Tag Archives: politics

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.

Election 2016: Understanding the Time

Election 2016
“This is the worst campaign in history.” “Unbelievable – it cannot get any worse!” “Is this the best the two parties can offer?” “How did we get here?” “He is unworthy of being president.” “She is the least qualified candidate in history.” “He is a misogynist, racist and xenophobe.” “She is corrupt, a serial liar and does not like people.” “Half of his supporters are a basket of deplorables…and irredeemable.” “Her Presidency would be a third Obama term – disaster!”

Sound familiar?

The 2016 campaign, while drenched in polarization and vitriol, personal attacks and political corruption…only feels like the worst. The reason it is so disheartening is that we are bombarded 24/7 with accusations, allegations and aspersions that either depress us, inflame our anger or foster apathy.

Perspective Matters

From the 1820s to the present, party politics, including local and national machinery, personal attacks, opposition research and agitation propaganda, have been a part of the American political scene. When Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams fought against each other in the 1820s, epithets such as “adulterer” and “scoundrel” were common. When Grover Cleveland ran in the 1880s, his (admitted) fathering of a child outside of marriage was a constant theme of his opponents. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson campaigned with the theme, “He kept us out of war” while plotting for ways to join the Allies against Germany. His behind-the-scenes policies were so egregious that William Jennings Bryan, three-time Presidential candidate, resigned from the Cabinet. In 1928 and 1960, Al Smith and JFK were declared unfit because they were Roman Catholics and therefore loyal to the Vatican over the Constitution.

Insults, sandal, corruption and political manipulations are not new.

What IS new is the level of conscious, willful and public hypocrisy as advocates of both parties excuse the “minor mistakes” of their candidates while magnifying the corruption, depravity and unforgiveable transgressions of their opponents. My wife, Kathleen Self (www.colorbrush.com), affirms that we are in an age of “Polarism” where we would rather shout around and over each other than listen deeply and explore potential common ground.

How do people of conscience and faith navigate in these treacherous waters?

I suggest that there are three broad principles and three specific practices that will help us engage the process fully and retain our sanity, when all around are bitter and hopeless, reacting and retrenching.

Three Principles

Principle One: Remember that our ultimate hope is in the Lord and his present and future reign. The occupants of Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House, our state capitals and city halls are not messiahs, but imperfect women and men that serve the public. They need divine mercy and wisdom – and to be held accountable for their stewardship of public resources. We must discipline our inner life and develop endurance even while actively engaging in political decisions. Nostalgia is the enemy of thoughtfulness. History can inform and inspire, but there are no “good old days” – just days of old when good people made wise decisions.

Principle Two: Our deepest values must guide our decisions; however, we can live peaceably with those that have a different “universe next door.” (James Sire) We will lose some public battles and perhaps win others – what matters long term is winning hearts and minds through insightful ideas, personal integrity and winsomeness. The profoundest ideas presented in anger will fall by the wayside. Advocacy must be accompanied by genuine listening to other perspectives. Tolerance is not agreement – it is the humble discipline of neighborly love when we radically diverge in how we see the most important issues of life.

Principle Three: We must ask and answer the question of vision: What does “there” look like? How do we – and by extension our political leaders – envision a free and just society rooted in virtue providing opportunity for all? How do the economy and education, civil discourse and governmental oversight function in our imperfect but flourishing world? Conservatives and progressives may share more in common than they imagine – but the means by which we achieve our ideal are quite different! Our future rests more on self-regulation and healthy families and neighborhoods versus federal and state governments acting as nannies over specific behaviors.

While we ponder these principles and pursue peacemaking with all people of conscience, there are three practices that foster the possibilities of a flourishing future. These go well beyond the obvious (and necessary) exhortations to get informed and vote. These choices require courage, love and wisdom, a character triad demanding the best of us.

