Category Archives: abortion

Pastors and Politics, Part 1: Courage and Wisdom

This two-part series encourages local church pastors with wise discipleship and effective engagement on issues of political concern. In this first essay, the focus is on the boundaries of wise communication. The second essay looks at some of the hidden issues and groups overlooked in our polarized era. The author has been a pastor and public intellectual for over thirty years, speaking at business, educational centers, public forums and in churches.

Dr. Jim Baucom, senior pastor of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, VA (in the heart of Metro Washington, D.C.), shared about his growing and vibrant community: “People speak of America divided between Blue and Red, Democrat and Republican. Well, our church is very Purple! We have women and men worshiping and serving together that differ deeply on some policies and principles but agree that Christ unites us in our faith and service.”

Pastor A.J. Swoboda leads Theophilus Church: “We are a church in SE Portland. We are here to help people Find Jesus, Build Community and Pursue Justice.” A.J. is a leading voice in ecological theology and helps churches, seminaries and businesses steward the environment as part of worshiping and serving the Lord. He recently published an important book, The Subversive Sabbath, calling believers to recover the divine principle of rest as part of a healthy life in Christ. One of his happiest moments as a pastor came during the 2016 election. Two members of his church are local political leaders from each party. One Sunday just before the November election they served communion together.

These stories of communities finding a deeper unity in Christ and welcoming women and men from diverse persuasions are heartening and offer insights for pastors in our angry, polarized American public square.  How do pastors unite compassion and conviction and wisely disciple women and men for participation in public life?

The fear of “being political” keeps many pastors from addressing critical issues. Pastors are rightly concerned about ideology and partisanship eclipsing gospel focus. At the same time, addressing vital moral and social issues is an essential part of effective discipleship and mission. What are some boundaries and insights needed in navigating these rapids?

Three Insights

There are three initial thoughts which help displace fear with courage and reactions with wisdom. The first principle is respecting clear boundaries of biblical truth and civil law. The Bible clearly leads Christians toward good citizenship, prayerful concern for authority and reasonable adherence to the laws in place (Romans 13; I Timothy 2). At the same time, obeying divine mandates above the civil ones and understanding that kingdom citizenship takes priority over current power structures is vital (Matthew 5; Acts 5; Hebrews 11). According to current American law (The 1954 Johnson Amendment to the IRS tax code), churches and other nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation, “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” So, there are only two restrictions on political discourse that threaten the religious, non-profit status of a local church. The first is endorsement of a specific political candidate. The second is endorsement of one political party over another. In other words, blatant partisanship.

Pastors and churches CAN

  • Speak on any political issues
  • Lead voter registration drives (non-partisan)
  • Host events inviting all candidates

The issue for most is not the letter of IRS regulation but the fear of alienating members and seekers. This leads us to the second insight: Pastors must choose their issues wisely and frame their arguments biblically. The late theologian Donald Bloesch once said that, “Ideology is the enemy of theology.” Pastors must help congregants discover biblical conviction and discernment on particular policies, not just a particular party’s talking points. In many cases, biblically wise framing will help believers engender new ways of seeing (and even solving) contentious issues. Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted for obedience in the kingdom, not obnoxious political agitation.

For example, being biblically pro-life is more than being against abortion. Concern for all people from conception to coronation – especially the broken, poor and vulnerable – is foundational for biblical obedience. Respect for those in the military must be joined with a passion for peacemaking, a hallmark of wise Christian leadership. Libertarian and socialist answers for poverty alleviation fall short compared to a Christian vision for human flourishing that incudes spiritual, relational, social and economic help and private/public integration of resources (See Corbett and Fikkert’s seminal work here: When Helping Hurts, a recommended MTF resource).

Boundaries and wise discernment of the deeper issues must be integrated with the third attribute of wise leadership: courage. Courage is the virtue that avoids the extremes of fear and foolishness. In Joshua 1, the Lord tells the new leader of Israel four times to be “strong and courageous.” In Ephesians 6, Paul asks his readers to pray for boldness in proclamation, even under persecution. Some issues are morally clear, and it is the pastor’s task to unveil the rich biblical insights underneath stated convictions. Some issues require more discernment and here humility joins courage as leaders declare their understanding.

