With election fever across North America, it might be helpful for us to consider how we guide our listeners from the pulpit. Traditionally, preachers have understood that while we should feel free to speak broadly about issues that are relevant from the perspective of the Scriptures, we should draw the line at telling our listeners precisely who to vote for. Statements that are of a partisan nature have been viewed to be off limits. Not least among the reasons for this approach is the risk that overt partisanship from the pulpit poses to the tax-free status enjoyed by churches. Preachers are loathe to say anything that would put that status in jeopardy.
This may, however, be changing. According to an article in the Washington Post, the Alliance Defense Fund is recruiting several dozen pastors in the U.S. to deliberately challenge the Internal Revenue Service by making endorsements from the pulpit. The article, Ban on Political Endorsements by Pastors Targeted by Peter Slevin, suggests that the ADF is moving proactively with it’s "Pulpit Initiative" to take the matter to the IRS before the IRS takes it to the churches. According to the ADF, the prohibition stifles freedom of religious expression and inhibits a preacher’s constitutional right to speak freely from the pulpit.
So far, three dozen church leaders from more than 20 states have agreed to deliver a political sermon, naming political names. According to ADF attorney, Erik Stanley, these sermons "will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine. They will make a specific recommendation from the pulpit about how the congregation would vote," he said. "They could oppose a candidate. They could oppose both candidates. They could endorse a candidate. They could focus on a federal, state or local election."
These folks have a point. Preachers should not feel cowed by the government as to what they say or do not say from the pulpit. Of course, that argument cuts both ways. Freedom comes with its attendant responsibilities. If we say what we want from the pulpit, we ought to be prepared to pay the consequences, which may include the need to pay taxes. We remember that Jesus said that we should render unto Ceasar what is rightfully his. Whether the IRS has a right to a piece of the action when the offering plate is passed is a matter for which I have little expertise. What I am more interested in, however, is whether partisan comments from the pulpit are a good idea regardless of the legal or financial implications.
Our citizenship is in heaven and that is where we place our primary interest as Christians and as preachers. However our challenge is to live out the interests of heaven in the context of this earth. We are literally to work out the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Among the implications of this principle is the sense that Christians ought to vote and that they ought to vote for candidates and parties that best represent the value of God’s Kingdom. At the same time, we understand that while our concern is for the Kingdom, our tools are primarily of a spiritual nature and not political. We bring the Kingdom by prayer, by preaching, and by the practice of our faith, not by use of power politics.
In general, I would support the traditional view, that preachers should be careful about naming names and picking parties from the pulpit. Pulpit partisanship risks the integrity of our preaching. I suppose there may be extreme cases, where a party or a politician embodies a perspective so abhorrent to the principles of God’s Word that a direct approach could be warranted. Such situations, however, are probably rare in this part of the world. Most candidates we have to consider offer a mixed bag of perspectives, some of which we support and some of which we would not. In the more extreme cases, the truth will be obvious to everyone without our having to put a point to it from the pulpit.
The wise approach is to tackle the issues of the day from the perspective of the Scriptures. Let the Bible speak about the matters that are before us. If we can hear the voice of God through his Word and by his Spirit we will have a clearer sense of how to vote and how to live. We may even encourage a few politicians to a greater degree of biblical faithfulness in their work.