Tom DeLay, the former House majority whip and leader, wasn't called "The Hammer" for nothing. In recent months he's been the best book publicist an author could want, asking me repeatedly to read his friend Norm Mason's The Political Imperative: An Assignment from God (Jebaire, 2011). I finally did, and will argue that its analysis is solid but its final prescription is wrong.
Mason, former chairman of the Texas Christian Coalition, rightly emphasizes the clearest current issue, abortion, and the importance of Christians fighting it politically as well as in other ways. He rightly notes that when an airplane seems headed toward a crash, we'd much rather have a pilot intent on trying to land it than reading a pamphlet picked up at an airport booth, "God's Will for Your Life in an Airline Disaster."
It seems to me that Mason goes awry in his concluding chapter, though, when he calls for establishment of "a church-wide Great Commission Citizens Corps in each church." This church body should "develop and communicate to the membership reliable sources of data" and "provide specific information to the church body as applicable."
That sounds reasonable, but in practice many evangelical churches would become known as Republican churches (some already are), others would become known as Democratic churches, and people of other persuasions would be less likely to come. I don't believe that is Mason's intent, yet these days we should acknowledge, sadly, that one person's reliable source is another's propaganda.
Overall, it's not the task of the church as church to take political stands or provide political information. The 450-year-old Belgic Confession states it well: "The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults."
That's a lot to do, and if more American churches had handled those three areas well we wouldn't have many of the social problems we have today. Good and true preaching, along with the sacraments' weekly reminder of Christ's mercy toward us, leads church members to be active in mercy and in many areas of life-but wise pastors also prompt them to form associations outside the church, and leave the church to its central tasks from which so many blessings flow.
That pattern in the 18th and 19th centuries worked exceptionally well. New England pastors in colonial times preached and taught what the Bible says about liberty, and the Sons of Liberty-not a subset of any particular church-eventually sponsored a tea party in Boston harbor. Pastors throughout America during those centuries preached about biblical poverty-fighting, and in city after city Christians formed organizations such as (in New York) the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, government has tragically taken eminent domain over anti-poverty work. The Supreme Court has notoriously overreached by mandating abortion. The White House is now undercutting religious liberty. It's not surprising that some evangelical churches have responded with their own overreaching by becoming political and suggesting that "if only we had the right laws." But in churches that become political clubs, hubris trumps humility-and pride will go before a fall.
The scientific establishment is already falling. One recent survey showed that confidence in scientific leaders among conservatives has declined sharply over the past four decades. A large reason is the politicization of science, as many leaders demand allegiance to hypotheses about past and future-evolution and global warming-that the scientific method cannot prove.
Evangelicals need to guard against a parallel politicization of churches. Pastors as they exegete Scripture can and should make practical applications to key moral issues such as abortion, but they should be wary of going further. The Bible tells us what we need to know about past and future-how we're created and where we're going. It does not tell us precisely what to do about the Keystone pipeline or Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.
Instead of politicizing churches, we should apply C.S. Lewis' dictum: "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither."