If there’s one thing I bet you enjoy, it is reading church newsletter columns by a pastor.
I don’t usually share these here, but I thought the subject of my May reflection might be of broader interest. There might have been more to say about this if there had been the space. I might have discussed how the Theological Declaration of Barmen guides Presbyterians to affirm that, no matter who is in charge of our government or what is the status of the Johnson Amendment, we in the church turn to a higher authority in our reflection and our action. I could have explored how our Presbyterian Book of Order expands on what I referenced about not seeking preferential status from the government: “Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others. (F-3.0101b).” I may have elaborated on the distinction between political speech and moral advocacy on the one hand (“God’s heart is broken when there aren’t places in our inner cities to buy fresh vegetables and healthy foods”), and partisan speech on the other (“Vote for Suzie because only she is God’s chosen candidate to bring food to hungry people.”)
Maybe you could reflect on those points too, but for now, here’s what I wrote to my friends at The Kirk:
Issues of church and state have been in the news, and perhaps it would be helpful for some reflection about it. For instance, the Wall Street Journal article “Trump Signs Religious Freedoms Executive Order” of May 4, 2017, outlined the intention of the federal government to ease up its enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment, the 1954 law that forbids non-profit charitable groups (like churches) from engaging in partisan activity, endorsing specific candidates for public office. While lawyers and scholars doubt this directive will have much practical effect (since there aren’t many prosecutions under this provision anyway), we might ask whether churches being involved in this sort of activity would be a good thing, even if permitted.
It might help to be clear about what is being discussed and what is not. Our tradition strongly values the separation of church and state enshrined in our constitution. We think that the government shouldn’t tell us what to do, and that public matters should not be debated on religious grounds nor bias any particular religious point of view (including our own).
This doesn’t mean, however, we think that people of faith should refrain from political action. Since the early formation of our republic, Presbyterians have participated in shaping our public life. Since our first church in America (founded in 1640), Presbyterians have been involved in political action. Presbyterians signed our founding documents and the Constitution, and were instrumental in the drafting of our system of government. We created public schools and universities, built hospitals, sent elders and pastors to elected positions, and marched for justice and equality in the civil rights movement. In the Church’s best moments, these efforts are inspired by God’s call to support the common good while seeking to help the hungry, the hurting, the poor, and those on the margins. We might call that God’s Politics, as its Greek root is polis, or the “city-state” that is the foundation of democracy.
Politics and partisanship are two different things. People of faith are concerned about matters of public import, and we expect that people of good will are going to see them differently. This may lead some of us to engage in partisan activity, focusing our energies with other like-minded people towards platforms within formal political parties. In our country, this is often how we engage in decision making about matters of public concern, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians, and Independents, all may call The Kirk their church home. The church, and its politics, must not ever confuse the teachings of the Gospel with any party or candidate. All parties fall short; no candidate is above critique. Instead, the church must invite people of all partisan perspectives to work together to advance God’s politics. When it is faithful, the church should critique parties when they fall short, and encourage people of good will to see beyond party to a larger and greater good. It must respect that people of true and honest faith may disagree on means or process, while agreeing on the broader political aims that characterize Jesus’ teachings and the discernment that follows from them.
All of this is to say: as a pastor, I am grateful for the caution that the Johnson Amendment gives us. The church is called to be political, but not partisan. We should be careful to make this distinction, and to provide a space for different perspectives to be welcomed and discussed. I, like you, have my own partisan perspectives on the issues of the day, but they too are critiqued by the Gospel, which inspires me to look beyond them for a greater good. On my own time, I might work toward partisan goals, as you might. When I serve as your pastor, however, I am called and committed to serve everyone equally. I don’t expect anyone to uncritically agree with a sermon, and when I preach, I will never endorse a specific candidate or party. It would be wrong for me to tell you how you should vote. Instead, sermons should feed your spiritual life, encouraging you to ask questions, whether we agree or not, trusting you to engage the world through the faith God gives you. That may lead to different partisan outcomes, even if we share a commitment to pursue what God is doing in the world through the inclusive love of Jesus. As we move forward together, let’s pursue God’s Politics, and give thanks whenever any of us are inspired by a greater concern for the public good to get involved, as they prayerfully are being led, to solve our common problems. I’m grateful for a chance to be doing ministry with faithful people of good will, different as we are, as we seek to pursue God’s vision for the world together.