Secular Politics and the Church

September 18, 2007 by
Filed under: Religion 

I’m a bit concerned.

I have said in some places, but perhaps not this blog, something about my feelings on secular politics and the church.  The short version is that I feel that the church should teach its members how to make moral judgments, but that the church should NOT be involved in advocating a position on current secular political events.  In other words – the church should be for peace, but not for peace in the Middle East by creating a Palestinian state (to give one example).  The church is in the field of giving us moral toolkits, but should not be instructing us on exactly how to apply them to specific situations.  Otherwise, at some point we stop asking people to make proper personal decisions on secular matters and start dictating those decisions – we create essential tenets that have little to do with God but much to do with the country or world.  I know that my opinion is in the minority among church leaders, though I’m not so sure about the pew sitters in general.

My pastor said something in his sermon this past Sunday about the church and politics.

I want to ask us to consider a kind of variation on that Peter Drucker question [mentioned earlier].  To ask whether the business we’re also in as a community of faith is about changing our Common Life … our life together as a people … our participation in the body politic.  Does this message have something to say about how we participate in the political realm and in the social realm?

Also, the church has scheduled an event for the church to give their feedback on this issue to our pastor before he delivers a sermon series on the topic.

People to Preacher Symposium on Faith & Politics –

Convener: Jeff Vamos. Two Sections (choose one)

Tuesday, October 30, 6:30-9:00 pm (dinner); or Saturday,
November 3, 9-11:00 am.
What does the Bible say about the relationship between faith and politics? How have Presbyterians dealt with that issue? Is it appropriate to speak of politics from the pulpit? What did Jesus have to say on this? These are questions we will discuss in this symposium. Each one-time conversation is designed to provide Jeff with “grist for the sermon mill” before a twopart sermon series on Faith & Politics in early November.
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Please call the church office, 896-1212 or email to register for one of the sessions. Preparatory reading material from the Book of Confessions will be expected.

I don’t think I’m alone – after he made this statement (and a few others) in the sermon the couple sitting next to me got fidgety and wrote a few notes to each other on their bulletin.  I got the idea that the pastor’s words made them uncomfortable.

This concerns me because I sense a desire for our church to make more political pronouncements and to become involved in political causes.  Other churches do this – some on the left and some on the right.

When I came to Lawrenceville, one of my concerns was the political strife in the church and beyond and the degree to which it would affect me as a member.  The church and society as a whole has been polarized into two sides:  The Right – evangelical, conservative, fundamentalist, Republican and the Left – progressive, less religious, tolerant, diverse, Democrat.  The leaders of government – particularly Republicans – have co-opted the Christian religious establishment as a voting block.  I was assured by the Interim Associates for Pastoral Ministry (temporarily filling the Associate Pastor role) that the culture of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville intentionally chose to embrace members from all parts and ends of the political/religious spectrum.  That the congregation was willing to discuss controversial issues openly (as opposed to some congregations that avoid them) but in a manner where all points of view are respected.  Discussions, not fights.  Very even tempered.

What concerns me is that I based my decision to join this church on many factors, and chief among them was this “Big Tent” philosophy.  I know that Jeff Vamos (and apparently Mary Alice Lyman as well) falls on the left end of the political/theological spectrum.  The church in general tips towards the left end as well.  But there is still a respect for those who disagree, and an unwritten agreement that the congregation as a whole (and the Session too) will not take a corporate position on secular political issues.  It is probably impossible to impose a similar moratorium on theological positions, though the church does try to be inclusive of all in at least membership.

So I’m worried.  Is the church trying to change in a way that goes against one of the bigger reasons that I chose it?  Do we stop being the church where all are welcome and become the Church of the Left?  Do I need to leave if that happens?

I have signed up for the “symposium” described above.  We’ll have to see where it goes.


7 Comments on Secular Politics and the Church

  1. Gannet Girl on Wed, 19th Sep 2007 8:27 am
  2. Mark, this is a help to me in articulating a response we have been asked to make as elders to a similar dilemma.

  3. Jon on Wed, 19th Sep 2007 5:21 pm
  4. Hi Mark,

    I think there are bounds one must be careful of in either direction. We can never identify God’s work with one particular human party. On the other hand, if the church stands fully apart from society it becomes quietistic and loses its witness.

    In the Reformed tradition, we have a number of resources. Following Biblical mandate, confessions like the Scots Confession encouraged parishioners to respect the civil authorities (even thought the authors had been part of a major rebellion). Barmen cautioned confessing Christians against joining the German Christians. Belhar in South Africa named apartheid sin.

    In the southern branch of the Presbyterian Church there was a “spirituality doctrine of the church” which discouraged churches from taking political stances as the church. (Actually, it sounds similar to your proposition: member in politics=good, churches in politics=bad.) Of course, you can guess that in the south this was to defer any statement on slavery.

