The Pulpit and Politics: What Are the Limits?

The Pulpit and Politics: What Are the Limits?

Is it a good idea for pastors to hold political office too?

It’s certainly not a new “separation of church and state” issue, especially here in Virginia where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777. The statute is the foundation of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantee freedom of religion.

Ministers have been among the nation’s political leadership since its founding. However, this past Election Day as I voted, I found myself wondering about this issue of pulpits and politics. My daughter made the observation that a church hosted our polling place. What if the pastor of that church became a last minute write-in candidate on the ballot for Virginia Beach City Council, where we live? What about voters who are atheists and perhaps uncomfortable with going into churches? The issue arose again as I read an article in my local paper, The Virginian-Pilot, noting that in nearby Portsmouth, five clergy members will sit on either the City Council or School Board. This will be the most to ever serve simultaneously in the city and the highest number of clergy in elected positions in this region. One of the seven council members is a local bishop and four of the nine school board members are ministers. Is this cause for concern? The article cited at least one community member who believes it should be.

“I was just brought up to believe that pastors and politics don’t mix,” Joe Wright, a civic leader was quoted as saying. “If you’re a pastor, that’s your main concern, and I don’t think you can serve both masters.”

But why not, Joe? Isn’t the nation fed up with the political bickering that is rampant from city hall to the statehouse, to Congress and the White House? Wouldn’t moral men and women of God bring peace and govern justly and fairly over all people in a community, you know, like how they miraculously do in problem-free churches? Wouldn’t they have the wisdom to vote to protect the rights, even of those for whom they disagree with spiritually?

A recent Pew Research Center study indicates that nearly 75 percent of Americans believe religion is losing influence in America. Citizens want more religious leaders to weigh in on political issues. What better way to accomplish this than to be voted into public office, right? Well, what “the people” may want (or what members of the clergy think they should do) is not always what’s best for the church. A situation in Chicago potentially illustrates this point.

Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Mary Mitchell wrote about the church of the Rev. Corey Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church on Chicago’s South Side, being burglarized and robbed of $8,000 in cash from a collection box. This happened apparently after Brooks received several threats because of his endorsement of the Republican candidate for governor. The endorsement included Brooks appearing in a commercial. The race had become extremely divisive (Republican Bruce Rauner defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn), and Chicago is a Black democratic stronghold. After the incident, Brooks moved his family temporarily to a safe place.

Mitchell wrote: “Yet this kind of behavior (Brooks’ aggressive political endorsement) explains why there’s been such a huge loss of respect for the black clergy. Religious leaders are supposed to serve the community, not serve up the community to politicians.”

And to think, what might have befallen Brooks and his church had he been running for office.

Brooks responded to Mitchell by saying he was merely following the tradition of Black clergy being aggressively engaged in the political process. He accused Mitchell and other critics of being blind followers of the Democratic Party. Brooks has a point, but would you rather your pastor be embroiled in a political war or leading a spiritual one?

America has a strong history of clergy engaging politics. Christians led the fight for freedom and justice and also strove against it. Leaders of the Black community typically rose through the church (and/or were business owners), and naturally moved into politics to champion policy changes to help Blacks. In the book “African American Preachers and Politics” Dennis C. Dickerson chronicles how Archibald J. Carey, Sr. and his son Archibald J. Carey, Jr., tried to navigate the troubled mix of the pulpit and politics during the mid-1900s. Ironically, also in Chicago, both men were aldermen and became political appointees to commissions. The elder Carey helped Blacks to gain civil service employment, but became embroiled in an “alleged impropriety for selling jobs.” His son was able to help many Black federal employees, but he was closely associated with then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who targeted the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Both Careys believed politics offered clergy the best opportunities to empower the black population,” Dickerson wrote. “Their imperfect alliances and mixed results, however, proved the complexity of combining the realms of spirituality and politics.”

In Portsmouth, Va., the Pilot article noted that the clergy member on the city council recently cast the lone vote to block a 7-Eleven store from opening on a corner near a church. Apparently the bishop disapproved of the store selling liquor. What? Deprive churchgoers from getting their morning coffee, donut and breathe mints before the 8 a.m. service? C’mon bishop!

Seriously, there is a clear difference between advocating for political justice from the outside as the Rev. King did and being an insider like say, the legendary U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Powell, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, rose from a community activist to New York’s first Black member of its City Council, to being one of the most influential members of the U.S. Congress from 1945 to 1971. However, towards the end of his career, in which his accomplishments include passing anti-lynching legislation, Powell was accused of mismanaging his House Education and Labor Committee budget. Powell’s colleagues stripped him of his committee chairmanship, excluded him (the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled in Powell’s favor that this was unconstitutional) effectively ending his political career. Powell resigned as pastor and retired to Puerto Rico.

Clearly members of the clergy have a right to engage in politics and run for political office. Many have been successful over the years. However, they should at least take a leave from pastoring while holding political office. Legally, clergy can speak out as individuals on political issues, but their churches cannot. Doing so puts the ministry’s tax-exempt status at risk. This is a delicate balance that a growing number of churches are tipping by participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Each year churches designate a Sunday to take a stand on a political issue and dare the IRS to sue.

Really?

I agree with Peter J. Leithart, president of the Theopolis Institute who wrote recently that pastors should realize that they already serve in a public office that is vitally important to their communities and the nation.

“For good or ill, pastors will have a major role in determining the future of the church and our country, but not primarily as pastor-Congressmen,” Leithart wrote. “The future rests more with pastors who aren’t tempted to run for office, not because they want to keep their cushy curate but because they are convinced that, teaching the word, offering prayer, sprinkling water, and breaking the bread, they are already at the center of the universe.”

The down and dirty, wheeling and dealing nature of politics doesn’t bode well for members of the clergy – men and women who are charged to stand firm on the word of God. A pastor is better off being a trusted advisor to politicians in the way that the Rev. Billy Graham had been for several U.S. Presidents, and or perhaps Bishop T.D. Jakes is now. In this way, pastors can have significant influence on policy makers without getting their hands soiled – or even worse – having their souls polluted.

What do you think?