by Rev. Frank Schaefer
"I really believe that preaching and politics are synonymous. Several years
ago, Hard Copy interviewed me and asked this question. How can you preach on
Sunday when on Monday you are at the City Council?" My answer was: Any
individual who cannot say the same thing on Monday that they say on Sunday does not
deserve either office.
Vice-Mayor Rev. Henry Hearns, Lancaster, CA;
also pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church in Sun Village, CA
Preaching is probably never completely devoid of
political undertones. Even though preachers may avoid overt statements concerning
hotly debated issues such as the Iraq crisis or the recent cloning issue, as soon as they
draw comparisons between the Scriptures and current issues, political statements are
inevitably made. One important question religious leaders should ask themselves is
whether they are aware of the political content and bias of their preaching.
There are a multitude of factors religious leaders should be aware of,
ranging from their own political bias to the political landscape of their congregation and
community. Foremost, there must be an awareness that when religious leaders speak they
represent the voice of a congregation, a community, a denomination, a tradition, and--in
the minds of many people--they even represent the voice of God. Once religious leaders
have become aware of the political content and bias of their preaching, they might benefit
from adopting a conscious approach to preaching and politics.
Three Approaches to Preaching Politics:
What approach to adopt with regard to preaching and politics is difficult
to decide, not least because of the complexity of factors. How can a religious leader
preach on political issues with personal and professional integrity while being true to
Scripture, theology, traditions, as well as the various political sensitivities of their
congregants? Here are three possible approaches to consider:
1) The Silence Approach -- Avoiding Political Preaching
As pointed out earlier, preaching is probably never completely devoid of
political statements. However, one may aim to avoid overt political statements and
allusions as much as possible. This approach has certain advantages, but also some
- little to no risk for criticism from congregants, the public, or the government (what
comes to mind is the recent IRS withdrawal of non-profit status from a congregation whose
preacher encouraged congregants to vote a certain way).
- encourages a comfortable separation between Religion and State; it largely eliminates
the challenge to be an interpreter between the two worlds.
- discourages discord or disputes over controversial issues within the congregation.
- missed opportunities to address issues and concerns that may preoccupy people's minds.
- deepens attitudes of elitism and isolationism (theological dichotomy between the
physical and the spiritual, the world and the church, etc).
- missed opportunity to challenge the status quo and work toward
2) The Liberation Theology Approach -- Preaching Politics in the
Face of Socio-Economic/Political/Racial Injustice
This approach to preaching is most effective when there are dynamics at
work in the local faith community that are oppressive, such as poverty, racial
discrimination, government corruption, etc. Preaching in this approach concentrates
on clear social injustices which can be identified easily as evils by Scripture.
This approach works best when the congregation is largely affected by a concrete social
wrong, but can also work well for a social-justice sensitive congregation that has
declared solidarity with those victimized.
An example to this approach is the civil rights movement of the 1960s in
North America which was strongly supported by organized Christianity--especially the black
faith community. Modern-day examples may include the fight against socio-economic
injustice, political oppression, human rights violations (including discrimination against
our homosexual brothers and sisters?).
3) The Democratic Duty Approach--Preaching Politics in
"Non-partisan" preaching on political issues should not endorse or vilify
specific political parties or candidates. It should concentrate on the issues (like every
good political campaign should do as well). This approach aims at promoting an
active involvement in the democratic process of the community on the part of the local
church and its religious leaders. One of its most important objectives is to get
people away from mindlessly following partisan lines and to think about and act upon
political issues from a theological perspective.
Religious leaders must be careful to maintain a credible voice. Here are a few
suggestions that may be helpful in this regard:
- Put yourself in the shoes of your congregants that have a political position that
differs from your own; remember that you must be a spiritual guide for them too.
- Start with the interpretation of the scriptures instead of looking for scriptural
support for personal views on political issues.
- Religious leaders speaking on political issues need to speak from a well informed
position. Reading articles on an issue from various sources helps look at an issue
from different angles.
- Speak on political issues from a spiritual care perspective rather than
from that of a political or economic analyst (this is advisable, too, for religious
leaders who also hold a political office). For instance, speak
about how cloning human beings could raise very difficult spiritual questions for those
cloned, such as: do I share a soul with my DNA counterpart? Am I created by God?
Am I a person in God's image? etc.
- Use language that encourages people to think on their own, to study the scriptures and
to engage in dialogue. Raising questions is a great tool to accomplish this.
Select Quotes on this Topic:
- "Voices of clergy speaking from beemas, pulpits, lecterns, and altars in houses
of worship have influenced significantly the direction of politics in this nation since
its inception. Indeed, a lively dialogue between the pulpit and politicians has pervaded
many of the most critical periods in our national history. Some historians contend that no
other form of discourse has held the place of importance in this nation's life than that
of preaching . . . By all means, address important issues of the day, but don't cross the
line into partisanship." Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy,
The Interfaith Alliance Foundation
Religious Expression at Election Time: "The
Becket Fund stands firmly for the proposition that the First Amendment should protect the
freedom of any religious minister (whether rabbi or reverend, imam or shaman) to preach
about anything at all (including politics of the left, right or center) without the threat
of fines or other government sanctions. In
our view, such penalties would represent both a grave offense to the free expression of
religious and political views, and an impermissible government preference for politically
docile religious groups over politically outspoken ones." Kevin
J. Hasson, Esq, The Becket Fund (read the entire open
letter to religious leaders)
Christian Education versus Humanism: "And what of the Church during this time [of proliferation of humanistic ideas]?
There were a limited number of Protestant and Catholic voices fighting the war, but
generally the Church droned on mechanically with its disconnected Biblical or catechistic
studies as the humanist juggernaut rolled forward." John Loeffler,
Wars in Paradigms, Preaching and Politics