By / Feb 7

“The Nations Belong to God: A Christian Guide for Political Engagement” is a resource written to help Christians facing an election year. This guide is a starting point for Christians to think about how to engage the political processes around them.

Download the Guide

Every election is about getting the most votes—whether it is at the local level directly from voters or at the presidential level in the Electoral College.

Anxiety and animosity are a driving force behind a number of candidacies. Think of how many times you have heard an office seeker paint the next election as a battle between “us vs. them” or deploy dehumanizing language against opponents, specific groups, or the media.

Why are election years so difficult?

During election season, there is a tendency to reduce complex issues to soundbites. As a consequence, voters are not required to think deeply about problems and solutions. Instead of substantively engaging, voters are asked to become partisan automatons or polarized performers.

  • So how do we see through the political gamesmanship and grift?
  • What can be done to think more deeply how to steward our votes instead of falling into the lazy “binary choice” framework?
  • Most importantly, how can we honor God as we engage in political decisions on Election Day—or any other day?

What is a Christian Guide for Political Engagement?

This guide titled “The Nations Belong to God,” patterned off the ancient model of a catechism, is a starting point for Christians thinking about how to engage the political processes around them. It is not the end of doctrine or teaching on any of these subjects, but a place to begin, a call to consider anew what it means for us to declare, “Jesus is Lord.” 

Though this political catechism was written to help Christians facing an election year, and in a time when there is a growing sense of fear, polarization, vitriol, and apathy about the current landscape of politics, it is also a guide to how life should be lived every other day besides a Tuesday in November every four years. Our political participation should not be boiled down to a vote cast on one day, important as that vote may be.

Politics is about life in community with others, and those relationships exist even when candidates aren’t vying for our votes, donations, and attention. 

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC President

In the face of an election year sure to be filled with angst, division, and fearmongering, the teachings of Jesus will be all the more important for a witness that is bold and hopeful. The hope flowing from a confidence that no matter who occupies the White House, Congress, or seats of power, our citizenship lies in heaven, and our work as ambassadors continues.

Download the Guide

By / Nov 7

Editor’s Note: During this week where Americans go to the polls for midterm elections, Canon and Culture is running a counterpoint series about the church and political activity. Today is the third and final part in a three-part series. The first post is available here; and the second here.

With refreshing zest, Jonathan Leeman’s contribution abounds with pastoral care and concern – something needed but frequently omitted in many of today’s “cultural discussions.” Yet, his contribution never really interacts with the central issue actually framed by this exchange: Is it the State or the Church via its ordained servants who decides the content of what is preached from the pulpit? Instead, despite its many good cautions, we see a stream of fallacious and/or incoherent cul-de-sacs that cloud the analytic waters. Each of his prime assertions will be assessed. Their surface plausibility is wholly illusory.

At the outset, Leeman claims that what’s at stake when preaching is “dividing the church from the world.” He uses this premise to assert that because a pastor could be mistaken or less than certain regarding a political issue or a candidate, a pastor should rarely, if ever, address these areas. Even overlooking his dubious and reductionistic description of preaching, this assertion lacks merit.

EVERY time a preacher says anything, whether “political” or not, he could be mistaken; more problematic: how confident or certain must a pastor be before he passes Leeman’s “certainty test”? And, how would he (or anyone else) know? If Leeman’s assessment were correct, no prudent pastor would say anything. While wisdom is always “at issue,” it should sound in warning, not as a trump card gagging all political commentary.

The point here is not that every pastor should unwisely spout inane political or partisan slogans, but rather that a pastor possesses the liberty – liberty that should not be constrained by the State – to wisely address these matters and that in wisely addressing such matters, he edifies and equips the sheep and glorifies the Lord.

Leeman instead implies that addressing politics and candidates may be (somehow?) deviating from proclaiming the gospel by exceeding the preacher’s authority. But, that is not Paul’s understanding. In Paul’s calculus, ethics, including ethics in the public square applied to persons (“law”), aligns with the faithful application of the gospel: 1 Tim. 1:8-10

Now, Scripture equips people for “righteousness” and “every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Does the public square need righteousness? Is politics a good work? (Rm. 13). Yes and yes. These matters (good works and righteousness) form the very core of being salt and light and should be the directional beam of our conduct; and that conduct, that is, those good works, are ethical in nature (Mt. 5:13-20, and 6:33). This means they also have political implications. Ethics/law written on the heart and then applied to all of life – that is, drawing and applying distinctions between the moral and the immoral – forms the very essence of the New Covenant, effectuated by the means of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Jer. 31:33). Failing to address such matters withholds God’s full word from the flock.

