Ask Dr. Land: Should pastors address political issues from the pulpit? (pt. 2)

Question:  I've heard congregants complain that while they agree with their pastor on political issues, he talks too much about it and it's tiring.  While other pastors are criticized by never talking about any political issues from the pulpit, with some saying that's not their gift.  Should pastors of local churches talk about political issues from the pulpit?  If so, when should they do so and on what issues?

Editor's Note:  Part 1 of this "Ask Dr. Land" series can be read here. 

Dr. Richard Land, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, speaks during the 16-million member denomination's annual gathering in Indianapolis on Tuesday, June 10, 2008. |

As I explained last week, vast segments of the American people have looked historically to their pastors for moral, as well as spiritual, guidance. And, in today’s culture, the public policy issues that often cause the most intense discussions in our society — the sanctity of human life, racism, human rights, immigration, sexism, and sexuality — are of an entirely different level of moral significance than the politics of what are the most beneficial tax policies or the most prudent trade agenda.

As people of faith and their pastoral leaders wrestle with these issues, we should draw comfort, and perhaps guidance, from how previous generations of Americans have dealt with morally contentious issues.

This tension between the pastoral and public morality role is not new. It goes all the way back to early colonial times in America and has been a consistent theme throughout American history.

Ironically, one of the earliest examples of this tension is the Rev. Roger Williams, historic champion of separation of church and state. Williams argued that there ought to be a wall of separation between the “garden” of the church and the “wilderness” of the state in order to keep the state from corrupting the church.

Williams was extremely critical of the state church in Massachusetts Bay. But among the official charges levied against him when the colonial authorities sought to arrest him and send him back to England in chains was that he claimed that the colonists did not really own their land because they had received it by patent from the King and had not compensated the Native Americans for it. In other words, Roger Williams, champion of separation of church and state, was up to his colonial eyeballs in the most controversial moral issue of that time and place, the colonists’ shameful treatment of the Native American population.

Perhaps, that is why, when Williams escaped into the New England wilderness, the Native Americans whom he had befriended took him in, thus allowing him to survive and to found Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island), the first colony in the New World where you were free to worship where you pleased on Sunday morning or to sit home and shuck peas on your front porch without any civil penalty of any kind.

During the American Revolution so many non-Anglican Protestant ministers were vocal supporters of the Revolution that the British authorities derisively referred to them as the Revolution’s “black regiment” (referring to the plain black robes many non-conformist Protestant ministers wore when preaching as opposed to the vestments of the Church of England clergy).

And, of course, in the great enduring struggle over slavery and racism, pastors were very involved. Clergy were extremely numerous among the abolitionist movement from the very earliest days (and sadly many also supported slavery).

For example, in the midst of the extreme controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), the passage of which would have expanded slavery into areas previously designated as free territory, a group of 3000 New England clergy signed and sent to the Senate a petition against its passage. This created a furor. No less a personage than Steven Douglas of Illinois, perhaps best known for his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln in 1858, was livid in his rage against the clergy. Taking to the floor of the Senate, Douglas proclaimed that in sending this petition, these clergy had “desecrated the pulpit and prostituted the sacred desk to the miserable and corrupting influence of party politics” and concluded that “these political preachers ought to be rebuked” and “required to confine themselves to their vocation.”

Sam Houston, then a Senator from Texas and a staunch pro-Unionist, responded, “I do not think there is anything very derogatory to our institutions in the ministers of the Gospel expressing their opinion. They have a right to do it.” He went on to say that a minister “has political rights; he also has the rights of a missionary of the Savior, and he is not disenfranchised by his vocation. . . . He has a right to interpose his voice . . . against the adoption of any measure which he believes will injure the nation.”

And as the slavery controversy led the nation inexorably to the great and terrible Civil War that almost rent the nation asunder, Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for president in 1860. As soon-to-be President Lincoln continued his relentless campaign against the evils of slavery, he faced harsh and unremitting criticism. Finally, Lincoln had apparently had had enough. In New Haven, CT, on March 6, 1860, Lincoln responded to his critics. Speaking of the slavery issue, Lincoln said:

"We must not call it wrong in the free States, because it is not there. And they must not call it wrong in politics, because that is bringing morality into politics. And we must not call it wrong in the pulpit, because it is bringing politics into religion; We must not bring it into the tract of society or other societies because those are such unsuitable places, and there is no single place, according to you, where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong."

I am extremely grateful that the “Great Emancipator” did not listen to his critics or allow them to intimidate him into silence.

In the century and a half since the abolition of slavery, pastors have spoken bravely in defense of civil rights (let us never forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and a pastor) as well as labor reform, women’s rights, and the sanctity of all human life.

When dealing with the tensions of clergy involvement in public policy debates, we must always remember, as Dr. King reminded us, that people of faith are called to be societal thermostats, setting the moral climate, not society thermometers, merely reflecting culture’s temperature.

When people of faith do not, under pastoral leadership, embrace their responsibilities to be “salt and light” in society, truly tragic events may follow. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us in a very dark time, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.

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