A growing number of Americans, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, say that mixing religion in politics makes them uneasy. In 2010 29% said that there was too much religious talk from those in political office. 37% said there was too little. In both the 2010 and 2012 polls 25% said the amount was just about right. The numbers are almost reversed in a March 2012 survey. 38% now say that the mixture of religion with politics is too high and 30% said it was too little.
There are several ways to read this data. One obvious response is to recognize the obvious. We are in an election year during which some Republicans made religion a central part of their rhetoric during the primaries. I honestly expect this to tone down quite a bit during the general election between Governor Romney and President Obama. Both seem far more moderate and less likely to continually engage in religous talk as part of their political agenda.
But I have a bit different take on this data. My view is shared by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty’s executive director, J. Brent Walker, when he says “that while you cannot divorce religion from politics, it is encouraging that a growing number of Americans are seeing the pitfalls that come with an overuse or misuse of religion for political purposes.”
When campaigns make overt appeals based on religion there is a much great danger of stereotyping, bias and even overt religious prejudice. Walker is right when he says that “this threatens the liberty of everyone’s religious freedom.”
In the same Pew Survey 54% of Americans said the church should stay out of politics while 40% thought churches should openly express views on social and political questions.
This number is more difficult to assess, at least for me. I believe the church should engage in public theology, which has to include instructing faithful members about moral and social issues that impact life and freedom. What is clear is that with the exception of white evangelical Protestants most Christians say the church should stay out of political matters.
Legally pastors and church leaders are free to interpret and apply the Scripture to moral issues and public matters. The great ethical issues of our time require such teaching if pastors and leaders are to be faithful Christian servants. But does this mean a pastor, or church, should endorse a party, a candidate or a ballot measure as part of its public mission? I think not. I believe the church should teach biblical principles, explain ethical stances and conclusions and, almost always, avoid engaging in partisan politics as a part of public work. We must avoid two extremes. On the one hand we should avoid the church being a “special interest group” for a candidate or party. On the other we must not make the implications of the gospel entirely interior and thus strictly private matters. If this approach was correct then the Civil Rights Movement would never have succeeded. Think about the loss to our culture if Christians had not talked openly about injustice and human rights.
I have occasionally suggested, in blogs written on this site over the last decade, that pastors should not be politicians. I believe Abraham Kuyper understood this correctly when he ran for the Parliament in Holland in the 19th century. Kuyper gave up his ordination and left his role as a minister of the gospel in the church. He believe the two spheres should not be mixed or a hopeless confusion would be created. I believe he was correct. Eventually Kuyper became Prime Minister. For the same reason the Catholic Church requires a priest to surrender his ministry in order to enter elected office. I wish evangelicals would heed such wisdom. If a minister wants to be a politician well and good. Just make it clear that this calling (vocation) is not the same as that of a gospel minister. It seems to me that this is more needed now than ever.