If a pastor refuses do this from the pulpit, he is not faithfully executing his calling. A moral or ethical matter labeled “political” does not cease being a moral matter that would benefit from the light of God’s word.

Note how Leeman frames the issue: “Should pastors support or oppose political candidates or leaders from the pulpit?” [emphasis added]. But, this formula prejudices the question. The real issue is whether a pastor’s liberty to address moral matters should be cabined by the State. Moral matters necessarily include both issues and people – issues don’t repent; people by grace do.

Leeman next creates a false and frankly palsied dichotomy contending that addressing issues somehow differs from addressing particular candidates, which he finds particularly problematic and even pernicious. This is erroneous:

HOW do institutions, including political institutions, operate and address matters? They do so via agents who are persons. Issues are effectuated by persons. One cannot coherently divorce the agent from the issue because the agent IS the actor who effectuates the issue.

Leeman asserts nevertheless that with candidates the issues are complex and this somehow precludes addressing persons. This too is mistaken:

In the first place this contention fallaciously assumes a moral equivalency among issues, which is plainly false. A candidate who wishes to close pregnancy resource centers is different from one who wants to raise the tax increment finance ratios. The issues may be complex, but they are not morally equivalent. And some issues, such as those predicated on or derived from the Decalogue, define the “weightier matters of the law.” After all, Jesus tells us that the greatest in the Kingdom follow and teach others to follow God’s law. (Matt. 5:19). As the context makes plain, this includes the public application of the commandments, beyond the congregation.

EVERY matter may be complex in some sense; a leader’s very job however is to discern (Heb. 5), not avoid, the complexities occurring in God’s fallen, but redeemed, world . . . and then, address them using the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:27)

Leeman’s examples dealing with pro-abortion candidates show only that he is willing to implicitly, but (somehow?) not explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate. How does this distinction make a moral difference? He claims that a “direct application” from scriptural principle to the issue provides the decisive standard. This lacks merit.

A “direct” application of a scriptural principle may very well directly mean not supporting the person who holds certain unchristian positions. Paul and John do this as indicated below and the underlying principle they use is nowhere limited to dogmatics or heresiarchs.

The sheep draw inferences from sermons – at least that should be the goal; it’s called applying scripture. To say that preaching scripture does not apply to persons effectuating issues, but only to the issues themselves, is to truncate scripture’s witness and intent. The pastor is not somehow “safe” or faithful if he only draws the scriptural line to a key issue but omits “naming names”.

From a less abstract perspective: If a congregant sins in the way he is addressing a public issue, including voting, how can he learn to repent absent spiritual guidance from the pulpit? Is our public and political life to remain unsanctified by Scripture? Is our political life, including voting, a zone of supposed neutrality? What if these matters are addressed in a Sunday School class? Can the pastor “name names” there, but not during his sermon? On what principled basis?

And, what if a political candidate or office holder is a member of the congregation and he sins publicly and gravely?   Presumably, Leeman would at some point in the discipline process deem identifying the unrepentant candidate as a proper step of church discipline. But somehow, this application of scripture to a public person magically becomes improper if the person is not a member of the preacher’s congregation, or if he or she is a member of a different congregation or no congregation at all? This distinction is arbitrary and thus unreliable.

Positively put, Scripture often “calls out” actors by name, warning the faithful to avoid them and thus NOT support them: see, e.g., Alexander, Hymenaeus, and Diotrephes, (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:14 and 3 John 9).

“Naming names” enjoys biblical warrant as to individuals. The initial essay illustrates this as to political actors as well. Leeman either ignores this scriptural evidence or dismisses it with special pleading.

As to political parties, which Leeman injects into the conversation, he fails to note that Jesus “names party names” as well. (E.g., Rev. 2 and 3 – Jesus identifies several parties with whom church members are affiliated and then commands them to repent and disassociate). And, of course the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman officials are all collectively addressed as parties as well.

Leeman apparently confines his analysis to the positions a candidate holds (but only as to issues held, detached from the person advocating the issues). This limitation artificially truncates crucial biblical considerations: Scripture is concerned not only with “issues,” but also with the person, the leader, himself – irrespective of the issues. Leeman ignores these crucial criteria:

What about a candidate’s competence? Is this biblically off-limits? Certainly, if a pastor knows about a gaping defect in a candidate’s competence for the position, he ought to seek the “welfare of the city” (Jer. 29) by alerting the congregation to that deficit. We should not elect deaf and blind folks to serve as health inspectors.

