Clergy Political Activism: When should we get involved?

By |2017-11-10T13:31:57+00:00February 2nd, 2017|Categories: Anglican Leadership|Tags: , , |14 Comments

Churches and clergy are supposed to be politically non-partisan. Sometimes clergy are able to participate in politics as individuals (such as voting), but for the most part, they are to refrain from partisan politics. We serve the King of Kings, and represent his Church, not a particular party. Our mission and calling is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.

And yet the Gospel needs to be proclaimed in every aspect of human life, including politics, social conflict, and institutions. Being non-partisan doesn’t mean that we should avoid politics or protests or social conflicts. It can’t mean that, because we are supposed to be there with the Gospel.

This is why some priests will attend protests or rallies or political events as a chaplain. They are declaring themselves to be neutral, and their presence is recognized as spiritual.

But when should a priest actually join a protest?  When should a priest speak out against a political party or a political figure? Never? What about when people are being harmed or even killed?

The Church has been wrestling with these exact questions from the first martyrdom. Christians were the first people to petition the emperor to end abortion and infanticide.  They spoke up to a political leader about a social issue.  We know that they did this, and we know that we have always wrestled with the difference between partisan politics and Christian engagement. I can’t answer all of those questions for everyone, but I can share my own way of trying to discern my own personal engagement.

Chaplain or Spokesperson

First, I am always willing to go anywhere to be present as a priest.  As long as my presence is recognized as not endorsing any party or individual, I would be happy to pray with people, listen to people, and help people at any event. I would call this being a chaplain. Billy Graham advised and prayed with U.S. Presidents from the Republican and Democratic parties. He represented well this idea of a politically neutral pastoral presence.

Second, there are times when we are called to represent the Christian viewpoint on social matters.  Last year I was invited to an inter-faith panel discussing the violence in our city of Atlanta, particularly police violence in minority communities.  On this panel was a buddhist monk, a Nation of Islam leader, a community activist, and the head of the homicide department for the City of Atlanta. I represented the Christian minister’s perspective. It was clear to all involved that my  presence was not an endorsement of buddhism, Nation of Islam, or of any particular political viewpoints or solutions. I was there to speak the peace of Christ, share the Gospel, and answer questions from the orthodox, Christian perspective. It was a great opportunity and I’m thankful for it. I would call this being a Christian spokesman.

Protester?

There is probably wide agreement amongst believers that these first two ways of engagement are non-partisan and appropriate. But what about, for example, joining a protest?

I’ve recently had the unique experience of participating in the March for Life 2017 in Washington, and that same weekend participating in the Airport “Stand for Refugees and Immigrants” Protest in Atlanta. How did I decide to participate in these?

For me, I need to look for something that is transcendent of modern American politics and political parties, and this is the Kingdom of God. In other words, if the values of the Kingdom of God clash with the values of the Kingdom of Man, it is time to speak up. This is how it played out for me:

My presence at the March for Life came about as a result of an assignment. I was assigned by my bishop to represent our diocese at the March for Life. We are a pro-life diocese, and I fully support the pro-life and whole-life mission. We believe that pro-life is not a partisan issue. We don’t care if you are a democrat or a republican or a libertarian – you should support life from conception to natural death.  For us, the Kingdom of God demands this. And this has been an issue for Christians from the earliest days of the Church. Its not like modern American Christian invented the pro-life position. The Didache (1st century Christian document) says, “you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”

So even though most Americans think that abortion is a Republican or Conservative issue, we don’t see it that way. We see it as a human issue, a Gospel issue, a Kingdom issue. We have to stand up and speak for the unborn and the vulnerable.

My presence at the Airport Protest was a bit more personal. I was not there to represent my diocese officially. I was there as a priest of the Christian Church. My sign read, “Jesus was a Refugee #LetThemIn.”  I intentionally wrote this because that is why I attended. The Holy Family fled to Egypt to avoid Herod’s violence (which was politically motivated). Because of this, we must alway see helping refugees as helping Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We have to stand up if we believe refugees are being mistreated. And I did believe that. People were being stranded in airports who had already been approved to be here. Many of whom had family here or elsewhere that they were separated from. I had to stand up for them as a Christian and a Priest.  To me, this was not a conservative issue or a progressive issue.

A good friend of mine went with me. Michael is an immigrant to the United States.  He has done quite well for himself and his family. He is not in any way threatened by recent changes in laws, because he is a U.S. citizen. Yet stand up he did. I was grateful to be able to stand up with him.

I do not accept the notion that my presence there was an endorsement of all of the individual aims of everyone there, or of the undefined movement in general. I made it clear why I was there.

During the protest, there were several “anti-Trump” chants that I didn’t participate in. That’s not why I was there. I was there to seek the humane treatment of the refugees who have already been approved. I was also there to promote compassion for muslim refugees and immigrants, most of whom are fleeing from violence, not causing it.

