05/16/2012 06:14 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Pulpit Politics: Religious Leaders Should Persuade, Not Pronounce

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is calling for repeal of contraception coverage mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services. Seeing this as a violation of religious liberty, the bishops have scheduled "A Fortnight for Freedom," June 21 to July 4. They want to focus "all the energies the Catholic community can muster" for religious liberty.

I understand the need to preserve freedom of religion. Problem is, a March 15 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that Catholics reject the idea that religious liberty is under siege, by a 57 to 38 percent margin. In addition, 65 percent of Catholics support the contraception requirements for publicly held corporations, and 60 percent of Catholics say religiously affiliated colleges should have to comply.

Religious leaders should focus their energies on persuading their own people, not on making pronouncements to the nation.

I've seen this in my denomination. Eight years ago, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued a resolution condemning the invasion of Iraq as "unwise, immoral and illegal." The stridency of the language bothered me, and I feared it would have a polarizing effect.

Sure enough, within a day of the resolution, I began to hear complaints from church members, especially active-duty or retired members of the armed forces. To them, the assembly's action had drawn a line in the sand. Some supporters of the war even began to talk about leaving the church. "If the line is drawn as a result of the convictions of the majority, then OK," observed a parishioner who was a career Air Force officer, fighter pilot and Vietnam combat veteran. But he said he doubted that the assembly was speaking for the majority of Presbyterians.

Yes, we all need guidance as to what constitutes a moral approach to contentious issues such as war, contraception, stem cell research, gay marriage and abortion. But we aren't helped by resolutions that force people to be either insiders or outsiders, driven even further apart in a society that's already politically polarized.

In March, our regional Presbyterian body, National Capital Presbytery, debated a resolution which called for the church to divest itself of any interest in companies with business in Israel that is seen to be causing harm -- such as Caterpillar Inc., whose bulldozers are among those that Israeli forces use to demolish Palestinian homes. Although I am in favor of fair treatment of Palestinians, I voted against this resolution that I felt would do little to change hearts and minds.

I'm a pastor, and while I believe it is important for those of us who are church leaders to take stands on public issues of moral concern, our energies are better put into persuading our parishioners than making public pronouncements and tinkering with denominational investment strategies.

So are there any religious leaders who are doing the work of persuasion? Very few, I'm sorry to say. Most are either throwing bombs at their opponents or rallying like-minded believers. When I asked this question to a group of religious journalists who were participating in a panel discussion in New York City on May 8, a couple of them answered, "Joel Osteen." His message of hope is certainly reaching people across the barriers of race and even nationality.

But I don't see Osteen as an agent of societal transformation. His message is far too focused on helping individuals to find a way out of their personal troubles. We religious leaders can do better as agents of change, but only if we put more energy into persuasion than into pronouncements.