Similarly, Leeman’s proposal overlooks a candidate’s character. A pastor who remains silent withholds good from the City if he knows that a particular candidate lacks the character to hold a position of responsibility and leadership.   See e.g., 16:19 (bribe takers); 17:14ff. and 2 Chron.26 (King Uzziah’s pride)

Thus, aside from specific policy matters, a candidate – as a person – may lack the competence or character suitable for holding office or exercising leadership. Limiting preaching to issues and not addressing persons qua persons is necessarily incomplete.

Leeman lastly contends “division” may result from a pastor “naming names”.

This assertion is fallacious as it commits the “false cause” fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc) as well as committing the hasty generalization error.

Moreover, this point cuts both ways: what about division “caused” by a pastor who refuses to address a prominent cultural issue that impacts the congregation’s ability to discharge its calling? A pastor’s silence can just as easily precipitate division as well as threaten the congregation’s ability to do what it is called to do.

And, according to Paul, division is not necessarily bad; division can be the means by which the faithful are made evident. (1 Cor. 11:9).

Accordingly, invoking the “unity” card – without more – therefore provides no guidance to the question at hand. Why? Because every assertion from the pulpit potentially could precipitate disunity at some level. If three people depart from a 6000 member congregation, is that inappropriate division? What if two depart? One? The entire analytic thread unwinds because it manifestly lacks a sound principled basis. Thus, this point comprises a classic red herring fallacy as well.

Solomon says it well: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them.” (Pr. 28:4). By refusing to “name names” and instead by counseling silence, Leeman is by default (not design) orienting pastors (and their flocks) to ultimately praise the wicked. And, this should not be. Exposing evil, including those who do evil, is part of what Christians are called to do (Eph. 5:11). Query further whether voting for an ungodly candidate constitutes participating in “unfruitful works of darkness” which Paul forbids.

While Leeman’s well-intended and wise pastoral concern does at points resonate, his overall proposal is unfortunately out of tune with the canonical organ and therefore, should be rejected. Jesus is King of Kings and Lords of Lords; that’s about as political as one could be. His faithful followers must take every thought captive – including political thoughts – to this King; preaching is not exempt from this command. In fact, preaching should be emblematic of it.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

By / Nov 3

Editor’s Note: During this week where Americans go to the polls for midterm elections, Canon and Culture is running a counterpoint series about the church and political activity. Today is the first in a three-part series.

Ask any pastor you know and he will tell you that it is forbidden for a pastor to support or oppose political candidates or leaders from the pulpit. This idea seems to be accepted almost as firmly as some Gospel truths. But is it justifiably true legally and theologically? Should the IRS really determine the content of a pastor’s remarks? Should tax exemption pivot on the pastor’s prose? Most pastors have not thought through this issue at any level and merely accept this censorship as “conventional wisdom.”

There are good reasons, however, why a pastor should fearlessly, freely, and from the pulpit, support or oppose political candidates.

1. Scripture warrants addressing political leaders and how they align with God’s word

The Bible evidences many examples in which spiritual leaders address political leaders both positively and negatively. This occurs negatively when a leader’s efforts conflict with God’s word or commands. In the same vein leaders are praised when their behavior aligns with God’s word.

One of the earliest examples occurs when Moses confronted Pharaoh (Exodus 5-12). God specifically tasked Moses to confront Pharaoh because he was enslaving and oppressing the Israelites. Moses didn’t respond by explaining to God that a spiritual leader should not address politics and political leaders. No, Moses obeyed and confronted Pharaoh.

In another example, Nathan confronted King David after he committed adultery and murder (2 Sam. 12). Nathan didn’t respond by telling God that politics is off limits or that political leaders shouldn’t be confronted with God’s truth.

In 1 Kings 17, Elijah confronted King Ahab with God’s judgment of draught because of Ahab’s sinful behavior. In 1 Kings 22, King Ahab summoned Micaiah and ordered him to prophesy victory for Ahab. Micaiah vowed only to speak what the Lord told him and then proceeded to confront Ahab with God’s decree that he shouldn’t go into battle, and if he did he would die. And he did.

Additionally, the Psalms, which are, among other things, worship songs, frequently address political leaders, including those outside the covenant community of Israel. Psalm 2 calls political leaders to “kiss the Son” and follow His ways. Psalm 83 calls out several political leaders of nations who have wronged God’s people, and petitions that God destroy them. Psalm 58 specifically addresses and confronts “rulers” who “speak unjustly” (Ps. 58:1). Psalm 94 notes wicked leaders who “frame injustice by statute.” It would be odd to sing about these things poetically in worship songs, but be off limits in the pastor’s prose proclaimed from the pulpit. A pastor can sing it, but not say it? Tax policy should turn on such things?

