Politics in the Pulpit?

for the Dialogue on Religious Liberty

at NorthHaven Church in Norman, OK on September 30, 2007

by Dr. Bruce Prescott

I want to thank Mitch Randall and NorthHaven for hosting this conference and for inviting me to speak on this important and timely topic. 

We are living in an era when the atmosphere within American Christianity is more thoroughly divided and more politically charged than at any other time since the civil war.  Across the political spectrum, politics is increasingly in the pulpit.

When I talk about politics in the pulpit, I am not referring to preaching about political issues.  Preachers have always addressed political issues from the pulpit.  That is both their right and their responsibility.  The rightful role of religion in politics is to speak to the powers that be like the prophets of old.  Those who speak from the pulpit should speak prophetically to every political issue and every public policy according to their understanding of the word and spirit of God.  They should speak prophetically to every politician and to every political party.  Their authority to speak comes not from any kind of political power but solely from the sensitivity of their moral conscience and the purity of their commitment to truth, justice, equity and fairness to all people.

Preaching about issues is right and good in the pulpit.  Preaching politics in the pulpit is wrong and harmful.  By preaching politics I mean endorsing political candidates from the pulpit.  By preaching politics I mean using the pulpit to get-out-the-vote for candidates and political parties.  By preaching politics I mean passing out biased and distorted voter guides at the door of the sanctuary.  By preaching politics I mean using the pulpit to condemn the policies of politicians from one political party and later using the pulpit to condone identical policies by politicians from another party.  By preaching politics I mean making the pulpit a platform to generate support for partisan political activity.  All of that has been going on in this country at an unprecedented level over the last two and a half decades.

Preaching politics, in this negative sense, is something that is relatively new in Baptist pulpits.  There's no doubt that a lot of African-American Baptists were heavily involved in politics during the civil rights era, but that preaching was about the issue of civil rights.  John Lewis, the Baptist civil rights leader who was severely beaten by police in front of television cameras on the march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965, now a Congressman from Georgia, insists that Martin Luther King refused to endorse political candidates and political parties from the pulpit.  African-Americans didn't organize a takeover of a political party.  They spoke prophetically to people from all political parties.  They got support from Republicans in the North and they faced enormous opposition from Democrats in the South.  So, when the mostly white Christian Right tells you that they are just doing what black Christians did in the civil rights era, they are simply perpetuating a myth with more than a few racist overtones.

Preaching politics in Baptist pulpits began in earnest with Jerry Falwell back in 1979 when he founded the so-called "Moral Majority."  The "Moral Majority" was organized after the IRS revoked Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status because the school forbade interracial dating.  The Carter administration supported the IRS ruling.  Falwell and other Religious Right leaders were determined to replace him with someone who would oppose the ruling.  The next administration did oppose the ruling, but the Supreme Court eventually upheld the IRS's ruling.

Don't take my word for it.  Here's a quote from Paul Weyrich, the right-wing Catholic political activist who convinced Falwell to found the "Moral Majority" and suggested its name to him.  Weyrich says,

What galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer, or the ERA.  I am living witness to that because I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation." [That] "enraged the Christian community and they looked upon it as interference from government, and suddenly it dawned on them that they were not going to be able to be left alone to teach their children as they pleased. It was at that moment that conservatives made the linkage between their opposition to government interference and the interests of the evangelical movement, which now saw itself on the defensive and under attack by the government. That was what brought those people into the political process. It was not the other things." (With God on Our Side, p. 173)

Before 1979 Fundamentalists believed that society would change for the better as the gospel worked to transform individual lives.  After 1979, as Falwell once told a PBS interviewer, they believe "That's a correct premise." but "In reality, it doesn't work out that way."  Before 1979, revivals were spiritual movements.   Preachers preached about God's grace and Christians prayed for the Holy Spirit to change hearts and transform lives.  Since 1979, revivals have become political movements.  Preachers have been preaching politics from the pulpit and Christians have been praying for elections to change laws and leaders.  To put this in the simplest terms -- before 1979, Fundamentalists were focused on saving souls.  Now they are focused on saving their culture. 

