Monday, November 16, 2015

The Pastor and Politics: Some Guidelines in an Election Year

A year from now, we will have a new "President-elect."  But for several months already, pundits, politicians, and the general public have been stewing over what could be one of the most vitriolic and controversial elections so far in the 21st century.

During times like these, people of faith need the guidance of their pastors.  But over the years, I've seen a couple of approaches by a few men of God that just aren't helpful.  On the one hand, there are those who completely ignore the political landscape on the basis that "I don't talk about politics."  While I can understand the desire not get drawn in to debates over a kingdom that all who preach God's Word know is temporary, there is a big difference between refusing to go down the political rabbit hole, and acting as though the coming elections aren't a reality.

On the other end of the spectrum are hyper-partisan pastors who call out those they perceive to be less-than-desirable candidates, and distribute "voter guides" with all the passion of a Jehovah's Witness with the latest edition of the Watchtower.  

In the middle- most of our people want to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the voting booth via thinking critically about all the issues involved, and how their vote is likely to impact those issues.  But to provide them the guidance they need, Pastors need to strike a balance between ignoring an entire year on the political calendar, and looking over the shoulders of our people as they cast their votes.  How do we do this?  Let me suggest some general guidelines:

1. Talk about Issues, not Personalities.  Sure, its easier to take pot-shots at politicians than it is to take apart and examine the issues being debated.  When issues arise, especially in national campaigns, apply the teaching of the Scriptures to those issues.  Trust me, your people are intelligent enough to be able to take the grid you give them and hold it up against the candidates.  You don't have to attack an individual.  That may be how they do it on MSNBC or FOX News, but you are called to a much higher standard.

2. Love all, serve all, and have your picture made with all.  Some weeks ago, a friend sent me this video of a group of pastors praying over Presidential candidate Donald Trump.  When granted those opportunities, I think its a fantastic opportunity to speak to, counsel with, and pray for those who seek public office.  But two questions came to mind as I watched this:  First, why a camera?  If you are truly seeking to bless a political leader by praying for their personal needs, wouldn't you want to keep that--well--personal?

Second, I wondered to myself; "How many of these pastors would have done the same for Hillary Clinton?  And would they have been OK with that event being filmed?"  As ministers of the Gospel, we are sometimes granted great opportunities to be in the presence of political power.  When we are granted that audience, our primary concern should be pastoral.  That means we seek to minister to the soul of the politician (yes, they have them too!), and our doors are open to anyone, meaning the last thing on our minds is "how is this going to look?"  When it comes to the candidates themselves, love them all with the love of Jesus--not to gain access to power or get your business card in their hands, but because you care about their souls.

3. Never, under any circumstances, endorse a candidate.  Yes, I believe the "Johnson amendment" is wrong and unconstitutional.  If a pastor wants to endorse a candidate as a pastor, from the pulpit, I believe that is his right and neither he nor his church should be penalized for it.

But just because I think its legal doesn't mean I don't also think its a really dumb thing to do.

If I endorse a candidate in my capacity as a pastor, I've essentially said "this is God's candidate."  Think about the implications of that for just a moment.  That means everything this person does during their term of office is now associated with the name of Jesus via my pulpit-centered political endorsement.  Its just not a smart thing to do.  So don't do it.

4. Preach the complexity of issues, because the politicians won't!  One prominent example of this principle is the importance that will be given to potential war in the middle east during this election cycle.  Politicians in both parties will seek to reduce their positions to quick and easy solutions that take less than 2 minutes to explain.  In part, this is due to our ridiculous debate structure.

And let's be honest.  Sometimes its because you have a candidate that just isn't very smart.  Such is precisely the time for your people to be reminded of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others who have for the past two millennia given us a rich history of just war theory to be contemplated deeply and taken with a deadly seriousness.  Most candidates for office have 2 minutes.  As a pastor, you have 30 minutes to an hour--every week!  Explore the complexity of the issues being debated, and help your people think critically, deeply, and Biblically.  Human flourishing happens this way.

5. Use elections to make disciples.  Don't use disciples to win elections.  Our end goal as pastors is to grow deeper, more passionate, Biblically informed, world-changing followers of Jesus.  It isn't to mobilize a political voting bloc.  So in the end, make sure you are equipping people to affect this temporary kingdom in a positive way, but doing so with their eyes on the eternal one.

Election seasons are strategic times to preach about important issues.  But at the end of the day, disciples aren't strengthened and God's Kingdom isn't advanced by taking over the power structures of this temporary world.  Keeping those things in balance is important for pastors who want to be found faithful during election season.

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