convenes its governing General Conference every four years and by tradition invites the sitting President. No President has addressed this gathering since Woodrow Wilson. Hillary Clinton as First Lady, and as a lifelong Methodist, addressed the 1996 General Conference. A motion to invite Elizabeth Dole, wife of the Republican presidential candidate and herself a former Methodist, didn’t go anywhere. Clinton’s remarks mostly recalled her Methodist experiences. But when she urged delegates to “throw open the doors of our churches” most recognized her echo of that year’s advocacy theme by protestors against the church’s definition of marriage as man and woman.
George W. Bush was the first Methodist president in 100 years. He declined to speak at the 2004 and 2008 General Conferences. Perceived hostility to him by some denominational officials could have played a role. A White House liaison who addressed the denomination’s General Board of Church and Society in 2001 was treated negatively and later was concerned how Bush would be received by a United Methodist audience. I think he would have been received cordially, with protests from only a few.
Should politicians address church governing bodies?
Of course, one of the most important church councils ever was addressed by a political leader, Emperor Constantine, who attended the Council of Nicaea, where the creed defining orthodoxy was ratified. His presence there is still debated 1700 years later.
Should church conventions only invite politicians who belong to their church? Should they only invite Christians? Should they only invite politicians whose policies are in sync with the church? Should they only invite politicians whose behavior and morals align with Christian teaching? Should only heads of state be invited versus candidates or other office holders? Or should there be a ban against any politician addressing a church governing convention, lest the church become divided or tainted by association?
I’ve attended local United Methodist annual conferences at which the mayor of that city will deliver greetings. Should they? What about governors? Years ago I recall the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates addressing Virginia United Methodists about opposition to gambling in the state.
Liberia’s then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a United Methodist, addressed the 2008 United Methodist General Conference. Should overseas politicians be invited to church conventions?
Methodists have traditionally invited America’s Presidents to address General Conference likely because Methodism has long regarded itself as “America’s church.” It used to be America’s largest church, then the largest Protestant body, then the church most geographically defused. United Methodism’s long decline maybe diminishes the claim, but the memory and habit continue.
Margaret Thatcher, originally Methodist, unveiled her own political theology to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988. Her address, mocked by critics as the “Sermon on the Mound,” offers a marvelous insight into the spirituality that shaped her policies.
The Church of Scotland was generally hostile to Thatcher’s policies. But its Moderator explained at the time:
The General Assembly has a long tradition of bringing challenging people to come and speak. The Church of Scotland is not afraid of engaging with people who are strong in their views. Sometimes we will agree with what’s being said sometimes we will not agree with what’s being said. The important thing is dialogue.
Last month the current Church of Scotland Moderator told his General Assembly that Thatcher likely could not give the same kind of speech about her faith today, which he regretted. Such interaction between religion and politicians is “good for democracy,” he said.
Perhaps church conventions should not routinely host politicians, especially if only inviting perspectives of one party while excluding others. But inviting remarks from the chief magistrate, whether national or local, who symbolically heads divinely ordained civil authority, seems not inappropriate. Such interaction reminds Christians of their earthly duties. And ideally it reminds magistrates of their duties to society and ultimately to God.