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Preaching and Politics

Wondering how to successfully navigate the political landscape through your preaching? Our survey results can help keep you on the straight and narrow.

"The Triumph of the Religious Right" (the Economist), "Facing the Facts of Faith" (the Arizona Republic), "Faith-Based Vote Proved a Big Factor in Bush Win" (the Sacramento Bee). These were some of the headlines popping up around the nation after the 2004 Presidential election. When the dust had settled, political analysts from across the country touted the rise of a powerful new force in American politics: Evangelical Christians.

According to many of those analysts, individual Christians coalesced around several moral issues during the months prior to the election, resulting in an important voting block. What is more, they declared that churches were largely responsible for publicizing the issues and organizing the grass-roots campaigns that ultimately sealed a victory for President Bush.

But are the analysts correct? If so, what are the implications for preachers as our nation heads into another election cycle? Preaching Today decided to investigate. We surveyed 478 pastors from around the country using self-administered questionnaires that were mailed to a random sample of Preaching Today Audio subscribers in 2005. These respondents represented a wide variety of church denominations and sizes.

Why should Jon Stewart have a bigger sway over the Christians in your church than your interpretation of the Bible?

What we found

There is no question that today's pastors are engaged with political and social issues. Indeed, according to our data, 99 percent of pastors believe it is appropriate for them to be involved in political and social issues. The question then becomes: What does it mean for a pastor to become "involved?"

This question is answered at two levels. The first level encompasses a pastor's involvement from behind the pulpit. Virtually all pastors (99 percent) mention political and social issues in their sermons at least a few times a year. Of course, the frequency does vary: 81 percent mention such issues in their sermons a few times a year, 17 percent almost every month, and 1 percent almost every week.

At the same time, however, 22 percent of pastors believe that it's inappropriate for political and social involvement to extend into their preaching, and 41 percent prefer not to preach on topics with political and/or social ramifications. This suggests that pastors' definitions of political and social "involvement" include something more substantial than simply "mentioning" a political or social topic during their sermon.

According to our data, such involvement is indirect for the most part. For example, 63 percent of pastors have included biblical principles within a sermon that are intended to help guide the voting decisions of their congregations. This is done without directly endorsing a specific political party or candidate, which is against IRS regulations and could cost a church its tax exempt status. In fact, only 6 percent of pastors have implied through their preaching that a certain political party is more "Christian" in its stance on particular issues.

Robert Gelinas—lead pastor of Colorado Community Church in Aurora, Colorado—often chooses to avoid including direct political or social statements in his sermons because of his own human limitations. "I'm fallible," he says. "I know my politics have changed from decade to decade, or even year to year. And so I don't want to tie my personal struggles in trying to figure out the political system with the eternal truths of God."

The second level of pastoral involvement in political and social issues refers to what is done outside of the pulpit. Forty-seven percent of the pastors we surveyed have communicated their support for a specific candidate outside of the pulpit. Thirty-six percent have supported a specific political party. Only 10 percent of pastors do not communicate their political views in or outside the pulpit.

I stated earlier that 41 percent of the pastors we surveyed indicated that they avoid preaching on topics with political and/or social ramifications, regardless of whether or not they believe doing so would be appropriate. These pastors cite many reasons for choosing to avoid such topics, but their answers fall into two main camps.

First, some pastors feel that delivering sermons on political and social topics would be a violation of the preaching mandate. Thirty-nine percent of pastors choosing to avoid sermons with political and social topics do so because, "The primary mission of the church is to preach God's Word."

This view resonates with Dennis Gray—senior pastor of Riva Trace Baptist Church in Annapolis, Maryland. "We have a tremendous responsibility to inform our people spiritually and morally," he says. "But the translation of that to the political process is something that should be done by the individual before God, not by the pastor from the pulpit. The politics issue is where all the heat gets generated."

The second reason our respondents gave for not preaching on political or social topics had to do with limitations inherent in the act of preaching itself. For example, 37 percent say that political and social issues are better suited for an environment that allows the participants to exchange ideas. Similarly, 11 percent indicated that they "do not want to take unfair advantage of a captive audience." In other words, 48 percent of pastors who choose not to preach on political and social topics do so because of inadequacies they perceive in preaching as a one-way medium.

