Thursday, September 25, 2008

God wants you to vote for _____!

It's generally a fact that churches don't endorse candidates. For one, it can be dangerous, since a lot of churches are made up of people who disagree on political issues. If a church were to officially endorse a candidate, it would risk dividing many of its constituents.

For another, it's illegal. Churches, as non-profit entities, are not allowed to officially endorse any candidate or position. To make such an endorsement, the church would risk losing its non-profit status with the US Government. And since many churches barely make it by as it is, to add a tax burden might just kill other viable ministries.

For yet another, things aren't always as cut-and-dried as they seem. There is hardly ever one candidate who fits every issue Christians believe is important. Pick the issue - abortion, marriage, immigration, care for the poor and elderly, environmental concerns, the economy, war, the death penalty. . .just try to come to a consensus among any group on ALL those issues, and then try to find a candidate who lines up exactly with your group on all those issues. You can't. So then you have to pick and choose exactly which of those issues should take precedence over the others, and try to find a candidate who is closest to the issues you think are important. It's not an easy task.

And for yet another, many believe the church needs to maintain some separation from the political process. God is bigger than any political party, God is bigger than the United States. So many churches want to get their people focusing on more important things. Vote, yes - it's your honor and duty. Be informed, yes - we should all pay attention and do our part to vote as our conscience guides us. But rather than being swamped by partisan politics, churches will focus on carrying out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, preaching the Gospel and feeding the hungry and fighting for the poor and marginalized and working for the Kingdom, rather than wading directly into the political pool.

Of course, astute readers will note there's a bit of a wink-wink nudge-nudge going on here. While churches may not make official endorsements, about this time every few years we're inundated with "Voter's Guides" produced by the Right-to-Life League, the Defense of Marriage League, the Christians for Environmental Awareness Association. Slick, full color pamphlets that don't make official endorsements, yet are clearly laid out in such a way to show which candidate most clearly fits their agenda. A few years ago, when I was still in Turlock, somebody showed up during a Sunday morning worship service and stuck copies of these voter guides on all the cars in the parking lot. To read the pamphlet was to get the clear idea that God only voted Republican. I had the youth group remove the flyers before anybody else saw them.

And, of course, every year at this time we're treated to news footage of the leading democratic candidate preaching at a church service of the First African Episcopal Methodist Church of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. While these churches don't necessarily "endorse" a candidate, you get the feeling they are certainly "suggesting" the candidate they would most like to see in office. and so it goes. Churches may subtly make their feelings known, but generally don't come out and make official pronouncements.

Only this year, a group is trying to change that. According to an article in the LA Times, "Christian ministers from California and 21 other states will use their pulpits Sunday to deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates -- defying a federal ban on campaigning by nonprofit groups."

Their hope is to trigger an investigation by the IRS, which (they hope) would lead to a reversal of the law barring churches from endorsing candidates. By challenging the law, they hope to bring attention to it. And their long-term plan is to "'restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural truth from the pulpit' without losing a church's tax-exempt status."

Personally, I think sometimes we've hidden behind our tax-exempt status and made it an excuse to not engage in politics. It really does make it easy for pastors to say "well, I can't make any endorsements, because it's against the law." The Church does have a prophetic voice, and it needs to make that voice clear in the U.S. Just last night I told a few people "Maybe we need to give up that tax exempt status, in order to regain our rightful place as prophet to a secular society." So I can applaud, somewhat, the general idea at work here.

What I can't applaud is the way they're going about it. Take this, for instance:
"I'm going to talk about the un-biblical stands that Barack Obama takes. Nobody who follows the Bible can vote for him," said the Rev. Wiley S. Drake of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. "We may not be politically correct, but we are going to be biblically correct. We are going to vote for those who follow the Bible."

See, that's where these things fall apart. There's an underlying assumption here that McCain is somehow the only Biblical candidate, that there is a direct correlation between Biblical Truth and the positions of John McCain. (To be fair, I'm assuming that, in attacking Obama, Drake is back-handedly endorsing McCain. Perhaps he'll endorse a third party instead?) But this line of "Nobody who follows the Bible can vote for him" is not just an attack on Obama, but an attack on thousands (hundreds of thousands? Millions?) of Christians who will, in fact, vote for Obama. Because their Biblical Issues are different than the chosen Biblical Issues of the Rev. Drake. Issues like caring for the poor and the elderly, issues like ending the war in Iraq, issues like justice in the marketplace - to many Christians those Biblical Issues are every bit as important as abortion and gay marriage.

You see, it's one thing to say "In the end, we believe ____ best fits the bill for how we see God working in the world, and therefore we endorse him." It's a completely other thing to say "God wants you to vote for _____." In fact, I hate to break it to the Rev. Drake, but I'm not sure there are ANY candidates who "follow the Bible." At least not like he means.

So I'm all for carrying on this discussion about whether or not Churches should be able to endorse candidates; I'd even be up for discussing the disadvantages that come with our tax exempt status. I'd just like to see some level of adult discourse and wisdom on the subject, rather than political bombshells dropped into the pool of media bites. I'd like to see the church enter into discourse about just how we might best have a voice in the United States of America. As a Christian and pastor, I'd certainly like to see Biblical values remain at the forefront of political discussion. But we need to figure out how to do that without becoming just one more shill for any particular party.

What do you think?


Chad said...

I think it's sad that a pastor actually has to take the time to have this discussion with his local church. If you aren't saying enough about it the other 3.75 years, you aren't doing your job properly.

AND ... I think the Republican party is remiss in neglecting to put up Ron Paul for the presidency.

GigHarborUndressed said...

I think this is one of the most articulate posts I've read about the subject.
Christian churches tend to find trigger issues (gay marriage, abortion) and whichever candidate says no to those two issues is the "Christian" candidate.
Christians, as you said, need to be alert and aware and involved, but to claim that God has a preference (one that he'd need voters to carry out for him) is pretty misguided.
I don't believe it's a church's responsibility to endorse politicians. The church's job is to advance the gospel, and part of that includes being socially active but not divisive amongst our own community.

Erin said...

I think it's the churches job to guide people. Guiding your congregation to pray about the election, and ask God individually for direction in the matter, rather than basically telling them what to do, is what I would personally want from my church.