In 1989 Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority saying it was no longer needed after Fundamentalists had gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He knew what he was talking about.  At the 1997 meeting of the SBC Richard Land, Director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told convention messengers,

It is a persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth to say that you can't legislate morality. . . .

We must convince Christians to run for elected offices at every level and then encourage them to act on their faith-based convictions while they are in office. . . .

It's too late for just a revival.  The revival has got to come first, but the revival and the awakening have got to be applied to our government and to our culture. 

This shift in theology -- from saving souls to saving the culture -- has had a profound impact upon our churches and our society.  Baptists and other "Evangelicals" are giving up on the "foolishness of preaching."  The Holy Spirit works too slow for them.  The lesson that Fundamentalists learned from the civil rights movement was not about equality or respect for human rights.  The lesson they learned was that politics can change society much faster than preaching.  

Today, many Baptists believe that Jesus' command to be salt and light and leaven means voting for politicians who will pass legislation that will force a narrow range of religious values on a nation of people with increasingly diverse religious values. 

But, there's a big problem with forcing the values of one religious sub-culture on all the people in this country.  As Baptists should know -- because we were instrumental in getting it adopted, the first amendment of the Constitution says, "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion."  Unfortunately, throughout much of our history, people have acted as though the Constitution said no such thing. 

For a long time, only a few people dared to complain when Christians passed laws that forced everyone else to comply with our religious rules and values.  Now there are a lot of people in this country whose faith is different from Christianity and there are a lot of Christians who are getting tired of having to live by rules and values that are much narrower than their own beliefs and convictions.   They are beginning to press the case against the informal establishment of conservative Christianity that has long existed in places throughout our society -- particularly in the South.

Today, the backlash on both sides of the political spectrum is threatening to undermine the credibility of the Christian gospel.  Even as I speak, forces within both the Christian Right and the Christian Left are hard at work building political machines to wage their version of the culture war.  You read about it in the newspapers and watch it on your television every day: 

Richard Land, a Baptist denominational executive, is being quoted on the frontpage of newspapers around the country as though he were a political kingmaker.   His secular political connections have made him an expert political handicapper on the chances for the various candidates in the Republican Party to garner support from evangelicals for their presidential aspirations.

The influence Land wields was underscored last month when Barrett Duke, one of the Vice Presidents at the ERLC, told the editor of Georgia's Christian Index, "The primary point I want to stress is the need to build a grassroots base of support . . . There are 16,000,000 Southern Baptists and we should be able to shut down the congressional switchboard all by ourselves when there is need to voice our convictions on a certain issue." 

Jim Wallis, the left-wing evangelical who convinced President Clinton to sign the Charitable Choice legislation that authorized the faith-based initiatives, is quoted almost daily in newspapers as he speaks about his version of "God's Politics."   He's the Democratic Party's answer to the Religious Right.  He is speaking at forums across the country that are designed to mobilize mainline and progressive Christians to organize politically to counter the influence of the religious right.

This politicizing of churches and preachers -- enlisting them as active participants in the campaigns of politicians and political parties -- is bad for both church and state.  If it continues unchecked, it will destroy the foundation that undergirds all of the freedoms that we enjoy.

Religious liberty for everyone -- not just for Christians -- is our first freedom.  It's the first freedom because it is the bedrock foundation upon which every other form of freedom rests.  It secures our right to a free conscience and it protects the rights of minorities.  If you can strip away the right of any minority to worship as they please, to be free from indoctrination into someone else's religion, and to be exempt from paying taxes to support someone else's faith, then you can undermine any other right that minorities enjoy in our society.