God spoke through numerous prophets, the spiritual leaders of their day, to political leaders who were violating God’s dictates. And lest you think that in the Old Testament the spiritual leaders of the day only confronted the kings of Israel or Judah, remember how Daniel confronted Nebuchadnezzar over his pride and told him that he would be driven away from his kingship like an animal until he acknowledged “that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:25). And remember how Jonah confronted Nineveh, including its leaders because of its sin (Jonah 3:1-9).

And we cannot simply write off the Old Testament examples as inapplicable under a misunderstanding that religion and the state were one and the same back then. The fact is that the Old Testament contained a version of the “separation between church and state.” Priests, with a few exceptions, came from the tribe of Levi, and kings came from other tribes, primarily the tribe of Judah. Kings who tried to exercise priestly roles were punished by God (See Saul in 1 Samuel 13 and Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26). Moses was not Aaron; there was an institutional separation – but not an ethical one – between the priest and polis.

The New Testament continues this biblical practice of religious leaders addressing political leaders. John the Baptist was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded because he had confronted Herod when he had deviated from God’s design for marriage (Matt. 14:3-4). Jesus called Herod Antipas, another leader, a fox and refused to leave when Herod wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31-32). And, when on trial, Jesus reminded Pontius Pilate that he would have no authority — that’s legal and political authority – unless it has been granted to him from above (John 19).

There are also Scriptural instances in which political leaders are praised or urged by God’s people to do the right thing when facing a moral choice. For example, Nehemiah petitioned Artaxerxes to allow the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem (Neh. 2:1-8). When Artaxerxes does the right thing, he is praised by the religious leaders. Esther intervened with King Xerxes to prevent a planned slaughter of the Jewish people (Esther 5, 7, & 8). When President Clinton signed the DOMA and RFRA bills, should not the religious leaders be free to commend (or condemn) his action in doing so?

The Bible also instructs the followers of Jesus in ways that imply addressing civil magistrates in the context of the corporate religious-congregational gathering. For example, God commands believers to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). How are believers to honor the emperor if we do not know how (or whether) the “emperor” aligns with Scripture? Pastors can help to bridge the gap between when those words were written and today by being willing to speak about what it looks like for today’s Christians to “honor the emperor.”

Scripture also commands that “prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving” be made for “kings and all those in authority, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). If believers can pray for Bill Clinton’s marriage to be saved after his adultery was revealed, why can’t pastors address that same issue from the pulpit in order to direct the believers to obey that scriptural command? To maintain fidelity with this command, why can’t pastors express thankfulness that a President’s actions and policies respect life, marriage, or religious freedom? It would be odd to have tax exemption arbitrarily pivot on whether an issue is “prayed for” by the flock or “preached upon” by the shepherd.

2. The idea that pastors should not support or oppose candidates is a recent partisan invention, not a constitutional principle

The idea that pastors should remain silent when it comes to supporting or opposing political leaders is something that is new. This is true even if we only consider American history. The first 166 years of America, from the time of the ratification of the Constitution, until 1954, pastors could, and indeed did, speak freely from their pulpits both supporting and opposing political candidates for office. Pastors were not timid in doing so.

The pulpits of New England thundered with revolutionary fervor that was grounded in a Biblical resistance to tyranny. Jonathan Mayhew, a colonial pastor was not shy in preaching against tyranny. In the preface to a sermon he gave in 1750, he addressed the very issue of this dialogue:

It is hoped that but few will think the subject of it an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit – [that it is] a nation that this is preaching politics instead of Christ. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered that “all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” [2 Timothy 3:16]. When, then, should not those parts of Scripture which relate to civil government be examined and explained from the desk [pulpit], as well as others? Obedience to the civil magistrate is a Christian duty; and if so, why should not the nature, grounds, and extent of it be considered in a Christian assembly? Besides, if it be said that it is out of character for a Christian minister to meddle with such a subject, this censure will at last fall upon the Holy Apostles. They write upon it in their epistles to the Christian churches; and surely it cannot be deemed either criminal or impertinent to attempt an explanation of their doctrine.

Mayhew’s view was not his own but was shared by many other pastors throughout American history. In a sermon in 1800, William Linn opposed Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy for President. Linn said: “I will venture it as my serious opinion, that rather than be instrumental in the election of Mr. Jefferson, it would be more acceptable to God and beneficial to the interests of your country, to throw away your vote. . . . Let me further repeat, [in this address] the single thing intended, is to show that . . . he ought not to be honored and entrusted with the Presidency of the United States of America.”

In 1864, Pastor William Stearns endorsed Abraham Lincoln for President, saying: “There is a power in this land hardly second to that of an immense army. It is the wisdom and honesty, and the reputation of it inspiring confidence at home and abroad, which belong to the character of Abraham Lincoln.”

