Churches and Political Action
—What Pastors Should and Should Not Do.
With October looming as a very big month in American politics, what’s a pastor to do? Or not do? I offer these thoughts to assist you.
Chair, Social Concerns Committee
Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches
During last year’s primary season a group of clergy gathered around Hillary Clinton. Like Old Testament prophets with the holy anointing oil they proclaimed, “Until [Jesus] comes again, . . . President-to-be Hillary Clinton, we decree and declare from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet that the favor of the Lord will surround you like a shield, in Jesus’ name.”
While this scene was technically legal (barely!) I don’t advise it. Nor do I advise pastors doing the same with Mr. Trump, though something like that recently happened.
From a LEGAL STANDPOINT, here are the “Do’s and Don’ts”:
· Churches MAY NOT endorse or oppose a candidate.
· Pastors MAY as individuals support or oppose candidates, but MAY NOT convey that they speak for their churches. And they should not proclaim their “personal decision” in any church medium (like the pulpit or church newsletter). No preaching, “I’m not telling you who to vote for or speaking for the church, but here’s where I’m putting my support.”)
· Churches MAY NOT use their resources (like facilities, property or equipment) in contexts that endorse or oppose a candidate.
· Churches MAY invite candidates to speak if done even-handedly and not selectively. Their presence in a service or in the pulpit must not convey the church’s support of any candidate.
· Churches MAY distribute voter guides, but I don’t recommend it because almost all have a “slant” to promote. I also would not allow members or outside groups to bring literature to the church or blitz cars in the church’s parking lot with flyers. If outsiders show up or blitz the parking lot, it may be wise for the pastor to disavow it.
· Churches MAY schedule a forum where the candidates for an office are invited to speak and answer questions. If only one shows up that’s not a legal problem, but it may not look the best and the church would need to be careful not to have the occasion appear to be an endorsement of the candidate who appeared.
· Churches MAY spend money and lobby and encourage members in support of or in opposition to a ballot measure or a piece of legislation (like many did in California recently on Senate Bill 1146). The limitation is that the resources expended not be “substantial”. This may be interpreted as “not more than 5%”, which would probably never be exceeded in churches as reticent as evangelical churches traditionally are. The limit applies not just to money spent but also to other factors such as pastoral time.
I DO RECOMMEND these points of guidance:
· Always maintain a distinction between the ultimate issues of the Kingdom of God and the penultimate possibilities of the political process. The latter are genuine but not perfect. They are secondary but not primary. They need the church’s voice and attention but must not get top billing.
· Preach on morally laden issues and proposals like good or bad legislation or initiatives. But be sure that the biblical “connectedness” is made clear. Of course, we preach sensitive to the congregation and visitors in such matters, but avoiding the topics should not be considered an option.
· Have the church’s official body (Elders, board, or congregation) take positions on issues subject to the above qualifications and when the issue is important (as Grace Community Church of Seal Beach did on SB-1146).
· Do voter registration at the church before and after services. This is a non-partisan activity.
· Have a forum to educate church members on ballot initiatives.
· Have your facility used for voting, subject to acceptable rules (for examples, I wouldn’t accept a demand to cover the cross but removing a literature table may be acceptable). This is a natural way of showing interest in the wellbeing of your community.
· DO NOT politicize your message. By “politicize” I mean stridently or subtly speaking for or against a particular party or political stratum.
· Remember that EDIFICATION OF THE SAINTS is always the goal in a worship service. This influences sermon style and content immensely.
· Politically activist Christians must remember that the unity of the church must transcend all political and secular unities.
· Remember the admonition (I’ve made it often and sometimes it’s been heard with much irritation, but at least the point wasn’t missed): “The church is the one place where a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican should be able to join hands and sing, ‘We Are One in the Bond of Love’.”
Topics to Proclaim:
Churches have a powerful gospel instrument known as “The Pulpit” (even if “pulpit” is now a metaphor). Here are some topics, which could be sermons, sermon points, or discussion points:
· Immigration from a biblical perspective
· The Sovereignty of God over the Governments of Man (“The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” – Daniel 4:25)
· Religious Freedom and how it is eroding
· How healing can come to fractured race relations
· The duties of good Christian Citizenship (we now live in a participatory republic rather than in the Roman society that disadvantaged and even persecuted believers)
· The need for fiscal wisdom and accountability in government
· Godly men of the Bible who served the secular state and society of their times (Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah)
· How God works peace and justice through governments he establishes, be they ever so fragile and faulty
· What God expects of secular rulers and those who “bear the sword”
· The Issue that Won’t Go Away—Protecting Unborn Human Life