Pastors and Politics

Yesterday was the primary election here in Pennsylvania, and it got me to thinking…

I remember the 2004 election well. I was in my final semester at Grove City College, one of the most republican colleges in the country. The college administration was even kind enough to have special inter-visitation hours (normally reserved for the weekends) so you could watch the election results with friends of the opposite sex (I’m laughing as I type this sentence). People were watching the election results (probably on Fox News) with great cheers every time Bush was declared the victor in a new state. I remember talking a couple days later with a friend who happened to be Democrat. She was ridiculed by a lot of her peers, and in some cases her Christian character was questioned, because clearly a vote for ‘W’ was a vote for Jesus. This atmosphere wasn’t sitting right with me.

The Sunday following the election, I had the opportunity to preach in a small Congregationalist church outside of Mercer. It was a friendly church, and one of the few that I’ve ever preached in where members of the congregation actually referred back to points of my sermon in conversation after the service (as opposed to the cliché “nice sermon” or “thank you for that message”). I loved this church, except for one thing. During the sharing of joys and concerns, the pastor and several in the congregation agreed that we needed to thank God for putting the “right man” in office, and acknowledged how hard they had been praying that this would happen. Now, I had voted for ‘W,’  and even I felt awkward at this point. I can’t imagine how anyone who voted for Kerry would feel in the context of this church.

As the Pennsylvania primary was drawing closer over the past month, I saw the opposite side of the pendulum here at Pittsburgh Seminary. I’ve seen as many Obama pins here as I saw ‘W’ pins at Grove City. I also saw and read in the news of somewhere around 100 local pastors officially endorsing Barack Obama for president. I wonder how the republicans and the Clinton supporters in their congregations feel?

Don’t get me wrong, pastors have every legal right to participate in the political process and to express their opinions. I would also argue that they, and any Christian, ought to allow their faith to inform, even dictate, their voting and political action. The problem is twofold. Firstly, no presidential candidate is Jesus, and there are valid, Christian reasons for voting (or not voting) democrat or republican. Secondly, pastors are called to the vocation first and foremost of proclaiming the gospel. When they associate too closely with any one presidential candidate, pastors run the risk of isolating themselves from those of a different political persuasion.

Perhaps it would better, rather than pastors (and Christians in general) attempting to endorse a particular candidate, to focus their political energies on speaking to particular issues. Maybe if instead of pastors talking about Obama, Clinton and McCain, they should focus on speaking about the need to preserve the life of the unborn, to be better stewards of the planet entrusted to our care, to correct the wrongs of racism still present in our society, and so on.

This would be a counter-cultural move; it would mean Christians refusing to be put into a particular political box defined by this-worldly standards. So long as we allow ourselves to be defined politically by our endorsement of particular candidate, we’ll misrepresent the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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