But today, respect by the majority for the principle of church-state separation has deteriorated to a level that is unprecedented in our nation's history.   The religious right adamantly asserts that the principle is in the constitution of the Soviet Union but not in the U.S. constitution.   On the religious left, Jim Wallis calls church-state separationists "secular fundamentalists" and positions himself as a centrist who by putting a kinder, gentler face on religion in the public square presumes to teach Democrats how they can secure more religious votes.  Disdain for the First Amendment prohibition against religious establishments has moved us dangerously close to a tipping point from which no one knows how we will recover.

In this church I know that I am preaching to the choir.  But I'm concerned that the choir of people who are willing to stand up for church-state separation is far too small.  This ought to be a bi-partisan issue where all Americans can stand side-by-side in the choir and sing together.  That used to be the case. 

My father-in-law was a lifelong Republican and, being a Baptist minister, he was also a strong and vocal advocate for separation of church and state.  My father was a lifelong Democrat, and being a public school teacher, he knew that it would be a violation of public trust for him to try to pray with or proselytize the impressionable young children from religiously diverse backgrounds who came to his classroom.  My father and my father-in-law didnt agree much on politics, but at least they could agree on the value of the First Amendment.  Today there are not enough people familiar with the First Amendment to realize that we are being lied to, manipulated and misled by people that have been entrusted with positions of great power and grave responsibility. 

Politicizing churches is bad.  It is bad for both church and state.   First, let me talk about how it is bad for the church.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, GOP does not stand for God's own Party.  God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.  Jim Wallis right about that.  It is blasphemous for any party or candidate to try to wrap the cross in their flag and claim Divine sanction.  Jesus told us to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to render to God the things that are Gods." (Mark 12:16-17)  The principle separating church and state is a Christian biblical principle and it is time that Christians in both parties start observing it.

One example of the state corrupting the church is the faith-based initiatives that have become a means by which politicians both pay-off allies and bribe religious voters to support them and their parties.  Both Democrats and Republicans are doing it.  I can provide examples from both national and local politics. 

Another egregious example of politics corrupting the church is the work of the Institute for Religion and Democracy.  The IRD is a think tank, led by politically prominent right-wing Catholic intellectuals, who have been secretly organizing and supporting fundamentalist takeover movements within mainline Protestant denominations for nearly twenty years.  Mainline Protestants have very slowly come to the realization that they have much more in common than they thought.  Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ have all discovered that the IRD is supporting and encouraging fundamentalist takeover movements within their denominations.  In Eastern Oklahoma a Presbyterian Presbytery has nearly been bankrupted fighting lawsuits over control of church property.  The IRD has been supporting their opposition.  Two weeks ago Mainstream United Methodists met at St. Stephens' church here in Norman to organize a response to the challenge that the IRD is posing to Methodist churches in Oklahoma.  Who leads this organization?  Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak and George Weigel.  All Republicans, all Roman Catholics and all ardent opponents of church-state separation.  I use this as an example of politics corrupting the church because these leaders seem to take their marching orders from agents in Washington more than they do from agents in Rome.  When the Pope opposed America's war with Iraq, the IRD began leading the Roman Catholic opposition to the Pope on this issue.

Let's move on and discuss how politicizing churches is also bad for the state.   

Politics is the art of compromise and religious convictions are often very uncompromising.  When uncompromising religious convictions clash, explosions often occur.  Some people think that the twenty-first century will be characterized by a clash of civilizations and wars between religious cultures.  Many Southern Baptists and evangelical Christians think 9/11 marked the beginning of a great clash of civilizations and they are fervently reading Bible prophecies looking for signs that will lead to the battle of Armaggedon.  They do not hesitate to exert political pressure on the President of the United States and on Congress to make sure that American foreign policy conforms to their interpretations of how Bible prophecies are supposed to unfold.   Their interpretation of the Bible predicts a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East and, at this very moment, they are strongly advocating an American and/or Israeli pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran because it fits in with their current explanations of end-times theology.  

If that is not enough to alarm you, then I don't know what will. 

The bottom line is, politics in the pulpit is bad for both the church and the state.  The sooner we restore a healthy respect for separation of church and state, the better it will be for both our country and our churches.


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