Pastors, speaking courageously is needed. When undergirded by deep prayer and tears for our beautiful and broken world, such speech cannot be confused with the agitation propaganda and polarizing insults permeating our public discourse.

History and hope can frame our communication. It took courage for pastors to speak against slavery and it takes courage to foster racial reconciliation. It took courage for pastors and missionaries to oppose rapacious colonialism and it takes courage to promote justice for all. It took courage for pastors to help bring justice to the workplace, reducing child labor, and encouraging fair conditions and wages. It takes courage for pastors to take on entrenched powers in cities and states keeping many from thriving. And it takes courage for pastors to avoid ideological captivity and empower their congregants for leadership in all spheres of society.

Wise boundaries, Biblical foundations for discernment and courage will help pastors shepherd wisely.

Happy Birthday to the USA

July 4 is our nation’s birthday. We are an experiment in virtue-based freedom that is now 236 years old, one of the longest eras of national stability in global history.

We are a self-correcting nation, with the Civil War of 1865 and the Civil Rights of 1965 correcting the birth defect of chattel slavery. Women finally voted in 1920 and 18-21 year old soldiers that could bleed were able to fill out ballots by 1972. We are still wrestling with our broken covenants with the First Nation/Native American tribes and our war with Mexico in 1848. In the midst of all the deserved criticism for Manifest Destiny and continental imperialism, people forget that no one north of the Rio Grande wanted (or really wants today) to be ruled by Mexico City and that thousands of leaders of conscience opposed the policies of rapapcious settlement.

We are the freest land in the world for people of all faiths or none to practice and preach their ideas without fear. Apart from tax issues and proper public permits, we are free to gather and express our ideas without prior permission. This was and is a unique reality of the USA.

We have amazing foundations of faith, freedom and sacrificial service. We have fractures of hedonism and enthnocentrism to repair and redeem. We still have too many unborn that are unwelcome and too many aged that are in oblivion. We have too many unemployed urban adults and too few political leaders with the courage to call for moral responsibnility. We are still a generous people, responding to crises with affection and alacrity. We are also spoiled, forgetting that even the (too) many that live in poverty in the USA are wealthy compared with half the world.

As we move into our 237th year, we aagain face “times that try men’s (and women’s) souls.” Our future rests on recovering the humility, reverence and tenacity that built the land we enjoy. If we will choose life in all its dimensions, including caring for all from conception to coronation, there is hope. If we commit to empowering suceess through free markets under the rule of law, there is hope. If we can learn civil debate and roll up our sleeves and become an answer to the prayers and problems, there is hope.

In 2008 we were sold a slogan, “Hope and Change.” In 2012, we need to become these words by doing and speaking the truth in love. If we will fear God, live within our means, stand up to intolerance and fear, affirm the central values of a virtuous society, and keep our marital and material covenants, there is hope.

Happy birthday, America. You are not a melting pot or a salad bowl. Your are a beautiful mosaic from every corner of world. Sometimes you are a crazy quilt with loose threads. But you remain a land worth praying for and serving well.

Deflection is the Refuge of the Fearful

My fellow-thinkers, it is time to grow up. Dorothy Sayers, friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, said that Christianity is a “religion for adult minds.” As we confront unprecedented economic and social issues, we must not be captivated by the bumper stickers and sound bites of either the extreme communitarian Left or the individualism that can ensnare the libertarian Right. It is possible to promote free markets and show compassion to the poor. It is possible to defend civil liberties and uphold traditional marriage. We can agitate with civility, debate with a view to concrete answers and forge coalitions to improve our world.