My message in this was that regardless of your political solutions to refugee crisis, we must be compassionate, humane, and gracious. I don’t question the faith or sincerity of any fellow clergy who didn’t interpret the plight of the refugees to be as dire as I did. I do question us when we don’t speak for compassion and fair treatment, speak out of fear, or if we demonize any group of people. Whatever your opinion about legal and illegal immigration control, as a Christian your focus must be on understanding and grace. This is who we are supposed to be.

The Kingdom of God

For me, its not about what the Republicans want me to do, or the Democrats, or MoveOn.org or Fox News. Its about the Kingdom of God. For me the teaching of what is called “Christian Humanism,” championed by Pope John Paul II is very helpful in discerning all of this. But there are other schools of thought that are founded on the Gospel and Christian theology. Some find Wendell Berry helpful, others Stanley Hauerwas or Russell Moore. I recently heard John Stonestreet speak, a politically conservative Christian, and I heard the Gospel as the foundation. Some find Mother Theresa’s actively peaceful vision of serving the least and the outcast to be a light. Find one, and follow it where Christ leads you. You may not end up at a protest, but you also might. Have some poster board and markers ready just in case.

What would I not do? I don’t march for lower taxes or against the TPP or for Wall Street Reform. I don’t post on my social media about my opinions on charter schools or small business employment taxes. I don’t have a problem with Christians marching for or against any of these. Engagement is good. But as clergy I want to remain non-partisan at all times and I don’t feel that these issues will help me focus on that. This is so that when I do stand up, I can hopefully be seen as representing the Gospel and not the Donkeys or the Elephants.

Speaking of Candidates and Parties

When I have posted or spoken about a candidate, I’ve tried to focus on his or her actions and words, especially when I believe that they are reflecting (intentional or unintentional) harm to vulnerable people. I won’t tell you how to vote, but I’ll tell you if I believe a candidate is denying the image of God in others or threatening to degrade humanity.  I am also happy to evaluate the theological statements of candidates and parties, or their theologically related statements in light of the Christian faith. I’m not demanding that each candidate be a Christian. That’s not our aim because we live in a secular, pluralistic society. But I do want Christians to know when the theology of candidates demands some loyalty from them that a Christian can never give.

For example, our President recently told us that America should receive our “total allegiance.”  I’m sorry, but no. We can only give total allegiance to Jesus. To me, my standing up against this is not partisan. It is Christian.

Partisan politics in the church

Some of my fellow clergy are unashamedly partisan. I’ve even heard a few of them promote a political party’s agenda in church meetings. These are faithful pastors who love people, and yet slip into this. I suppose that’s inevitable to some degree and we sometimes slip. But the biggest problem is when we demonize “the other side.” And, sadly, that happens. Yes, some clergy are out there demonizing the liberals or hating on the conservatives. They are participating in the de-humanizing of their political opponents. This is not what Jesus is calling us to. We’re supposed to be reaching out to all people, not slamming the doors of evangelism shut by venting our anger against people who disagree with us.

People are never the enemy

Jesus said to love our enemies. St. Paul wrote that our battle is not against flesh and blood. Clergy, pastors, deacons, priests, bishops, please join me in denouncing denouncing. We can no longer demonize anyone. We can only point to the Gospel and to grace and to the dignity of each person in the image of God. Yes, we have to point out places where people are doing wrong to one another. We have to expose harmful ideas. But we don’t have to attack people.

So I don’t have all of the answers. But I do believe that if we focus on the Kingdom of God and his love for all people in Christ, we’ll get close to where we need to be. If we can remain as non-partisan as possible, we can be a witness for a loving Christ in a hateful, angry, competitive world. People are hungry for that, so lets introduce them to him rather than trying to gain personal political power for our group or people like us.

Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not. Amen.

Greg is the founder of Anglican Pastor. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.

14 Comments

  1. Joshua Steele February 2, 2017 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    Great post, Canon Greg!

    For some reason, a pastor explicitly *supporting* a political party seems more theologically problematic to me than a pastor explicitly *critiquing.*

    I haven’t though all the way through this, but it does seem very unfortunate that, in the largely binary political system of the USA, critiquing one party is implicitly seen as supporting the other party! I think that Christians must carve out a middle way (of course, right? lol) — for many reasons, but not least to preserve a position from which we can prophetically critique BOTH parties.

    Anyways, thanks again for writing this, and for your pastoral concern and insight on these issues.

    • Greg Goebel February 2, 2017 at 7:18 pm - Reply

      Good points. The two party system has so many positives. But the binary thinking doesn’t serve us well. Food for thought.

  2. Paul Hogan February 3, 2017 at 6:25 am - Reply

    I find the protest against the temporary halt to refugees coming into the country being the result of mis-information spread about the order by the media. There is of course, as we know now, no ban. We have a broken vetting system for refugees. For one, the system was bias against Christians with very few being allowed in yet they represent the most persecuted group in the world. The system has to be fixed and the security of the nation is the number one concern of our government. I submit that this country has been and still is the most compassionate nation in the world.

