Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

Recently a person unknown to me posted his “resistance” oriented event on the Facebook wall of my church. It wasn’t clear what the event entailed and it seemed that it might cross the line into partisan territory. The poster’s profile picture advocated a specific political party, and the language was ambiguous.

I wrote him back and assured him that while I personally was supportive, the church was non-partisan, and I’d have to delete the post. I hoped he understood.

I received back this response: “We are nonpartisan, So the congregational church (sic) does not support civil rights, good to know.”

First, I’ve been given nothing that helps me determine whether the non-partisan part of that statement is true. But, second, I was stunned by the writer’s quick conclusion. This church I serve was an early moral force for abolition. A former pastor marched with Dr. King. They now have an openly gay senior pastor who they sent to Orlando last summer to provide emergency pastoral care for LGBTQ people. This is a church full of people who love their neighbors, near and far. And we are a part of a denomination that has consistently been early to every major Civil Rights challenge of our time.

But this is not a partisan church. It belongs to Jesus Christ, not any candidate or party. We follow the Gospel, and not a party platform. We get it wrong sometimes, but we really do try to get it right. Recently, though, I’ve heard a lot of folks wondering why churches aren’t doing more to confront the current political situation in our country.

I am writing this post as Emily C. Heath, private citizen. I am not writing this post as Emily C. Heath, pastor of a local congregation. I say that, but I can’t deny that the two people are one and the same. The same person writing these words on my personal blog a weekday will use this same (personal) computer to write a sermon for when I get up into the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I get how that can be confusing. And I think that sometimes that’s particularly confusing for people who know me outside of the church.

I have been interested in and involved with politics for over 20 years. The summer I graduated from high school I went off to Washington, DC to serve as a Democratic Congressional intern. I have campaigned for Democratic candidates on the ground. And I currently serve as a delegate to the state convention for my town’s Democratic committee. On my own time, I engage in partisan political activism.

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Phone banking on election day.
I’ve also been involved in the civil rights movements since that time. I came out in 1994 and started marching in Pride parades long before our safety was assured. I remember standing outside a bombed-out gay nightclub in Atlanta in 1997. And I remember traveling to Orlando last summer after the Pulse shootings.

When I wrote a blog post several years ago asking white folks to look at our privilege, I received messages calling me names I can’t print here, and one threat to burn down my church. I’ve been afraid for my personal safety because of my advocacy.

I don’t think I have to prove my progressive bona fides to anyone.

Except apparently I do. And that’s because sometimes well-meaning progressive folks don’t understand that clergy have to remain non-partisan while at church, in the pulpit, or serving in any way as a pastor.

That’s true for two very important reasons: first, the religious reason and, second, the civic reason.

pexels-photo-27633My faith teaches me that my ultimate allegiance is not to any political party, or even to any country. It’s to Christ. That means that when I’m in the pulpit, I’m talking about Christ. And, try as they might, I’ve yet to meet a politician who measures up to Christ.

My faith does shape my political beliefs. Whenever I go in the voting booth and close the curtain, I’m thinking about the Gospels. It was hearing the Gospels for the first time as a high school student that changed my own political thinking. My faith teaches me to care about the “least of these” and one way I do that is by thinking about them when I am voting.

But, I know good Christians who do not vote the way I do. Some of them are in my church, and I’m their pastor too. My sermons on Sunday should challenge them sometimes, just as they should challenge everyone. They should make them think hard about what they believe, and how they will act out their faith in the world. They should make clear that working for justice for all God’s people is not optional. 

This is political in the classic sense in that it concerns the polis, the city or community, and all of God’s people. Pastors must be concerned with their community, state, nation, and world.

But they should never, ever, tell their church for whom or for what party to vote on Election Day. That’s an abuse of power and that’s pastoral malpractice.

The second reason is the civic one. Our separation of church and state is mutually beneficial to both. The church does not get to impose a theocracy, and the state does not get to use the church for its own ends. This is healthy, especially in a society with religious diversity.

I get upset when I see conservative churches flaunting this rule. I don’t like the idea of “voter guides” stuffed in Sunday bulletins, or of pastors in the pulpits stating who they think God wants you to vote for because, as I said, it’s an abuse of power. I’ve heard some progressive pastors saying we should start bending the rules too. I disagree.

Our job as pastors is to teach the faith. It’s to present the Gospel in an honest and relevant manner. And, yes, that means sometimes the Gospel will be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require us to work for justice. It will mean that we speak out about non-discrimination, or climate change, or peace. We do not need to remain silent about those things in church. In fact, we cannot remain silent about those things in church.

But on the other hand, political does not mean partisan. As soon as we start to equate the reign of God with a particular candidate or party, we have committed idolatry, and we have crossed both a moral and civil line.

