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Politics in the Pulpit?

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Local News: This Friday, the city of Clinton will be celebrating Independence Day beginning at 7 a.m. with the "Cruisin' Clinton Bike Ride". The cost to participate in the bike ride is $10 per biker. The annual Fireworks Extravaganza, held at Traceway Park (200 Soccer Row) will begin at 5 p.m., culminating with the fireworks show at 9 p.m. The cost per vehicle will be $8 for the fireworks show. For more information, go to www.clintonparksandrec.com.

Many churches observe Independence Day in one way or another—some even set aside time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag during the Sunday morning service that falls closest to July 4. With the 4th of July right around the corner, this week’s Lutheran Hour broadcast, a weekly radio outreach of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, tackled the difficult question, “Is it right to preach on politics?” in its question and answer segment. It’s a poignant question, as churches face the perennial temptation to fall into opposite errors.

On one hand, churches can be overly politically involved, focusing on purely political issues, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ, thereby giving the impression that Christianity is inherently tied to a particular political position. This is what happens when love of one’s country equal or even surpasses one’s love of God. On the other hand, churches can be utterly neutral when it comes to all of the most controversial topics on people’s radars today, thereby giving the impression that the church has no stance, or that the church can’t have a voice in such matters.

1. The danger of over politicizing sermons

Rev. Ken Klaus, speaker emeritus for the Lutheran Hour, first addressed the question from a legal standpoint. “For the vast majority of U.S. history there was no law governing what a pastor said from his pulpit,” he said. “Pastors preached about slavery, and alcohol, and political candidates, work hours, welfare, and just about anything else you could imagine.” Klaus made it clear, though, that this was not necessarily a good state of affairs:

“Anyone reading some of the strongest of those messages might readily wonder if the preacher even knew Jesus or the story of salvation. There was a whole lot of political rhetoric, but not too much theology.”

This is often the result when churches allow political zeal to overshadow the other more timeless and universal mission of the church—communicating the gospel. Klaus explains that, thanks to what has become known as the “Johnson Amendment”, churches have had less of a free rein to espouse political views in recent decades than they did in the 19th century. Klaus explained that this amendment, introduced by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, is “an Internal Revenue Service regulation which limits pastors from participating in the political process. It prohibits churches from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” When churches overstep their bounds, Klaus said they are at risk of losing their tax-exempt status.



2. The church’s responsibility to have a voice in the marketplace of ideas

As of today, it is very rare for churches to lose their tax-exempt status, and Klaus said he was not aware of any case where the IRS penalized a church merely for a sermon that was preached. Still, the possibility of IRS penalties makes churches cautious. “The vast majority of preachers I know have never espoused a specific political candidate or a non-Scriptural program from the pulpit,” Klaus said. “They believe that when they speak to the congregation, they wish, as much as is possible, to speak for the Lord.”

“Speaking for the Lord” means attempting to convey what God has communicated to us in his word and not allowing oneself to become overly entrenched in any one political system. Klaus went on to clarify that speaking on politics and speaking on controversial moral issues is not the same thing. There are moral issues that Scripture does weigh in on that are not merely “political” in nature. For the church to be silent about these issues would be forfeiting its responsibility to be salt and light in the world. While we are not called to be worldly (“of the world”), we are called to be in the world.

“As a preacher, I recognize that all governments have been placed in their position by God,” Klaus said. “That does not mean, however, that all governments are Godly. There comes that point in time when the government begins to meddle around in areas that are just as much theological as they are political. When that time comes, a pastor may not only speak to that issue, he may feel obligated to speak to that issue using directives taken directly from God's Word, not just opinion. In short, there are times when it becomes a matter of obeying God rather than man.”



In the 19th century America, the issue that most obviously met Klaus’s criteria was the issue of slavery. In mid 20th century Germany, the issue that required churches to speak out was the Nazi Party and their policy of Jewish persecution. Sadly, many German churches didn’t speak out, and ones that did often faced severe consequences (remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred 69 years ago this spring).

Are there any issues today that are comparable to the ones that some fearless preachers tackled in the 19th century? Klaus said, “Today we see assaults being made upon marriage and the family. Speaking to such issues, it is right for a pastor to say: ‘The Lord tells us in the Bible....’ and then he takes it from there.”


3. Conclusion

Let us remember this Independence Day that God loves all people, people from all political backgrounds, all political persuasions. Let us remember that following Christ means surrendering to his Lordship, following his way, which is a very different thing from following the “American way”. Neither America nor any other country has a right to our absolute allegiance. When we give devotion to country that is due to God alone we are, to use Jesus’ analogy, rendering to Caesar what rightly belongs only to God.

Let us pray for grace to walk the narrow road, avoiding political entrenchment on the one hand and a wrongful hands-off passivity on the other hand. It’s a difficult path to trod.

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