Interestingly, only 4 percent of the pastors choosing not to preach on political and social topics indicated that "there should always be a separation between the church and the state."

A question of morals

Returning for a moment to the 2004 Presidential election results, many analysts were surprised to discover that voters cited morality as the most important issue they considered when determining whom to vote for. According to a post-election survey from The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 27 percent of voters selected "moral values" as the most important issue—compared with 22 percent for the War in Iraq and 21 percent for the economy and jobs.

Our data suggests that most pastors in today's churches do believe in addressing moral and social issues. Indeed, a majority of pastors believe that the following issues should be addressed in the pulpit: Helping the poor (88 percent), Abortion (81 percent), Homosexuality (80 percent), Same-sex marriage (75 percent), Medical ethics (69 percent), War (63 percent), and Citizenship and voting (63 percent). Only 2 percent of pastors believe that none of these topics should be addressed from the pulpit.

According to Bill Calvin—associate pastor of Bloomingdale Church in Bloomingdale, Illinois—this is excellent news. "If the pulpit isn't going to address moral issues, that means you're leaving the people in the church to get all their information from print media and television," he said. "So, why should Jon Stewart have a bigger sway over the Christians in your church than your interpretation of the Bible?"

What is interesting, however, is the fact that a gap exists between the number of preachers who believe that moral and social topics should be addressed through preaching, and the number of pastors who have actually addressed those topics in the last two years.

This gap is relatively small for issues that don't generate a lot of controversy. For example, there is a difference of only 8 percentage points between pastors who feel they should address helping the poor from the pulpit (88 percent) and pastors who have done so in the last 2 years (80 percent).

However, the gap generally widens in proportion to the amount of debate and controversy surrounding an issue. For example, the largest difference occurred with medical ethics, as only a third of the pastors who indicated the subject should be addressed (69 percent) actually did so (23 percent). (Of course, this gap may be due not only to the controversy inherent to the subject, but also because of the complexity and specialization of medical knowledge.)

Similarly, 63 percent of pastors believe that war should be addressed in their sermons, while only 38 percent had actually addressed it in the last two years—a difference of 25 percentage points. The variance for abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage all hovered between 15 and 20 percentage points.

Gelinas noted that there is a practical explanation for these gaps. "There are a lot of things we know we should be addressing," he said. "But actually getting to them is a lot harder."

Indeed, according to Pastor Gray, self-preservation (or church preservation) may be a factor in a pastor's reluctance to address controversial moral issues: "Sometimes we know it's the right thing to do, but we avoid a topic because we know it's going to be hot, and we just don't have the energy to field 14 phone calls on Monday."

What it all means

As we approach another election, our data suggests that pastors must come to terms with a key question: How intentional will I be in terms of influencing the social and political beliefs of my congregation through my preaching? According to the results of our survey, there are a variety of options.

On one hand, many pastors believe that an honest exposition of the Scriptures necessitates regular discussion about social and political issues. "As best as I can tell," Gelinas says, "Jesus was stepping right into a whole lot of political mess. So I don't know how you can 'just preach the Word' and not have it apply to social and political topics."

On the other hand, many believe that certain issues should not be addressed in order to maintain the right to speak to an audience. Pastor Gray says: "My primary responsibility as a pastor of the gospel is to make sure that people clearly hear and understand the truth of God's Word, who Jesus is, and how he wants to change their heart and life. So if I lose their hearing—if I lose their willingness to listen to me—because I have taken a public political position on one of these secondary issues, then I have failed in my primary mission, which is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Some pastors, like Gelinas, abide by strict boundaries to avoid accidental political influence. "My congregation has no clue if I'm Republican or Democrat or somewhere in between," he says, then adds, "but a whole lot of people are trying to figure it out!" He also notes, "I'll never use a specific politician's name in the pulpit, for good or for bad."

According to Pastor Calvin, others are relaxed to the point of recklessness in their willingness to speak out. "Some pastors, they just like creating controversy. They think it's going to help their church grow—or maybe they're bored."

Obviously, individual pastors will need to decide their own level of involvement based on the needs and desires of their particular church situations. However, it is vital that all pastors wrestle with these issues in order to be wise stewards of the social and political influence they have earned within their congregations.

Sam O'Neal is managing editor of Discipleship Resources at Christianity Today International.

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