Pulpit Freedom, Good News, and Public Justice
By Timothy Sherratt
October 6, 2014
Last Sunday was Pulpit Freedom Sunday, initiated by the Alliance Defending Freedom. Since 2008, ADF has challenged the 1954 “Johnson Amendment” in the IRS Code prohibiting churches from intervening in election campaigns on behalf of candidates. Participating pastors were asked to “preach a sermon on a specific day discussing the intersection of the political realm with Scriptural Truth.”
This event was featured in a Wall Street Journal article reporting a reversal of Americans’ aversion to “a voice for religion in politics,” which is taking the form of urging pastors to address social and political issues from the pulpit. Fueled by the perception that Christians face more negative press and pressure from society and government, it remains to be seen how deep and lasting such a reversal may be. Temporary or permanent, the shift presents an opportunity to revisit the relationship of church and state, and the place of Christian political activity in society.
Churchgoers look to pastors and priests for authoritative teaching and for assurances about the most important things: our hope in Christ, the faithfulness of God, the need for repentance and faith, and the care that the Savior, who numbers the hairs on our heads, extends to each of us. It should come as no surprise then, that those who make authoritative pronouncements on such weighty matters would also be asked to give clarity to Christians’ relationship to the wider world in times of tension. How should Christians negotiate changing social mores or the nature of their church’s place in the local community or compliance with a new law whose provisions pose a challenge to basic beliefs?
Christianity and Democracy, as political scientist Hugh Heclo juxtaposes them*, have been telling negative stories about each other for several decades. What to the Christian may challenge the religious conscience, may to Democracy’s secular elite be nothing more than a generally applicable law that should attract universal compliance. In such an atmosphere, motives are misread with alarming ease.
But calling for churches to delve into the politics of these questions can take the body of Christ down dangerous paths. Religious liberty, immigration, abortion, gay marriage and the like all attract distinctly partisan support and opposition. Pastors cannot simply “raise the issue” without being pegged to one side or the other. And then the good news the Church proclaims to the world earns condemnation as a mere expression of Democratic or Republican ideology.
No, the Church should be the church. Its task is to bear witness to the hurting world’s hope, Jesus Christ the risen King, whose servant rule is the model for all government. For Love, to redeem the world, Christ the King sacrificed rightful power and authority. The Church’s message pulls the rug from under Caesar’s worldly means and ends. It should never be shrunk to fit one side in a partisan squabble.
However, lay Christians may certainly do what the Church should not do. Freed from the temptation to plant the kingdom of God on earth, lay Christians can join parties and interest groups or form their own to advance public justice. Politics is, after all, about this world, about the pursuit of justice through the provisional resolution of recurring concerns.
It is appropriate, then, for Christians to argue for First Amendment religious liberty in daily life and work, for a cleaner environment, against abortion or in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. No citizen or organization of citizens should be required to check their faith at the door under our system of government, especially on account of the lens through which they see the world. Moreover, no arrangement of society should enjoy uncritical support. All public philosophies remain provisional and subject to challenge, including the remarkable one crafted by the American framers, which understands individual liberty well but worldview diversity hardly at all.
As for Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a sermon addressing “the intersection of the political realm with Scriptural Truth,” far from incurring the wrath of the IRS, ought to meet with universal acclaim as a responsible exercise of biblical insight. We need more sermons that distinguish the roles of church and state, while reaffirming the individual and organized ways Christians may exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democratic polity.
* Hugh Heclo, Christianity and American Democracy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007
- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.
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