Is the Church Getting Too Involved in Politics?

By Darrel Rowland

Have you noticed that even the secular world has favorite Bible verses?

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone . . . ” (John 8:7).

“Do not judge . . . ” (Matthew 7:1).

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25).

The last is often used not only to justify the concept of separation of church and state, but as a tool to keep Christians locked in their stained-glass ghettos, where they can keep their religion properly private and not attempt to influence culture or society.

Most of us would reject such a confining interpretation.

And, indeed, we’ve burst out of those unholy shackles in recent years, haven’t we?

We picked a president. Regular churchgoers overwhelmingly supported evangelical Christian George W. Bush in both 2000 and especially 2004, arguably providing the winning margin both times.

We are leading the battle against gay marriage. With Christians at the forefront, pro-family measures are 20 for 20 in statewide votes.

We can be ignored no longer, as national, state, and local politicians must consider the Christian voting block in their decisions.

Sure we’ve still got battles with judges and unenlightened lawmakers, but when has Christianity enjoyed such widespread influence across the political landscape in recent times?

So why am I scared to death?

Because I wonder if this quest for political power is what Jesus really wants.

Avoiding A Trap

Regardless of how we interpret Jesus’ response regarding God and Caesar, I think we can agree on one key fact: His opponents were trying to trap him, to get him in trouble with either the public or the government, and they were doing so by trying to get him caught up in a leading political controversy of the day.

God has given tremendous growth to Christian churches/churches of Christ in recent years, outstripping that of any other large Christian group.

But at a time when so many Restoration Movement churches have come together to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, in a year of a historic convention joining two branches of a divided unity movement, I fear we may be sowing seeds of our demise by setting up unscriptural dividing lines in our churches.

My perspective undoubtedly is colored by living through two splits at a former church and a third dispute in which several people went away unhappy.

And my viewpoint unquestionably is shaped by nearly 30 years as a professional journalist covering or supervising reporting on politics at all levels, from races for township offices, city councils, and school boards to campaigns for governor, U.S. Senate, and president.

For better or worse, politics and religion are becoming increasingly intertwined in many parts of our country. From my experience, it’s usually religion more than politics that suffers from this uneasy mixture. Just as Christians struggle to be in the world but not of the world, it seems even harder to be in politics but not of politics.

Deciding to Speak

Politics often relies on the art of compromise, but more often these days it’s a my-side-is-always-right, win-at-all-costs battle (a situation to which my own profession contributes). Neither is especially hospitable to consistent Christianity, which is one reason I admire those Christians in public office who live out their faith.

Please hear what I am NOT saying: I strongly disagree with those who want Christians to keep their religion a personal matter and to remain silent on the leading spiritual and moral issues of the day. We need only look to such people as William Wilberforce, James Garfield, and Martin Luther King (without endorsing everything they said or did) to see faith in action that transformed society.

But when we do speak out claiming the mantle of Christianity for our side, don’t we have an obligation to provide chapter and verse to back it up? Tactics and how we say things make a huge difference, too. Our truth should be blended with love (Ephesians 4:15), spirit (John 4:23), and grace (John 1:14). How many seekers have been turned off by the harsh demeanor and political rhetoric of people wearing the name of Christ?

In Ohio, we are seeing ministers being politically mobilized not just for the familiar battles over abortion and marriage, but also in support of laws to limit lawsuits and to oppose changing campaign contribution limits.

Leaders of these movements are pushing to repeal the 1954 federal ban that limits churches’ (and other nonprofits’) active involvement in partisan politics in exchange for maintaining a tax-exempt status.

And if this push is happening in Ohio—the nation’s political bellwether that swung the 2004 presidential election, as well as part of the heartland of the Restoration Movement—it could be headed to your state, if it’s not there already.

Of course our movement survived the Civil War and many other crises over the past two centuries. But where we have split (instrumental music, missionary societies, and the like), the wounds have been self-inflicted, all too often over “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1).

Earlier this year I took part in a forum (covered by such media as the BBC and HBO) on religion and politics where a preacher condemned a wide range of social and political activities.

Then the moderator (not a Christian to my knowledge) wanted to know: “Is all this in the Bible, or is this just conservative politics?”

