Jan  2017 10
What Do You Mean When You Say, “Keep politics out of church?”

I often hear the angry or frustrated lament from a layperson, “We need to keep politics out of church!” Whenever I hear that lament, I want to know what it means, what exactly is the violation that is being lamented.

If we are not clear what of politics is supposed to stay outside a church’s walls, we may block more than is healthy, realistic, or faithful.

At the outset of exploring the question, I am going to assume wide agreement with the statement: “The recently concluded campaign for the presidency of the United States included many elements that we in religious congregations would never want to experience inside the walls of our congregations.”

But I wonder if we would agree on what the “many elements” are that we don’t think are fitting in congregational life. Very quickly, the conversation about meaning of “politics” we want to exclude becomes interesting.

The (re-stated) complaint “politics has no place in church” cannot mean there are or should be no church politics. Politics is a word that refers to the way power and authority are shared and distributed, to the ways things get done in a given community.

Politics, therefore, is a part of any human community of two persons or more. (You would not claim marriage is without politics, would you?)

Keith Bridston’s 1969 book Church Politics is premised on the understanding that politics is an inescapable practice within any human community, and that church politics tend to be bad politics.

A primary reason for bad church politics is people fantasize that the church ought to be immune from politics. Rather than being honest about their interests and owning their biases, church people tend to couch their interests in moral and theological language, thus raising the stakes from a practical level (reasoning about matters that could be otherwise) to a disagreement-about-first-principles level that create categories of winners and losers, of orthodox victors and heretical losers.

There is church politics. There will always be church politics. We should get honest about that fact and strive to deal with power, authority, and conflict in a more constructive way than churches often do.

I suspect what many folks mean by saying “keep politics out of church” is to “exclude from the life of our community arguments or pulpit affirmations concerning partisan political positions.”

Most clergy affirm the IRS prohibition on 501(c)(3) (non-profit) organizations engaging in campaigning for or against a particular candidate. There were a few evangelical clergy in the last several elections who challenged that rule by loudly violating it, but most of us clergy understand that electioneering is not our role.

However, the IRS does not prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations from taking moral stances than align with or support a particular piece of legislation

Depending on context, many laity are okay with taking a stance—if there is a clear majority who agree with the stance.

So, Catholic parishes that support pro-life legislation, Unitarian-Universalist congregations that uphold a woman’s right to choose, United Methodist and Southern Baptist congregations that link arms to block the expansion of legalized gambling, pastoral leaders from high poverty areas taking to pulpits and city council chambers to oppose pernicious payday lending practices—in all such cases, many laity support their church taking a stand on a public political issue.

So, other than not taking a stance for or against a particular candidate, and the subsequent activation of potentially damaging moral and ideological fault lines within a congregation, what does a person who says “keep politics out of church” mean to exclude?

Well, here is what I hope would not be excluded. When considering the complex topic of the intersection of religious life and political life, the topic gets even more complex and interesting to look at, say, the life of Jesus. “Let’s just talk about Jesus.” Okay, let’s do that.

  • When he was born, either the King wanted to assassinate him (Matthew 2:16) or his mother and kin declared him to be the one through whom God would deliver the people from the Empire (Luke 1:46-55 and 67-79). So, let’s not talk about the politics surrounding Jesus’ birth?
  • Among his followers were tax collectors, who collaborated with the Romans, and Zealots who, like today’s “insurgents” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, sought to bring down the regime through violence and terror. So, let’s talk about only the disciples who were good church-going folks?
  • There was a ruling Kingdom in Jesus day: the Roman Empire. When Jesus said “pray like this” and prayed for God’s Empire to come, his words could only have been heard as a challenge to Rome. So, let’s stop praying the Lord’s Prayer?
  • Jerusalem’s economy centered on the temple: building it, staffing it, running it. When Jesus overturned the tables on, to use an analogy from our day, Jerusalem’s “Black Friday” week, he seriously disrupted the annual economy of the city. A dangerous act of public political defiance. That disruption led to his arrest and was a factor in his execution. So, in order to keep politics out of church, let’s not talk about anything related to money, the economy, or Jesus’ cleansing the temple?
  • While we’re on the final week of his life, there is the matter of crucifixion. Crucifixion was a mode of execution used by the Romans for insurrectionists and employed as a means of instilling terror in the hearts of the conquered populace. The Gospels claim that over Jesus’ head hung the charge against him: King of the Jews (e.g., Luke 23:38), a political claim because there was a seated King of the Jews and the King’s ultimate boss was the Emperor. So, let’s not talk about crucifixion?

Yes, there are leaders today who want to limit Christianity to a religion of private spaces and interpersonal relationships.

They maintain Christianity should stay out of public issues and keep politics out of the church, except when a public issue (such as same sex marriage or employees having access to insurance-funded birth control) invades private space.

But limiting Christianity to private and interpersonal spaces means that church politics will continue to be conducted, as Bridston said, dishonestly. And it means the Gospels must be read so selectively that the reader would have no clue why Jesus was born, why he died, or what his life meant or could possibly mean today.

When we say we want to keep politics out of church, we need to be clear what we mean.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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