In a time of deep moral crisis, which I believe our country is now facing, it might feel like that’s not enough. I know there are people who want to hear me denounce specific politicians from the pulpit. They want their church to assure them that their voting record would match Jesus’.

But as your pastor, it’s not my job to give you assurance that God loves your candidate more. (Believe me…I’d love that comfort too.) It’s my job to remind you of your own responsibility, and of the fact that our faith requires our own action in the world. On Sundays you can find encouragement, support, and comfort in the Gospel. You can find the values that will inform your own choices. And, ideally, you should find a message that compels you to go out into the world on Monday mornings bent on shaking up the status-quo.

But if a church is telling you who to vote for, left or right, your church has more than a constitutional problem on your hands. You have a faith problem and you, and the Gospel, deserve better than that. 

Besides, in this time of moral crisis, putting our ultimate faith in the radical love and grace of Christ is the most powerful political and partisan action we can ever take.

 If you resonated with this article, you might enjoy Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

 

17 thoughts on “Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

  1. Well said. It is so important that everyone understands why the founders put freedom of religion in the first amendment, and even more important is what you said in terms of why it is critical for church leaders to put the gospel first. I so enjoy your writings.

  2. Thank you Pastor Emily. The Barmen Declaration declares in part,
    “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
    We reiect the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

  3. Thanks for the clarity, Emily. This is so helpful to hear in discernment. You have articulated something that has been rolling around in my heart for quite some time.

  4. I agree that we must be active and voice our opinions on all those social issues, for “I am my brothers keeper.” What I find difficult this that pastors do not encourage their congregations to go and vote. This is our members right and more important their responsibility. If they fail to vote they fail their community, their schools and their nation. I doubt that would please God.

  5. After 40 years as a pastor I decided to partly devote myself in retirement to politics. I wanted to participate in the choosing of good people to run for elective office. I wanted a seat at the table that chose who was going to be candidates. What I learned was that too many good people do not want to sully themselves with campaigning. They wanted power by some magical purifying rite, to find themselves affecting public policy without having to deal with human beings with their inherent conflicts, to deign goodness without struggling with justice.
    The Gospel is not above politics any more than it is above life.

    1. Bingo! While you don’t help me resolve the tension (not that it should necessarily be), you have at least affirmed that my questioning, if not angst, is justified, as I wonder about whether affirming that the church can’t be partisan might result in some Christians’ reticence in taking sides for the oppressed in matters that are fundamentally about justice and “Jubilee” and emancipation etc. – but which issues have been nastily politicized or reduced to “mere politics” instead of “mere Christianity” (apologies to the late great C.S. Lewis)??

  6. Similar for me…yet for upholding the human rights of Palestinians. The Jesus of the Gospels lived during the Roman Occupation. Yet he did not draw attention to the political parties as the differences among religious expressions/culture.

    Here is Palestine, home of three major religions now becoming a home to refugees. Then this people group becomes the subject of Occupation. Now many Palestinians choose nonviolent ways to interact with their Oppressors. Now the area is rife with the personalities of Apartheid.

    Who will help them unwrap the death clothes formed around them?

  7. When a candidate is to surpress religious freedom, to say the churches need to change their beliefs to fit what they are going to do you won’t mention it? When our religious freedoms are being taken away and you cannot preach what the bible says, you will be silent? My pastor urged us to vote and that he would continue to show up at church each sunday morning till they put him in jail. Then he would continue to preach in jail…
    Would you?

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful post. There are a few things that make me uncomfortable. Most importantly, public officials and candidates are two separate things. Criticizing our president is not in and of itself partisan. Secondly, criticism is different from endorsement. Thirdly, partisanship is often used as a shield to avoid discussing ICE raids, corruption and all the rest. And (least importantly but most vexingly) only liberal churches appear to have these scruples.
    In the example you start with, because the post in question endorsed a party, you were clearly right to delete it. But the wider reasoning from that example gives me pause. I’ll have to chew on it a while…

  9. Well said. And a hard line to walk – as another minister, I share that commitment. I will say however, that I am also a citizen, and one with strong political (indeed, often partisan) opinions. My personal FB page reflects those opinions. Our church FB page does not. And yes, I urge our members to vote, and to vote their conscience, preferably their well-informed conscience.
    It is, of course, extremely difficult that many moral issues (care of the poor, care of the environment) have been made political – in those cases, I don’t believe that because one party or another has enunciated a position, that it muzzles me as a preacher. I try to be very careful in my preaching to follow what I understand the Bible to be saying, as well as my own prayerful reflections. And while I try very hard to be non-partisan, I have on more that one occasion been accused of being partisan (most recently when urging Christians to speak out against hate speech, intimidation, and violence).
    I appreciate your very articulate reflections here. Thank you.

  10. Civil rights aren’t partisan. Partisanship relates to a specific party or group.
    Civil rights are political. And no one’s saying the church should be non-political.

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