    I personally feel like the church should be wary of direct partisanship, but that it can certainly advocate certain values (fair wages, just treatment of immigrants, tolerance towards other religions, etc.). It sounds like an interesting event! Keep us posted.

  5. jodie on Sat, 29th Sep 2007 6:03 am
  6. Mark,

    Secular is not an excuse for Immoral. Secular is not a license for evil.

    When the Conservative Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists got involved in politics we ended up with Bush and his war. They put in the White House a man who has destroyed America’s reputation as a force for good in the world and brought shame on all of us.

    Even now when it is more clear than ever how deeply corrupt he and his administration really are, when it has become clear that the causes for the Bush war in Iraq were trumped up fabrications, and when he asks for Four Billion dollars a week to continue his war while he promises to veto funds to help our own children get medical care, when he says that our mistake in Viet Nam was to get out too soon, the conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists wash their hands and say “not our problem”.

    Is the rest of the Church to continue to remain silent?

    I reject the notion that this is a right vs left issue. Our failure as a nation to stop this man is a moral failure. Liberals and conservatives, we have lost our way. If there is any democracy left in America then ‘we the people’ need to find the moral fiber to make the political changes that are necessary.

    Where is our moral strength to come from?

    If I was a pastor of a church I would not be able to remain silent. I think the restraint that our pastors have been showing is dated and misplaced. They should be calling us to repentance as a nation to change our ways. It is a moral responsibility we have before God and Humanity.

    Because to remain silent is to be an accomplice to murder. Because silence has proven to be the worst of all options.

    Because “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”

    Very interested in seeing what your congregation comes up with.


  7. will spotts on Sat, 29th Sep 2007 4:15 pm
  8. Mark – I would point out that church organizations have as bad a record as anyone when it comes to seeking and attempting to wield political power. The cost in human suffering has been phenomenal. This has not been a product of Christianity, but of what I regard as a false path since Constantine. This activism differed – sometimes it was on the right, sometimes on the left – but rarely was organizational involvement a good thing. To accept the premise that it is the goal of the Church to do so is not justified by the New Testament. That is vastly different than individual involvement in civic affairs. The individual is not claiming his or her preferred policy objectives are equivalent to Christianity or have the force of “Thus sayeth the Lord”.

    In our current circumstance, the “religious right” has contributed to a bad situation. But the answer to that is surely not to do the same thing with the only difference being personal opinion about the selected objectives.

    Doing the will of the Father ourselves cannot really be construed as the same thing as trying to use force to make others do what we think the will of the Father is.

  9. Mark on Mon, 1st Oct 2007 1:41 pm
  10. Jodie,

    You decry the actions of the Bush administration and the support received from evangelicals and fundamentalists. Then you state that church leaders should not remain quiet on the same issues.

    What is the difference between a church’s involvement in conservative politics and a church’s involvement in liberal politics? Are you saying that we are called to take action on whatever side we (as a community) fall on? What does that say about the nature of the catholic (little c) church? Are we supposed to have different ideas on each secular issue and still be united?

    I’d rather that the church let the members each make up their own minds. I guess I agree with the idea from the southern stream that Jon mentions.


  11. Mark on Mon, 1st Oct 2007 1:43 pm
  12. Will,

    I think that you are I are again in agreement.

  13. jodie on Mon, 1st Oct 2007 11:49 pm
  14. Mark,

    A couple of articles in today’s news:;_ylt=ApFed6yFHEoKTpjGKlumcXqs0NUE

    And also,1,232584.story?coll=la-politics-campaign

    The point being that it is too late to discourage churches to take political stances as the church. That train already left the station. As Jon points out, the tradition in the South was to avoid taking a stand on slavery. Not a good precedent. Good reason to re-evalute what it means to not take a political stance. The whole vocabulary of “Jesus is Kairos” and “Kingdom of God” is a political vocabulary.

    The train at the station now is the one that asks whether it is moral to remain silent in the face of recent events.

    For example, war goes against everything that our faith stands for. It was an enormous compromise when the church adopted the concept of “just war”. Orthodox faith requires that the burden of proof be satisfied before war can be tolerated by the church. There are many examples in history of what tragedy comes when said proof is not satisfied. Yet in this war the burden of proof was never met, and as time goes along it becomes more and more clear that it was never there and the White House flat out lied in claiming that it might have.

    If the Evangelical right endorsed this administration and supported its decisions, it also shares the blame and the responsibility for making things right.

    It is the fact that it has not assumed that responsibility that points to their complete moral breakdown. It makes the situation intolerable and forces a re-evaluation of the policy of non-participation in politics.

    At the very least it should be OK for our pastors to publicly decry why people like Dobson do not represent Christ, and to discuss what it means to satisfy the burden of proof to declare a war “just”.

    Did your pastor ever go there? Mine sure didn’t.


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