That’s a key question, isn’t it?

Drawing the Line

So where do we draw the line between the great moral issues of the day and those matters that, while we may feel strongly about, just reflect our personal political preferences? Do we organize ministers from all across the map to stand in the breach not only on family and life issues, but also against lowering state campaign contribution limits from $10,000 to $2,000? Do we issue the clarion call for prayer requests to support the holy cause of tort reform?

Cannot people of goodwill, not to mention faithful Christians, stand on either side on these issues? In other words, are we moving items from the list of opinions over into the list of faith?

Fellow Christians, let me make myself clear. I agree with several of the causes my brothers and sisters so ardently advocate. I share the frustration with the direction of our country and culture (although I also believe “the good ol’ days” are sorely overrated).

And I am not wholly ignorant of the varying political party platforms on issues important to Christians.

But where I live, party labels are not so easily applied. For example, the head of the county Republican Party is openly gay, the leader of Ohio’s leading pro-life group is a Democrat, and a local GOP congressman was in cahoots with a lobbyist exploiting what he labeled Christian “wackoes.’’

Christians already are saddled with the misperception of many seekers and unbelievers that we are asking them not only to come to Christ, but to convert to a specific political agenda as well. That misinformation undoubtedly is spread by enemies of the church.

But how much do we contribute to the stereotype?

It’s been well documented nationally how some churches provided the 2004 Bush campaign with church directories so the campaign could contact members. An IRS review earlier this year of 82 nonprofit organizations discovered that three-quarters of the groups, nearly half of them churches, had illegally taken part in political activities.

The Ohio ministers have heard only Republican officeholders speak at their gatherings. In last year’s election they opposed the statewide ballot issues opposed by Republican legislative leaders. One group’s leader displays a Bush bumper sticker on his Cadillac SUV. Another personally endorsed the Republican gubernatorial nominee this year and showed up at his primary election victory party.

Don’t you wonder what happens to the credibility of our salt-and-light redemptive voice if we link our cause to a specific political party? And what about when the inevitable political backlash occurs and “our side” is no longer in power?

Let me bluntly seek honest answers to a couple of questions, especially from those whose churches, like mine, meet in predominantly Republican rural and suburban America:

How welcome in your church are those who oppose the war in Iraq? What about Democrats? How about people who believe feeding the poor and caring for the sick are at least as scriptural as opposing abortion and gay marriage?

Thomas Campbell fled the burdensome denominational world that labeled him part of the Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church. Are we replacing that with the Republican Anti-Gay Rights Lower Taxes Christian Church, “a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10)?

Shall we change the old song to say, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our . . . right-wing politics”?

(For what it’s worth, I don’t see the Democratic Party, which so often gets all-but-automatic support from urban churches that have long been involved in politics, as the solver of all our nation’s woes, either.)

Protecting the Church

Forgive me if my language seems excessive, but I feel strongly about the danger to the church from political entanglement, especially when we develop uncompromising litmus tests in areas of opinion.

All too often the apostles misguidedly sought an earthly kingdom—political power!—even after the resurrection (Acts 1:6).

Can we avoid a similar misplacement of priorities? Are we forgetting that no matter how many worthy political struggles we may join, Jesus’ kingdom still is not of this world?

We can win that key vote, prevail in that debate over a judicial nominee, or even elect that preferred candidate . . . and what will it matter if we don’t show Christ to our neighbor, or even a political opponent?

You know, the Restoration Movement ought to be good at this. We cut our teeth on separating matters of opinion (nonessentials) from matters of faith (essentials). It’s in our “Christians only” DNA to speak only where the Bible speaks.

Can we agree that Christians are called to a higher standard than either the Democratic or Republican platform? We shouldn’t let any political party define Christianity, to put us in a box as just another special-interest group to be taken out when needed for a photo op or a key vote or an important campaign.

If we do venture on this sanctified quest for political power, I hope we always remember that while new laws and prohibitions may direct behavior from the outside in, the power of Jesus Christ will transform people from the inside out.

And if that happens, how much of this struggle will solve itself?

Darrel Rowland is public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch and an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church.

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