Three Practices

Practice One: When Jesus said that we were to “love our enemies” he implied much more than merciful feelings and restraining revenge. Where possible, we should make friends across every cultural, political, racial and religious divide. People are so much more than their politics or even their gender preference. Each person we encounter is a work of art with much to offer the world. Instead of instant polemics from politics, let’s inquire and learn about art and authors, play and work, and other common interests. If our neighbors are parents or grandparents, focus on their children will bring immediate connection as all people of goodwill desire better for the next generation. Not everyone will respond, but unselfish love united with courage (we may be rejected) and wisdom (knowing cultural mores does matter) can foster a preferred future.

Practice Two: Critical Thinking. Emotions do matter and some of our visceral reactions are actually commendable. When we see injustice, we should be angry! When we experience unexpected blessings, it is time for a happy dance! But emotionalism and allowing our feelings to determine our convictions and decisions is harmful for our personal lives and the good of society. Critical thinking evaluates arguments, ideas and choices. It is not a “critical spirit” that is quick to judge a person whole cloth. There is a difference between evaluating behaviors and policies and declaring someone an outcast and calling names. For example, I stand for traditional, religious marriage and object to pressures that would compel me to perform any ceremonies (gay or straight) against my conscience. I also will defend religious leaders within Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim communities that share my convictions. This said, I will not caricature those that disagree with me or refuse to ally with them on other causes. I desire for all others the rights I want for myself. My challenge to all in the chattering classes: will you think deeply before you act decisively?

Practice Three: Let’s start making our neighborhood a better place, joining with others to improve all domains that contribute to human flourishing. We cannot do everything, but we can do something, from supporting local businesses, to mobilizing our churches for poverty alleviation to helping our local schools. This is much more than joining a cause – it is neighborly love! The work we do every day – paid or unpaid, at home of in the office, labor or leadership, field or factory, in a delightful company or one that needs reform – is integral to our devotion to God and service of others. “Love your neighbor” is a call to action, helping all reach their capacities an exercise wise compassion. How do we start? Pray, listen and use gifts and skills to serve. While you are waiting for the bring break in your music career, sing at the senior centers and homeless shelters. While you look for the dream job, start working somewhere, doing the best you can.

Three principles, three practices. The underlying challenge is character. With divine help and personal discipline, we can bring the highest virtues of a humble life to our world and make a lasting impact, not just a good impression.

Election 2016: It is actually more about our personal and national character than any particular candidates. Will be part of an awakening that begins with repentance and faith and ends in renewal and a transformed future? The answer begins with today’s decisions, for they are tomorrow’s destiny.

The Fourth of July: A Time to Rejoice…and Repent

July 4, 1776: Only John Hancock signed the Declaration that day – others would add their names on August 2 and beyond. John Adams, a rather dour fellow at times, was effusive that Independence be celebrated with great fanfare.

Here is my 4th of July tribute as a dual citizen of God’s Kingdom and our nation.

Rejoicing and Repenting

I rejoice in the greatest experiment in virtue-based liberty and I repent for past enslavement and oppression.

I rejoice in freedom of conscience and religion, with a free market of faiths and ideas and I repent for misguided and unjust actions in the name of any religion.

I rejoice in equality and opportunity and repent that we squander these privileges with momentary pleasures.

I rejoice that citizens have a say in their nation’s destiny and I repent from my apathy that forfeits this honor.

I rejoice in the many nations that make up our one nation (E Pluribus Unum) and I repent that the First Nations (Native Americans) were oppressed instead of embraced.

I rejoice in brave soldiers defending freedom and I repent that they often serve poor leaders and policies.

I rejoice in our compassion for the needy at home and abroad and repent for the destruction of life in the womb.

I rejoice in our Constitution and I repent that so few know it well.

I rejoice that God has blessed America and I repent of my lack of gratitude for so much mercy.

A Republic will only be as free as its citizens are virtuous. May we renew the covenants: first with Christ and then the Constitution. May we remember that governments exist to protect, not bestow God-given rights. 
May God bless America…and every nation – for God loves unconditionally and judges without partiality.