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Pastors and politics

Religion | A growing number of congregations are riding a wave of political activism

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011

Call it the Holy Water Party. The federal government's reckless mismanagement of the economy, and the continued deterioration of our collective moral culture, has inspired a new wave of conservative Christian political activism. According to pastor Jamie Johnson of Story City, Iowa, Iowan pastors were roused from their apolitical slumbers by hate-speech legislation in 2009 that might have constrained what pastors could say from the pulpit and a state Supreme Court decision in the same year opening the door to same-sex marriage. Three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled with the majority were voted off the bench, and now pastors are "much more enthused than they were four years ago" to shape the election's outcome.

Since some congregants prefer their pulpits without politics, says Kerry Jech of Marshalltown, Iowa, pastors like himself "take the fire" for their political activities. Yet he's confident he's making the right decision, and wishes more would join the cause. Many pastors believe that the issues at stake in the 2012 election are so important that failing to engage the political sphere is failing to defend the flock.

The phenomenon is not limited to highly politicized states like Iowa. In a Los Angeles Times report on pastors "increasingly heeding a call to speak out on politics," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, describes the nascent national movement of pastors engaging the political sphere as a reawakening of the Religious Right in a more localized, grassroots form-"a congregational version of the tea party." Pastors who once avoided his calls are now calling him and asking to get involved.

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Whether this constitutes a healthy development in the life of the American church, or a distraction from its eternal purpose, is a matter of dispute even amongst Christian conservatives. Controversial new books on the essential mission of the church and starkly different responses among evangelicals to religious-political events like Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally and Rick Perry's "Response" suggest that pastors and religious leaders are finding it difficult to separate the right and wrong ways of bringing faith and politics together.

Seven out of 10 pastors, according to a 2010 LifeWay Research study, draw the line at endorsing candidates from the pulpit. It's one thing to educate and mobilize a congregation around biblical principles of life, family, and fiscal stewardship, but quite another to make the church an instrument of political operators. Yet an even larger number, eight out of 10 pastors, according to a new LifeWay study, believe the tax-exempt status of churches should not be imperiled by their political activities. Pastors want the freedom to choose whether to engage the political sphere without the threat of government intervention.

What is clear is that pastors, as Johnson says, "see this as more than just another presidential election." What is not yet clear is how congregations and their broader communities will respond. When churches enter the political fray, do they compromise their witness and make the proper party affiliation a prerequisite for entering the kingdom? On the other hand, in the midst of social disintegration and the erosion of Judeo-Christian values, can churches and their pastors afford to stand apart from the fray, or do their moral and theological commitments compel action? The road to November 2012 is long, not only for the candidates and their supporters but for pastors and thoughtful believers who would understand, model, and teach the right relationship between faith and politics, church and state.

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