In just a few days, the local church where my family and I have been members for the last 32 years will host an overtly political gathering. Republicans will act out their Republican preferences, Democrats will show their Democratic commitments, and a few Libertarians will give evidence they’re still disciplined enough to place principle over pragmatics.
All that intense political activity will happen on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Some years back, the local board of elections asked whether our church might be willing to provide space in our fellowship hall to serve as precinct headquarters every Election Day. Thankful for the freedoms we enjoy, and eager to show our citizenship, our officers gave happy assent.
But I can assure you that what happens on Tuesday, Nov. 6, is about as political as it ever gets within the walls of my church. We’re pretty much like most evangelical congregations I know. We’re all vaguely aware that probably 90 percent of us will be voting a straight Republican ticket. But most of us are also pretty discreet about discussing that in any formal way—and especially so about discussing it from the pulpit.
There are both external and internal reasons for that traditional reluctance to let our churches become centers of overt political activity. External reasons include the fear that we might offend the IRS and maybe lose our tax-exempt status. Internal reasons swirl around concern that we as a church might blur the distinction between our worldly character and our much more important spiritual and heavenly allegiance.
Those may appear at first blush to be legitimate concerns. But I can’t help wondering whether we’ve become too cautious and too worrisome—and in the process dulled our prophetic edge. So what if we protect our tax exemptions but find ourselves in a nation where our religious institutions are forced to ignore their consciences in the shaping of their corporate medical insurance programs? And why do we think it’s OK to be specific from our pulpits about delicate issues like sex, marriage, and money but have to tiptoe around the matter of politics?
The great worldview thinker Abraham Kuyper is famous for noting that God looks down on His creation and claims: “There’s not a square inch of it that doesn’t belong to Me.” But don’t imagine for a minute that Kuyper might have followed up on that bold assertion with a wimpy exception about politics. You need only remind yourself that Kuyper took politics seriously enough to serve as the prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 through 1905.
Did Kuyper talk about politics when he went to church? Did he campaign from the pulpit? Did he register voters during the Sunday school hour? Did he pass out bumper stickers and coffee during the fellowship hour? No, I doubt it. For this was also the deep-thinking and wise man who popularized the idea of “sphere sovereignty,” spelling out in some detail God’s ordered creation of (1) family, (2) church, and (3) state—and warning against the intrusion of one sphere into the domain of the others. Kuyper obviously knew better than to take a good thing too far.
So no, I don’t want my local church to look anything like a political party headquarters. I don’t think my church should typically end up endorsing specific candidates. But with the radical secularization of our culture, it seems increasingly right for our churches—as part of their teaching ministry—to engage in explicit instruction of their people. When the Bible says that “righteousness exalts a nation,” it seems minimally appropriate for churches and their ministers to help their people understand better in practical political terms what that righteousness looks like. What does “righteousness” mean when we think about tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues?
As a help toward this end, I warmly endorse a robust but balanced video series and study guide called The Political Animal, prepared and distributed by Summit Ministries in Colorado. Go to summit-courses.org for a free viewing of the first of six lectures by Dr. Jeff Myers, or to buy the whole set.
I wish that The Political Animal had saturated the evangelical world throughout the current political campaign. But it’s never too late for true wisdom to have an appropriate impact. Let’s get on—without apology—with this teaching task.