Why is it Christians, especially pastors, have such a hard time developing a universal set of political beliefs? Or better yet, why is there a firestorm among believers when someone with a religious background begins making political commentary or criticism? Even the slightest hint of affiliating or supporting a particular policy can cause not a few congregants to question the credibility of their preacher.
For example, Abbot Tryphon from “Morning Offering” chose to quote a work from Dr. Peter Hammond. The work is part of Dr. Hammond’s book, Slavery, Terrorism, and Islam, which briefly detailed the correlation between the size of a country’s Muslim population and that population’s political voice. In short, the conclusion to be made was countries with larger Islamic populations tend to have fewer freedoms for non-Muslims. The comment section was filled with concerned readers. Was the Rev. Abbot Tryphon participating in “Islamaphobia” or advocating an anti-Muslim agenda? Though his responses suggested otherwise, it is not surprising many found the article upsetting given Presidential candidate Trump’s claims to prevent Muslims from entering the US.
Which brings us to another example: the large number of evangelicals who support Donald Trump. In past elections, evangelicals and other self-described conservative Christians tended to vote for the candidate whose life and policies best met their expectations. This meant no extra-marital affairs, was pro-life, and defended the right for religious exercise and expression to occur in the public square. Trump does not meet these conditions. He has had at least three wives and bragged about his exploits with women. He’s flip-flopped on abortion and hesitant to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. And he hasn’t made defending religious liberty a large plank in his campaign. Yet, many evangelicals supported him in the primaries leaving political analysts and religious leaders scratching their heads.
And of course there’s always the arguments between Christians who identify politically conservative and liberal. But why does this occur? If we are united in faith on how we are to relate to God and live our lives, how is it we can’t agree on how that faith should be expressed in politics? Answer, as with all things political, is complicated.
First, the Church is hardly monolithic. While everyone may ascribe to the same confession of faith, they are individuals with their own individual differences. Some prefer old hymns while others seek out contemporary worship songs. Others enjoy church socials while other prefer alone time or community projects. Ss. Paul and Barnabas disagreed whether St. Mark ought to participate in their trips to Greece. So it isn’t too surprising that differences of opinion occur.
Second, the nature of a pastor’s role is difficult to define when it comes to politics. A number of preachers hold very strong opinions of what government should or should not do. Yet voicing those opinions can be tricky. Westboro Baptist church is an example of what happens if a religious leader ties his political views to the gospel. Anyone who disagrees is immediately seen as an opponent to Christ and his followers. But you also can have the opposite extreme where religious leaders almost never write or comment on politics. As Scott Waller concluded, this creates a false dichotomy between religion and politics. The result is congregants vote for candidates who do not exemplify or share their values.
Also, many preachers are simply barred from making official statements on politics. There is the legal risk of losing the church’s non-profit status. The denomination of the church may revoke a pastor’s right to preach if the pastor is known to openly campaign for or against candidates and office holders. And of course, there is always the chance the pastor’s political views do not match with the congregations. It would be a difficult thing for a pastor to declare the evils of abortion when most of the congregation is socially liberal at the voting booth. Thus pastors, despite their position within the Church, are not likely to a unified, Christian view of politics.
And third, the Church has no political manifesto. With the exception of the Torah, the Bible never gives believers a mandate for what policies are approved by God and how they are to be implemented. The Church Fathers, though occasionally critics of the secular powers of their time, did not dedicate themselves to political philosophy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Christ seemed to avoid the subject altogether unless it was brought up by someone else. And even then his answers don’t satisfactorily answer the questions we’re asking.
So what should we take from this? Is Christianity insufficient to provide answers to this area of life? Are there separate spheres in which faith has no authority? Not necessarily.
I would argue the reason there isn’t a Christian, systematic view of politics is because that’s not the focus of Christianity. While many elements of our faith are community based (e.g. “love your neighbor,” “feed the hungry,” corporate worship), its ultimate goal is for individuals to receive salvation and live according to God’s commands. How our communities are to be governed is simply not part of the equation. Sometimes the two do intersect. For example, we are expected to pay taxes (Romans 13:7). However, the manner of our taxation and the purpose of those funds is never stated. Christ acknowledged Pilate’s earthly power as legitimate but only in relation to God as the supreme sovereign (John 19:10-11). He not once questioned or criticized Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean and interference in foreign matters.
This doesn’t mean we’re free to vote in whatever manner we choose. In fact, to be a Christian means living out our faith in all aspects of life. As such, it is difficult to conceive how someone can reconcile a faith which upholds a strict definition of marriage and sees life as sacred with a political view which supports same sex marriage, abortion, and wars with no exit strategy. However, it may be helpful to consider that as Christians our focus is not on the political. Reform of humanity cannot begin from the marbled halls of Congress or the backrooms of dictators. It starts in the hearts of individuals God attempts to enter.