Donald Trump has floated the idea of repealing the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofits, including religious institutions, from making political endorsements or openly partisan statements.
I’m agnostic about the Johnson Amendment. I can imagine that, should it be repealed, the activities some Christians would engage in would be unwise, but churches got along before it. Even with the amendment, the Religious Right has managed to alienate much of the nation, and many old-line denominations have alienated a good percentage of the people who formerly filled their pews.
Be that as it may, the proposal should lead us to consider the ways in which the Church should or shouldn’t be political.
My basic thesis is simple: It is intrinsic to the nature of the Church to be political. It can’t be avoided. In relation to the world as it is, the Church offers an alternative politics. Even the name church, deriving as it does from assembly (ekklesia), indicates its political reality. In the ancient world, the word sometimes referred to the governing body of the polis, or ancient city.
Nevertheless, I recognize that some may chafe against my use of political, taking it as they do to mean something fundamentally partisan. The fact that it is strange for us to think of the political, divorced from the dominant parties of our political system, illustrates something of the problem.
Ostensibly, the very fact that we have a political system — a social ecosystem or ordering of society — within which the parties function should demonstrate that political rightly has a broader connotation than the parties. The parties (and not only the big two) represent, at their best, different philosophies of, or approaches to, ordering our common life as a nation. But by and large, on the most important matters, their differences relate to prudential decisions about how to prioritize issues, or what manner of solution to offer.
The tools they use to till our societal soil, and the seeds they plant, are partisan. The tilling and planting is politics.
The Church, then, is by nature political, but it is not naturally or normatively partisan. At exceptional times, the politics of the Church may require taking up a partisan banner, but such times are exceedingly rare. Partisanship is most often counterproductive to the Church’s immediate political goal: demonstrating to the world a different way of being a community, proclaiming God’s kingdom to an earthly empire, and relativizing all earthly loyalties in light of the cross.
Yet partisan politics is a reality in our churches, to our shame. I have thought for a long time that some people choose their church based on their their partisan loyalties, rather than allowing their formation in the faith to direct their political involvement.
As with most of my good observations, others had arrived at them before me.
Dr. Jason Husser of Elon University has done some interesting research on the phenomenon of politically based religious sorting (see two brief clips of him lecturing on the topic here and here). This sorting is driven largely by the high degree of polarization we see in our political system today. While it is most evident among white evangelicals, this behavior also applies to different churches.
Recent surveys show that a startling percentage of those who identify with a political party — 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats — would be upset if their child married someone of a different party allegiance. In contrast, people aren’t as concerned about marrying outside of their faith. I’m not necessarily advocating against interfaith marriages — though they should be considered much more carefully — but these percentages illustrate dysfunctional priorities.
Because the lordship of Jesus, on which the politics of the Church is founded, relativizes and puts into perspective all other loyalties, it should mitigate partisanship and weaken the hold parties have. Obviously, this is not the case. The polarized character of our secular politics, and our churches, is an indictment of our communions as much as our political system.
Government has in many ways given way to dysfunction, and shows signs of political sickness. So do our churches, liberal and conservative. Having bent the knee to their respective partisan idols, they will continue to become anemic, gradually revealing more homogeneous and numerically declining demographics.
One way to counter this trend is to assert with vigor the alternative politics of the Church in the face of greater partisanship. Such a witness is especially needed at this time in the life of our nation, when the temptation of so many is to proclaim the peculiar importance of this historical-political moment in relation to all other moments.
Because of this conviction, I have encouraged, and will continue to encourage, my congregation to respect one another across ideological and partisan differences. It becomes all the more important for Christians to demonstrate care for one another, and for their neighbors, across partisan lines as campaigns heat up.
In my 10 years of ordained ministry I have made it a policy never to veer into territory that can easily be seen as partisan — especially not from the pulpit, or when teaching about the Faith. I need to serve as an example, as someone who has clear allegiances that transcend party or disagreements. This is one reason I am thankful to have the freedom to decline to register as a member of either party.
I take it as a point of pride that I’ve often had listeners come up to me after sermons and confess that they could not really place me within their partisan calculus. Likewise, I tend to post analytical articles, as opposed to clearly partisan ones, on social media.
I see my primary political task as a priest to be twofold: upholding the alternative politics of the Church, and highlighting the values and issues that all Christians ought to care about, regardless of how they may prioritize them or what partisan tradition they draw on.
A number of clergy I respect take mutually exclusive approaches to politics and to partisanship. On the one hand, some suggest never voicing your partisan preferences to parishioners. Others are well known for their heavy involvement in partisan politics, and perhaps liable to be described as activists.
Neither position holds water. Indeed, I believe both fuel an over-evaluation of the importance of secular politics.
A refusal to give one’s personal opinion can serve to bolster the significance many give to these matters. Sharing some of our differences openly lends a sense of appropriate and healthy proportionality to policy or partisan disagreements.
On the other extreme, being seen as too partisan or beholden to a particular party’s worldview can make others question whether we have replaced Scripture and tradition with a partisan platform.
How serious do I think this situation is? When I was in seminary, we discussed how some churches barred members of secret societies or fraternal organizations from membership (nota bene, none of this happened in the Episcopal Church). I joked with my classmates — and shocked some of them — when I suggested that if we really wanted to bar membership in groups that inhibit faithfulness to the gospel, we should forbid membership in the Democratic and Republican parties.
My suggestion was a bit tongue-in-cheek; I don’t actually believe such a sectarian move would be all that helpful to the Church or to society.
On the contrary, Christians should be encouraged to identify and involve themselves in any mainstream political party. And, keeping the proper hierarchy of loyalties in mind, they should try to be involved as Christians, bringing the leaven of charity and faithfulness into the deliberations of those parties, as well as a common commitment to a higher order.
We have lived through an era that could be described as a partisan Babylonian Captivity of the American church. This has been particularly visible among white evangelicals, but noticeable among regular churchgoers in other traditions. A better approach is to have Christians heavily involved in the policy-making of both major parties, at the very least.
But what of the Church? It just might help end partisanship there as well. Our churches need members with the ability to recognize prudential decisions on which Christians might disagree. They need also a little more hesitancy, if not a complete refusal, to use the institutional mechanisms of the Church to promote a particular partisan approach to a matter.
The result would be space rather than alienation, along with a move from “winner takes all” politics in our ecclesiastical institutions. Then, we might realize that positions affirming gospel values undergird our sometimes varied individual positions.
In my next post I will try to examine two areas where such a shift might apply in the life of the Episcopal Church.