Other pastors likewise throughout American history spoke from the pulpit for or against candidates for office. That all changed, though, in 1954 with the passage of the Johnson Amendment. In 1954, Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection to the United States Senate. In the midst of a campaign he was supposed to easily win, he found himself opposed by two secular non-profit organizations. One was called Facts Forum and one was called the Committee for Constitutional Government. These two organizations were dedicated to opposing communism and they believed that Johnson’s stance against communism was too lenient. The organizations began distributing thousands of pieces of literature opposing Johnson’s reelection bid.

Johnson tried to find ways to silence these organizations. He even inquired of the IRS as to whether the organizations were violating tax law by opposing his candidacy but was told that they were not. With his reelection chances in jeopardy, Johnson came up with a cunning idea to change the law to prohibit non-profits from supporting or opposing candidates for office.

On July 2, 1954, Johnson appeared on the U.S. Senate floor and offered an amendment to a massive bill that modernized and overhauled the tax code. The legislative history shows that no debate occurred on the amendment and it passed with a voice vote. It went on to become part of the law that President Eisenhower later signed into law on August 16, 1954.

One scholar who studied the history of the Johnson Amendment concluded:

The ban on electioneering is not rooted in constitutional provisions for separation of church and state. It actually goes back to 1954 when Congress was revising the tax code, anti-communism was in full bloom, and elections were taking place in Texas. In this highly-charged political environment, Lyndon Johnson introduced an amendment banning section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from participating in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office. His amendment was directed at anti-communist groups such as Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government which stood between him and his goals of crippling McCarthyism, thwarting Allan Shivers’ efforts to control the Democratic party in Texas, and defeating Dudley Dougherty. Johnson was not trying to address any constitutional issue related to separation of church and state; and he did not offer the amendment because of anything that churches had done. Churches were not banned from endorsing candidates because they are religious organizations; they were banned because they have the same tax-exempt status as facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government, the right-wing organizations that Johnson was really after. … The ban on electioneering has nothing to do with the First Amendment or Jeffersonian principles of separation of church and state.

This history discloses that a muted pulpit did not arise from any enlightened or noble constitutional principle, but rather became an unintended casualty from a partisan end run that was wholly unconcerned with religious expression—pure politics that were not pure at all. The current ban and censorship on pastors supporting or opposing candidates flows from a rank incumbent-protection measure passed by a powerful Senator bent on keeping his seat in the halls of power. Perhaps, as Jesus said of Herod Antipas, Senator Johnson too was a fox.

3. Addressing public policies and those who make them contributes diversity in seeking the common good

As believers, we are commanded to “do justice” (Micah 6:8). And, God calls His people, especially when living “outside the religious bubble” to “seek the welfare (shalom) of the city” (Jer. 29). The God of Scripture loves justice and hates when injustice pervades a society. (See Is. 61:8; Amos 5:23-24; Prov. 14:34; Prov. 29:2). Confronting evil and exalting righteousness by being salt and light, seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness (justice), are hallmarks and evidences of fidelity to the Christian faith. Christians as saved FROM something FOR something (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14). How can a shepherd equip the sheep to reflect these ethical mandates without addressing them in his calling as a vocational preacher?

Is a religious perspective irrelevant to the common good? Does religious motivation undermine or motivate the common good? Recall that Christian leaders and their words—many of them uttered from the pulpit—undergirded and sustained the abolition movements in the UK and the U S, as well as the subsequent the civil rights movement. The IRS would have silenced Wilberforce and the Clapham sect as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies. Silencing such giants of justice would impoverish the public square and curtail the expansion of public justice.

Finally, note that in the US, it is the people—not the politicians—in whom political power resides. Many of those people practice religion publicly, that is, they try to live according to religious precepts. Far from being irrelevant, those religious precepts enrich the public discourse. Proclaiming how religion affects public life is part and parcel of informing a citizen on how to live faithfully. But, to do so, they must learn how their faith applies outside the church doors, including how it applies to matters of culture and yes, public policy.

And remember that the politicians these citizens elect make and enforce policies and laws that impact people and our society as a whole. For too long, politicians have gotten a free pass from moral and Biblical scrutiny by the church and its pastors. Silencing the pulpit from addressing such matters withholds a crucial mechanism for developing and enriching the political checks and balances held by the citizenry which are integral to a well-functioning constitutional republic. As Jefferson wrote, governments are instituted among men to secure—not confer—inalienable rights, rights bestowed by the Creator. The IRS rule treats voters more as subjects than as citizens. Politics in the pulpit is neither profane, nor provocative; rather, it is a prudent practice for promoting public justice.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.