Let me introduce you to my friend, James Emery White, the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC. He is the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press).
Throughout this year, I want to introduce you to some of my friends. People whose voices I know, respect, and appreciate. Their words often challenge me in my thinking and faith. I hope they’ll challenge you, too:
If there are two words that can raise the temperature in any room, they would be “religion” and “politics” – or as Linus would add, “…and the Great Pumpkin.” We have deep convictions and opinions, denominations and parties, divides and loyalties. Christians in particular can get confused about how to engage the political realm.
So here we are in an election year when the time has come to elect the next president.
What to do?
It might be healthy to remind ourselves what churches and their leaders can do.
As a pastor, I can personally endorse a candidate. I can tell you who I like in the church parking lot or the grocery store aisle in normal conversation. I just can’t do it directly from the podium. As a pastor, I can also personally work for a candidate, and contribute financially to their campaign, but the church itself cannot contribute financially with church funds even if approved by the membership. I can also endorse a candidate in print, and use my title and the church I am affiliated with; I am free to speak and teach on moral and social issues that may be integral to the political debate, such as abortion, gay marriage, and economic matters – even if, by implication, it throws support toward one candidate and critiques another.
The church can take official positions the issues, as long as we don’t directly endorse or oppose a candidate in the process. We can organize voter registrations and drives as long as they are directed at all eligible.
But how about what they can’t do. A church cannot officially say, “We endorse John Doe,” or “We oppose Jane Doe.” Not only that, but a pastor cannot send out a personal written endorsement on church letterhead. Political signs cannot be displayed on church property. The only participation in the political process that is allowed is indirect.
So these are the guidelines for the church and its leaders.
But what of the individual Christian? Clearly God is not aligned with any political party. There is a fascinating passage in the Old Testament where an angel of the Lord comes to Joshua. The Bible records that “Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’ ‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come’” (Joshua 5:13-14, NIV).
But however you vote, vote. Christians should dig deep into the issues, even deeper into the Scriptures, and emerge with a resolve to care deeply and work passionately while behaving in a civil and loving manner. They should run for office when God calls them to it, and strive to make a difference in that realm – not as a partisan Democrat or Republican, though they may be aligned with such a party, but primarily as a Christian attempting to be salt and light.
Because it matters.
James Emery White
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).
On what a pastor, or church, can “do” politically, a good primer can be found in “Politics from the Pulpit,” posted January 7, 2008, on the “Out of Ur” blog as compiled by Allen R. Bevere. Read online.
“‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ Tally: 31+ Sermons, 6 Complains With IRS,” September 30, 2008, Adele M. Banks, Religious News Service. Read online.
Martin Niemoller’s confession was actually a poem and has been represented in various ways with minor variations. This is the version that Niemoller himself said he preferred, when asked by Richard John Neuhaus in 1971, as relayed in the November 2001 issue of First Things.
Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.
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