Preaching and politics have stirred significant media interest this year. First was the controversy over incendiary comments by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s long-time pastor, then the more recent campaign by a group of pastors to defy the IRS ban on endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. These and other events have moved the discussion of preaching and politics to the front burner of media.
This presidential election season has produced plenty of commentary on the unprecedented role of religion in the political process. It wasn’t just the rarity of a preacher among the top tier candidates – in the primaries nearly all of the presidential candidates in both parties seemed to be donning the cloak of religious respectability. Questions about the candidates and religion hit the front pages regularly.
The reality is that the linkage of politics and religion is nothing new, though it seems to be gaining far more media attention than ever before. Since before the nation’s founding, faith and politics have regularly joined hands – and that linkage is part of what gave America its unique sense of identity and destiny. From the election-day sermons of colonial preachers to the role of preachers in the abolitionist and suffrage movements, all the way to the pulpit rhetoric that guided the civil rights movement, preachers have claimed a role in influencing public policy since the nation’s beginning. Even after the new nation established freedom of religion as a central tenet, that did not lead to the absence of faith – or preaching – from the public square.
In 2008, the church is still engaging the culture through its preaching, but there are dangers here for both culture and church.
As some preachers adopt an increasingly active role in political campaigns, it is all too easy to shift from being advocates of moral values to becoming political partisans. In a day when American culture needs to hear the voice of biblical values in the public square, it is vital that pastors protect the integrity of the pulpit. The pulpit should never become a partisan political tool. It’s one thing to have a political leader or public official speak on public issues that would be of concern to the church and community; it’s an altogether different thing to let a candidate use the pulpit for campaigning as if the church was nothing more than a billboard or a TV spot.
That also means pastors need to be careful about endorsing candidates, whether in or out of the pulpit. There are plenty of forces in our culture that are more than happy to use the church and preachers for their own purposes – and as soon as they are done with us they move on to the next group to manipulate. And once preachers endorse a candidate, they own that candidate for good or bad; if that candidate says some crazy or offensive things in the campaign, that can reflect on the church. (And, as we have seen recently, the candidate may also have to answer for some things the preacher says!) Pastors should avoid letting themselves and their churches be used for something that might later dishonor the gospel.
Clearly the majority of Americans agree with that. An August 2007 survey by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press indicated that most Americans want a president to have strong religious beliefs, but 63% oppose churches endorsing candidates during election campaigns, while only 28% favor such endorsements.
Should preaching and politics ever mix? Absolutely; preaching has a right and responsibility to bring moral concerns to bear on the issues that face the nation. Churches – and preachers – must continue to engage cultural issues with biblical truth in a way that keeps these issues in the public square. But they need to do so in a way that makes it clear that electing the right candidate is not our primary goal. We answer to a higher authority.
Michael Duduit is founding editor of Preaching magazine and Dean of the Graduate School of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, SC.