One of the tactics of my opponents – whether political or theological – is deflection. Instead of addressing an assertion directly, they deflect the conversation. For example, when I say, “Obama has failed to confront the deficit in a meaningful manner” my adversaries reply, “Well the problems come from the Bush administration.” At first this sounds plausible because our current crises are not all Obama’s making. We have tried to be a warfare and welfare statue for over 50 years and our trajectory is unsustainable. But notice the subversive point here: my counterpart refused to face Obama’s failures or even debate solutions, preferring the refuge of blame. Deflection is the tactic of the “pro-choice” radicals as well. Instead of squarely saying that abortions kill a pre-born human being, we are assailed by “right to choose” language that never confronts the most fundamental issue. There are a few honest radicals like Peter Singer that want to redefine human identity and restrict procreation to the intelligensia, but these darker thoughts do not play well on the news. When I debate the existence of God and/or moral absolutes, my sparring partners often counter with, “Look at all the evils of religion…” or, “I can be good without God.” Both of these assertions have some merit, but they miss the point. By never debating the issue at hand, we fail to refine our thinking or forge creative ways forward on any issues.

Minority activists reflexively reject peers that are conservative or voices calling for more personal initiative and responsibility because they are concerned that these are codes for racism and the refusal to deal with “structural” issues. Again, there is some truth in these fears – we are less than a lifetime removed from an era when millions could not vote or have access to education and work opportunities. We still have a long way to go. Too many corporations redline entire neighborhoods. At the same time, community activists find it hard to inflame angry mobs with chants of self-determination, marital fidelity and deeper values. The way forward is not ignoring our ignominious history or the current systemic issues. These must be addressed. But the future also rests on moral responsibility, spiritual renewal and racial reconciliation – all values affirmed by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

American and British leftists have characterized cvonservativism as the “refuge of the dim.” Some conservatives call liberalism a “mental disorder.” In both cases deflection rules as the actual ideas and policies are lost in the polemics. Leaving aside the extremes of Hitler and Stalin, there is room for real debate that includes historical evidence, economic observations and political theory. I strenuously diverge from Thomas Friedman on almost every issue, but his ideas deserve debate, not just castigation. I admire the late Willian Buckley; however, his eloquent thoughts are open to fresh evaluation. I love our Founder’s vision and values – and we have amended the Constitution to affirm its ideals more inclusively.

The Obama administration needs to stop lying about our real economic condition, as they doctor statistics in an election year. The Republicans need to qualify their paeans to Ronald Reagan, roll up their sleeves and partner with moderate Democrats to get things done. We are in crisis. We need to stand with Israel against Iran and others dedicated to her destruction – no more deflection from those who deny Israel’s legitimacy. We need to reduce the deficit and balance a budget – and everyone will feel some pain. No more “starving the children” deflections from the Left and “weakening our defense” deflections from the Right. Hard, principled and prudential decisions are necessary.

Unborn children deserve to live and be welcomed into the arms of loving people. The elderly deserve respect, not warehousing. Marriage is one man and one woman. Other adult arrangements may be made, but they are not marriage. Catholic health care providers must not be forced to dispense contraceptives, abortificents or perform abortions. Some San Francisco leaders saw the light and pulled back from their ban on male circumcision, realizing that multiple religious communities cherish this sign of God’s covenant. What is frightening is that they contemplated any ban at all. Private enterprise needs encouragement and all businesses need to play by the same ethical standards. We can create wealth and care for the world. Muslims are welcome in the USA, but parallel legal systems are not. Government is present to protect the natural liberties and rights of humankind, not bestow them. We must affirm for all others the rights we desire for ourselves.

The final form of deflection from real issues is the ad hominem attack. It is easier to caricature and stereotype opponents instead of applying critical thinking standards to important policies. Labeling Israel as an “apartheid” nation is the refuge of racist, small-minded folks unwilling to face the failure of the two generations of Palestinian leadership. A new Palestinian state as a good neighbor to Israel is welcome as long as Israel’s existence is not in doubt. Castigating climate change skeptics as extremists and fools and refusing to debate the issuers is easier than confronting scientific evidence that is complex. Conversely, calling all global warming adherents communists keeps the other side from objective evaluation of human impact on the environment. Questioning the sanity of religious adherents (Richard Dawkins) avoids confronting the paucity of most arguments against the possibility of a Creator. Maybe we should use the word “demonize” instead of deflection to describe this process. Villification spares the accuser the pain of correcting assertions and refining arguments.

Let’s argue the issues and create pathways that are as inclusive as possible. Let’s stop deflecting and choose to think deeply and act decisively.