David Cox: Pulpit politics

Column by David Cox

Two Sundays ago, 33 pastors around the country by prearrangement preached sermons to their congregations that endorsed or opposed candidates for President of the United States. What’s more, they will send their sermon texts to the Internal Revenue Service to defy the ban on tax-exempt nonprofits engaging in partisan politics.

Clearly, they intended to challenge that ban, thereby raising the question of whether churches can get partisan and still be tax-exempt. The IRS is cracking down; it investigated All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Pasadena, after its retired priest criticized the Iraq war in 2004. He didn’t endorse anyone. These pastors will.

To my mind, if you’re going to take advantage of what Caesar offers, you have to go by Caesar’s rules. You’re free to do otherwise, but you give up the benefits. If in the name of God these pastors must speak out, so be it; the First Amendment guarantees their freedom. But the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee their churches’ 501(c)(3) status. The court cases should be interesting, to say the least … and potentially momentous.

My big problem is the idea of saying, in the name of God, that this person is right or wrong for an office. Here’s why.

First of all, God has a lot to say. The Bible has a lot to say on many matters. These pastors were going to hold up candidates’ positions against “Scripture,” they said — but which passages, which issues? They choose. And inevitably, picking one or a dozen specific moral topics leaves out others, and thereby distorts the larger picture. Yes, issues of life or poverty are important, but so are the environment, war, peace, just taxation, marriage and family, health and so many more. Of necessity, we mortals can only deal with several at a time. But to say that God cares ONLY about those, or even PRIMARILY about those, in my opinion misrepresents God and distorts the Bible. God is always greater than our minds.

That’s one danger. Another is presuming to speak for God: No human can do so except with deepest humility. Yes, God reveals much of what his people should care about and do. But knowing whom God is rooting for in 2008 is so far above my pay grade that it would be arrogant for me even to suggest. I have my opinions, but that’s all they are. My opinions may well be shaped by faith. But they are still those of this mortal soul.

That they are of a mortal demands humility on the mortal’s part. They fact they are of a soul deserves a certain respect. An idea developed in the Reformation is that of “the priesthood of all believers.” That concept assumes that God has given everyone minds to think with, souls to pray with, and consciences to do what they believe is right. They don’t need some human intermediary to tell them what to do. That means that, as my opinions may be shaped by faith, so may be others’; and I have the responsibility of respecting theirs even if they and I disagree. And as a pastor, I have no right at all to “forbid” my people from voting according to their conscience, as one of the preachers tried to do to his congregation.

While speaking personally, let me add a note. I am an ordained person, but I’ve stood for public office as the candidate of a political party. (I do so again this year, but for a nonpartisan position.) But I would not do so as the parson of a congregation in the district, not least because it would be divisive to the congregation and distracting to the mission of that church.

Finally, telling people how to vote diminishes Christianity itself. In sermons or actions or theologies, to portray the Lord of all the world as a right-wing zealot or a leftist social activist is a scandal against all that God is doing through Jesus Christ. And diminishing Christ himself not only does injustice to God Almighty, it also undercuts the very reason and authority by which the Church says anything. We diminish ourselves and our message and thereby squander the power God gives us to be his servants in the world.

I may be old-fashioned, but I still believe that partisan politics has no place in the pulpit.


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