Note from CM: Randy Thompson is one of our faithful readers and commenters. He and his wife Jill host and minister to pastors and church workers at Forest Haven, a retreat in Bradford, NH. At the FH blog, Randy writes regular words of encouragement to those dealing with the stresses of ministry, and we have featured some of his posts here.
Today, he contributes an opinion piece about last Sunday’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
* * *
Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Do We Really Think This Is a Good Idea?
by Randy Thompson
How is it, exactly, that Pulpit Freedom Sunday gives preachers freedom they don’t have? More specifically, what, exactly, will it give preachers freedom to say? To exercise this supposed freedom is to end up doing the exact opposite of its supposed intent. Pulpit Freedom Sunday isn’t for Christ, it’s for the IRS. Presumably, some pastors are happily and boldly endorsing candidates to their hearts content for no other reason than to annoy the IRS, with the hope that maybe the IRS will respond to the challenge, resulting in a court case that will keep lots of lawyers and preachers busy for a long time. And, come to think of it, where do these political endorsements end? Why settle for endorsing Presidential candidates? Why not take a more comprehensive and holistic view and endorse candidates all the way down to village dog catcher?
By seeking freedom to preach politics, preachers are doing so not on the basis of Christ as Lord but in relation to the IRS. It is “for freedom that Christ has set us free,” St. Paul tells us in Galatians, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an almost Tea Party appeal to Caesar: “For tax exemptions the IRS has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of government regulation.” I worry that Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a Right Wing version of a Hallmark Card holiday.
As to the history behind this issue, well, OK, fair enough. Wily old Lyndon Johnson outmaneuvered political opponents in 1954 by hiding an amendment in a bill to revise the tax code, the intent of which was to sink his political opponents, and, as one writer put it, churches were the collateral damage. Maybe, from a legal perspective, this is a dumb law with a shady past that needs to be changed. Maybe.
But, maybe this sneaky amendment is an example of someone doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Maybe Someone Up There, way cleverer than Lyndon Johnson, was at work in this matter, and used it to help preachers stay focused on Christ and not Caesar. Maybe it wasn’t just about putting down McCarthyites in Texas. By putting politics out of bounds to preachers, LBJ inadvertently helped serve the cause of the Kingdom of God by creating a law that reminded preachers whose Kingdom they belonged to. In terms of the Kingdom of God, this Sunday celebration of a (terrific) human political system is a huge, well-intentioned distraction.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday is less about the freedom to preach what you want than it is about avoiding the consequences of preaching what you want. Supporters want the opportunity to support candidates they like, presumably with God’s imprimatur. By doing so, they do indeed show the IRS a thing or two, but they don’t notice that their preaching focus has shifted, and shifted radically. The Jesus they call “Lord” is now linked to a particular candidate.
Regarding this, a bit of history for reflection: In 1972, evangelicals were all abuzz about Richard (“Tricky Dick”) Nixon, who was a friend of Billy Graham’s and, therefore, a special friend of God. (If you’re old enough and grew up in the evangelical world, you will remember this.) What would have happened if evangelical preachers all over the country stood up in their pulpits and endorsed Nixon? “Here is God’s man!” And then, what would have happened a year or two later, when “God’s man” escapes impeachment only by resigning and arrest only through the wise kindness of President Ford? Billy Graham is a godly man, and the very few times his reputation has been tarnished have been when he’s been in close proximity to Nixon. Does anyone remember what happened when they released some of Nixon’s audiotapes a few years ago, and we were treated to some of his anti-Semitic rants, with Graham present in the room with him? Preachers, do you really think it’s a good idea to use your pulpit to publicly support candidates? Are you nuts?!?
Don’t you realize that politicians aren’t fools—that they get where they are because they are masterful manipulators, influencers and connivers? That the can speak eloquently in whatever demographic context in which they find themselves, including churches? That they read people extremely well, and shrewdly discern what people—even Christian people—want? A wise old sociologist used to ask, constantly, “who’s influencing whom?” Are preachers influencing politicians, or are politicians influencing preachers? Are preachers immune from the addictive quality of being near fame and power? Instead of being salt and light, candidate-endorsing churches will become merely a power bloc in Mystery Babylon, squabbling over power, influence, and Caesar’s attention.
Let’s look at this from another direction. Is it really a good idea to support someone with God’s imprimatur who partially supports “godly” causes, but who also partially supports “ungodly” causes? Where do you draw the line here? I completely understand why many conservative people oppose abortion and redefining marriage. But why is it that they’re less finicky about “godly values” when a candidate supports traditional values while at the same time upholding a value system rooted in an ideology like that of Ayn Rand? Why is an atheistic, anti-Christian ideology like hers OK, but an atheistic, anti-Christian ideology like that of Karl Marx not OK? Why is it that Christians are willing to embrace some anti-christs, but not others? And, again, the question, “who’s influencing whom?”
Finally, we need to ask ourselves, “Does the Bible offer us any guidance on church, state and politics?” I believe it does.
During the time of the prophets, for example, Judah’s kings were tempted to enter into alliances with the super powers of the time, Assyria or Egypt. Yet, to the prophets, these alliances with political powers were a sign of unfaithfulness, as Ezekiel makes clear: “Egypt will no longer be a source of confidence for the people of Israel but will be a reminder of their sin in turning to her for help” (Ezekiel 29:16). Isaiah’s words to King Ahaz who sought political and military help from the Assyrians (of all people!) are similar: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9b, cf. 2 Kings 16:7ff). Many Christians are deeply and rightly concerned about the state of our country, but they are repeating the mistakes of these hapless Old Testament kings. They are seeking to fix the world’s problems by relying on the world’s power to do so. We proclaim loudly and often that “Jesus is Lord!” Yet, we act as though nothing spiritually significant or useful can happen without political clout and alliances with shady political characters. Why is it now that Jesus needs Caesar’s help? We have forgotten that we are what Paul called “ambassadors for Christ” and as a result we have gone native and become worldlings.
Or, consider this. What do Jesus’ temptations in the desert tell us, especially his refusal of Satan’s temptation to grab power and rule the world? (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). The quest for power always ends badly. To grab power leads you, finally, to worshipping Satan and his ways. To endorse candidates in church is to play the political influence game, and playing the political influence game inevitably leads you into playing the power game. What did the often quoted Lord Acton say about power? “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Are churches immune to this maxim?
I’d like to suggest that our Lord Jesus understood power better than we do, and as a result said no to it. Instead of striving for power and influence, he turned his face to Jerusalem and a cross, and was nailed to it. He died in weakness, not strength. He died in shame as an outcast, not as a conqueror. And yet, this helpless one pinned to the cross is the one we call “Lord,” and this weak one is the one who will judge the living and dead.
At that judgment, I want to be found to be like the judge, and to know first-hand the truth of Christ’s blessing of the meek who will inherit the earth. Let the rich and powerful struggle and let the influencers influence. Let nation rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. I, for one, hope and pray that I will be one of those gentle ones, in whom is seen some slight glimmer of the light of the cross, and the Kingdom it represents.