On President’s Day, in a Presidential Election Year
Here on President’s Day, and in the midst of a full-blown primary cycle for the Presidential Election at the end of this year, I have been pondering politics and the church.
In my years of ministry I have been told on several occasions that everything from the pulpit should stay out of politics. And that is advice that I have almost always followed. I still maintain that if I advocate for one candidate over another from the pulpit, any church would be right to ask for me to step down immediately. This is what I generally understand when people say that the church shouldn’t get “too political:” that we as a church should not be clinging to any one candidate or any one party.
The church has been entrusted with a radical, world-changing mission, and when we align ourselves under a certain political party, it is inevitable that the raw message of Jesus Christ is going to be compromised. I shared this quote from Tony Campolo on Facebook recently, and it summarizes perfectly the danger of the church getting too involved in partisan politics: “When government and church begin to mix, you got a problem. It’s like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream. I think to mix the church and state is to, in fact, put the church in a compromising position.”
It’s a little more challenging, for me at least, to say that there is nothing political about Jesus’s message. It is very political, just not in the sense that we tend to use the word “politics.” Some clarification is very helpful here. Generally, we have a very negative view of things that are political. Political means adhering to one party or one ideology and being aggressively opposed to anything else. Being political means doing anything to get elected or improve your position. Being political is also associated with inefficiency. And I would agree, in all those common understandings of the word, Jesus’s message is not “political.”
But apart from our current political landscape, politics has a much broader and more neutral meaning. Politics is really just the way a group of people organize themselves for the good of all. Jesus clearly showed no interest in holding any kind of public office, but I would be hard pressed to make the argument that the teachings and ministry of Jesus had nothing to do with how a country is supposed to live together. In Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, he shared a persistent vision of justice for all people, when all things will be set right.
In this election year, I need to remind myself about the role of politics and the life of the church. We need desperately to resist mixing church and the state for the sake of preserving the raw mission of Jesus Christ. But while we do that, we must remember that following the raw mission of Jesus Christ will certainly take us to uncomfortable places as we work for the good and justice of all people.