The pastor and politics

Staying on the right side of a fine, wavy, even broken, line

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of Liberty, a journal devoted to religious freedom.

An Adventist pastor receives a letter from a Christian political organization imploring him in the name of the Lord to attend with his flock an anti-abortion rally. Another impassioned letter, occasionally underlined in red, wants him to fight a "gay rights" initiative in the state legislature. The minister also gets a phone call from a fellow preacher of a different denomination who seeks his support in a boycott of a hotel chain that offers pornographic movies. More mail comes, this time urging his church to help pressure the local school board in removing from the junior high library books that the pastor, quite frankly, would never want his own preteens to read.

No doubt, a majority of Adventist ministers would agree with most, perhaps all, of these causes. But agreeing is not the same as committing themselves or their church resources to fighting for them. Political advocacy for a layperson can often be fraught with unforeseen hazards; how much more so for pastors and their churches? This does not mean that Adventist pastors or congregations should never join forces with other Christians in advocating political change. The question is Under what conditions and what are the risks if they do?

"Only a God can save us"

Whatever decisions we make, as humans we inevitably start from premises that influence where we wind up. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, our starting point, our premise, should be the fundamental fact of our faith, which is that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). At the cross the Lord did for us what we could never do for ourselves, and that is to atone for sin. "Only a God," wrote Hegel, "can save us," and the only God who can is the one who "hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13).

Thus Calvary proves that humanity's hope cannot be centered in the human their philosophies, their institutions, and their own government. Christ's death was a spiritual answer to spiritual needs, not a political answer to political needs. And at the core level humanity's problems are spiritual, not political. Of course, the cross doesn't negate the need for human endeavors, for human institutions; what the cross does, however, is help place them in their proper perspective.

Yet even more than His death, Christ's life should caution those contemplating political activism. Despite rampant political and social evils (the Roman occupation wasn't exactly a liberal Utopia), Jesus remained manifestly apolitical. Critics often question Christ's silence on the most evil of ills: slavery. No doubt, Jesus cared about these problems, but He sought to change people, who in turn would change the institutions, not vice versa. This principle stands out in Christ's words, though spoken in a different context: "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight" (John 18:36).

The question of witness

Liberty recently ran an article by Edward G. Dobson, a senior editor of Christianity Today. Dobson explained why he refused to succumb to the pressures to involve his church in politics. He stressed that individual believers should exercise their rights as citizens. They should vote, lobby, and even run for office. But the church as an institution, he wrote, should not allow it self to be dominated by political activism. "As a former board member of the Moral Majority, I know the potential danger of this kind of political activity the possible jettisoning of the gospel for a political agenda."

Dobson's point is well made. How much time, energy, and money should be spent on attempting political reform (at best only temporary solutions) as opposed to spreading the gospel, which alone can bring the kind of reforms a country needs? Every penny spent on fighting against "gay rights," or every hour spent picketing an abortion clinic, is one less penny and one less hour that can be used for ministry. Also, a gay who has just been shouted down by a group of Christians, or a woman who was jeered by Christian picketers in front of an abortion clinic, isn't likely to listen to those same Christians (or maybe others as well) who, in another circumstance, witness about the love and forgiveness of God. Christ wouldn't have had as much success in reaching out to prostitutes and sinners if He had been busy trying to drive them out of town.

Again, this doesn't mean that ministers should never get involved in political and social reform; instead, it means only that they should give careful thought before they do so.

Legislating morality

Though it's often said that "you can't legislate morality," the truth is that you can.

In fact, law is nothing but legislated morality. Pat Buchanan, Madonna, and Dennis Rodman all want legislated morality; they just have different views of which morality to legislate.

Also, because morality is inevitably tied to religion, in a democratic and predominantly "Christian" country like the U.S., it's only natural that churches, pastors, and Christians in general should be involved in formulating law. Separation of church and state means, says legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, that "no group is deemed clever enough or numerous enough to decide essentially religious matters for everyone else." It doesn't mean that moral values, even those tied to religion, have no role in shaping public policy.

Unlike previous centuries, the battle, at least in the public arena, isn't over religious forms (dogma, doctrine, liturgy), but over religious values. What is their place in the public square? Some, like philosophers Peter Singer and Helga Kushe, argue that be cause the principle stressing the equality of all human life (which underlies the debate regarding the death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia) is based on Christian theology, it should therefore not be allowed to influence public policy decisions, an extreme position at best. In contrast, most Adventists would agree with former U.S. Supreme Court justice Earl Warren, who argued that a law forbidding murder isn't invalidated just because it happens to agree "with the dictates of the Judeo-Christian religions while it may disagree with others." (Before agreeing too readily, we should realize that Warren wrote this as part of his rationale in a decision upholding the validity of Sunday closing laws.)

A fine, wavy, even broken, line

What course, then, should an Adventist minister take in regard to political activism? Do we avoid all involvement, particularly because of our eschatology? Do we refuse to support any legislation that might have a religious underpinning because we're afraid it might lead to persecution? Do we risk compromising the gospel by getting involved? Or could we unknowingly become part of something that could indeed go too far?

Unfortunately, no simple formula gives an absolute yes or no answer. After all, Adventists are not adverse to lobbying for or against laws that affect their interests. Why then shouldn't we help legislate other reforms as well? Ellen White, for instance, was so adamant in her desire to restrict the right of adults to drink liquor that she encouraged Adventists to load up their anti-liquor neighbors on wagons and cart them to the polling booth even on Sabbath!

The bottom line: Adventist ministers need to make their own choices. Of course, they should counsel, not only with the board of elders, but with the conference and even with someone in the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, because whatever the potential spiritual pitfalls, too much involvement can lead to loss of tax-exempt status as well.

Political activism for a pastor has potential rewards and potential hazards. The choice is rarely clear-cut, but usually involves staying on the right side of what is often a fine, wavy, even broken, line. More than anything, the pastor needs wisdom from on high in deciding how to respond to the next letter, underlined in red, urging involvement on a moral issue that, more of ten than not, the gentle nudging of the Spirit tells is right.


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Clifford Goldstein is the editor of Liberty, a journal devoted to religious freedom.

December 1997

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