As I've preached before, my hope is that churches and religious leaders will take an active role in political affairs. That hope remains as we approach the 2012 election cycle but with important words of caution for those who might engage in such activity. People of faith have every right to provide moral guidance on issues facing voters and the nation, but churches, in particular, need to remain far removed from partisan political activity.
For many, political participation by churches goes against the grain of the American ideal. Doesn't the separation of church and state forbid such a mixing of the two?
Perhaps the best clarifying statement on this issue comes from 2007 version of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, which read in part that:
The United Methodist Church believes that the church has the moral imperative to act for the common good. For people of faith, therefore, there are no political or spiritual spheres where their participation can be denied. The attempt to influence the formation and execution of public policy at all levels of government is often the most effective means available to churches to keep before humanity the ideal of a society in which power and order are made to serve the ends of justice and freedom for all people. Through such social action The United Methodist Church generates new ideas, challenges certain goals and methods, and help rearrange the emphasis on particular values in ways that facilitate the adoption and implementation of specific policies and programs that promote goals that are congruent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This task of the Church is in no way in contradiction with our commitment to a vital separation of Church and State. We believe that the integrity of both institutions is best served when both institutions do not try to control the other. Thus, we sustain with the first amendment to the Constitution that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" We live in a pluralistic society. In such a society, churches should not seek to use the authority of government to make the whole community conform to their particular moral codes. Rather, churches should seek to enlarge and clarify the ethical grounds of public discourse and to identify and define the foreseeable consequences of available choices of public policy.
What this means, in short, is that churches have every right under the Constitution to engage in what is called public policy advocacy (though the IRS does set limits on the amount all non-profits, including churches and other faith bodies, can spend in this area). Churches can endorse or oppose legislation or voter initiatives, for example. Never did the Founders intend for people of faith or houses of worship to be silenced, as some might today hope, when the Constitution was adopted. The faith community can freely articulate moral principles but guidelines must be observed.
Churches cannot, for example, endorse political candidates or political parties. In fact, no tax-exempt organization operating under the IRS's Section 501 (c) 3 code can. This would include secular organizations like United Way. While some in the religious right have challenged this law, I remain convinced that the United Methodist Church was right when they said the integrity of both the state and the church is "best served when both institutions do not try to control the other." I don't want the state picking pastors for our churches or a religion for our people, and I don't want our churches picking political leaders for the state.
Let me repeat here what I've said in churches: A mistake that over the history of our nation both theological liberals and conservatives have made in different moments is to equate one political candidate or one political party as being somehow closer to God. We need to resist this impulse for several reasons. First, I've never been aware of any public figure -- at least since Jesus -- who fully understood the wisdom of God. We all fall short despite even the best of intentions. When the late Jerry Falwell and others argued during the 2004 elections that you could not be a Christian unless you voted for their preferred candidates, they supplanted their own beliefs for the Gospel teachings. Second, and perhaps more important, is that when we align the church with one candidate or one political party, we risk becoming an agent of that cause instead of an agent of God. Scripture teaches us that we are called by God to be loving critics of the conventional wisdom, not agents of the state.
And it is in that task -- calling the political leaders of our day to account -- that there can be no negotiation. Scripture teaches that we have a responsibility as a people of God to be actively involved in the life of the world. That means that the role of the church is sometimes to lift up difficult issues and put them before the public. That is what abolitionists in our churches did during the era of slavery, that is what civil rights marchers did in our churches during the Civil Rights Movement, and that is what our churches are doing today in calling for economic policies that help reduce poverty and lift up children. Those of us who are followers of Jesus have a special responsibility to speak out on issues related to peace and justice.
Politicians have learned that they can win elections by finding those so-called wedge issues that divide people along religious, economic and racial lines. They hope that raising these issues will increase voter turnout in some areas and suppress it in others. Division is a tool in politics. But we shouldn't be about division as the church -- we should be about community and reconciliation. And so, if the church is to become involved with political issues, we need to be careful about the language we use and the tactics we employ. Our actions should always be undertaken with care and in prayer.
One way that we can avoid inflaming tensions is to be particularly careful about how we invoke the name of God. Too often churches deeply concerned about issues have told the public that God wants them to vote one way or another on Measure X. Let's stay away from that and be humble enough to recognize that there is always the potential that we are wrong. After all, we're only human. When we do endorse issues, it should be said that we do so with our best understanding of where God is calling us as a people but room should be left for those who disagree with us to know they are God's people too. The church does not have a monopoly on the truth.
Finally, I've written about how I believe churches should never become involved in partisan political causes. That's the law, and it is a theologically sound principle. But that law and principle do not apply to individuals or clergy. The only way for the democratic process to work is for all of us to be engaged. Therefore, I hope as individuals we all get involved. I hope we work for candidates we believe will advance the common good. I hope we'll all vote. I sometimes endorse candidates for public office and believe that doing so is appropriate. But as a pastor I'll never talk about my support for a candidate from the pulpit or in any church setting because to do so would blur the lines in ways that would hurt the church.
As a progressive minister in the United Church of Christ, I'm deeply concerned about poverty, the environment and war, to name a few of the pressing issues of our day. My hope is that more and more progressive Christians will become engaged in the public square. But we should not replicate our efforts out of what the religious right has done. No, groups like Focus on the Family and the like have too often claimed God as their own and reduced Scripture to a political platform. Progressive people of faith need to operate in ways that respect the great tradition of religious pluralism in the United States and intentionally seek -- even as we push hard on important issues of justice -- to build bridges in a nation too often divided and torn asunder by religious voices and by politicians who claim that God calls them to office.