    The hysteria that is sweeping the country is manufactured by false statements that once out and place in social media have a life of its own. Most times when the truth is told, it does not receive the same exposure as the initial report. Therefore the false narrative continues to be promoted.

    I ask only that we keep in mind that we are in a transition to a government that could be, time will tell, more concerned with people rather then growing government. Yes the new president is boorish and petulant. He is the president. I only ask that we do not instantly react to everything and give it a few days until we understand the whole story, before forming opinions.

    I must admit that I am also preaching to myself here, as the son of an Irish immigrant.

  3. Michael Wells February 3, 2017 at 6:39 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! We need more light in these dark places!

    I’ve been struggling with this subject myself for months. Like Mr. Steele, I’m still working on this, but here are some random thoughts as I read through:

    Just because I believe an issue to be non-partisan does not make it so. I find it a bit disingenuous to make a statement like that when there is ample evidence to the contrary. If I look at the platforms of the two major political parties and discover a discrepancy, then it is a partisan issue.

    If I look at the Bible, I find God’s platform. We have but one message, and it doesn’t make any difference if it clashes with society or not.

    It seems the church has abdicated its responsibilities for “the least of these” to the government and now finds itself on the outside looking in. When the government “does it wrong,” our only recourse is to “fight city hall.”

    We seek political solutions because the church is offering none? Is our real complaint that government programs lack the heart, the love of Christ, that we would hope to find in a Kingdom ministry? Rather than point someone to a government program, why am I not pointing them to a church ministry?

    If I’m at a protest holding a sign and some activity starts up (chants) that don’t reflect my purpose for being there, how would one be able to tell? I’m not seen as “set apart,” but as part of the crowd. Were there disciples being drowned out by the crowd yelling, “Crucify him?”

    Mr. Steel’s point on our binary thinking is spot on.

    As I wrestle with being in the world, but not of the world, I find myself leaning in a different direction. I’m looking for opportunities to go one-on-one to help someone’s life be lightened by laughter, lifted by friendship, warmed by love, strengthened by faith, blessed by grace, and amazed by Life. I remind myself that I’m not called to save the world; I’m called to tell the world about the One who did, and for me, that’s best carried out knee-to-knee. Others may try to change people’s minds; I’m going after their hearts.

    I think we all could use a good refresher course in Ephesians 4. Here are some other references which have alternatively been channel markers and stumbling blocks as I try to navigate these difficult times:

    Colossians 2:8, 1 Corinthians 8:9, Acts 8:30b-31a, Matthew 7:1-3, Ephesians 4:29, Matthew 6:1 (I may be on the wrong side of this one by simply posting this), Romans 12:6-8

    Thank you again for expressing yourself and for the guidance it provides.

    May God bless and keep you!

    • Michael Wells February 3, 2017 at 6:41 am - Reply

      Forgot to mention something that made a profound impact: “The Church and Its Dangerous Politics” message from Eberhard Arnold (1934) which can be found here: http://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/politics/becoming-flesh-and-blood#ourpolitics

    • Greg Goebel February 3, 2017 at 6:55 am - Reply

      Thanks Michael for your insights. I agree with the direction you’re going there. I’m not sure though that there is never a time to fight city hall. As long as we are fighting with Kingdom values. We can do both, no? We can provide help to the vulnerable and press the governments to also do so.

      But you are right. At the end of the day if we aren’t being the Church, as Paul envisions it, then our protests mean nothing and we have become merely a social protest or government lobbying group.

      Blessings to you.

  4. Nyte February 21, 2017 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    Well,

    I would prefer that people be honest. And on the issue of immigration, the church has been more emotional than honest.

    Take for example, the photo in which the sign reads Jesus was refugee — false. Nothing in the life of Christ suggests that he was either a refugee or ever violated Roman law. In fact that is what Pilate himself made clear — the man is innocent. Jesus paid his taxes. And there is no indication that he violated immigration standards nor advocates the same.

    There is nothing in US immigration law that prohibits christians from their mission – nothing. Nor is there anything in scripture that suggests that pastor, churches have a right to violate immigration law that in no manner hinders that mission. As such any all protests that support those here illegally is a violation of scripture. Christ did indeed demand we minister to those in prison, but there is no indication that he supports prison break or circumventing the law to support illegal activity that does not contramand scripture.

    As an African American, I am sick to see the white christian world go ballistic about foreigners who may or may not be christian, but who circumvent and undermine US citizens. The damage that christianity in the Us has done to blacks across the country is historic and will take a monumental effort to redress without condoning unhealthy behaviors, yet, there are n national flash mobs about our dysfunctional prisons, desperate criminal justice system, the systemic woes resulting from segregation and the whole sale discrimination from generation to generation that has helped create the world of our inner cities and rural communities.

    But tell some Muslim he is temporarily banned and whites go cray about how mean the system is.

    In light of truth, I just cannot an will not take christians seriously. and I am delighted that liberal blacks are getting a first hand look at how deep white hypocrisy is in this country.

    The good Samaritan is a fine lesson, nothing about it suggests aiding and abetting criminal behavior.

  5. Nyte February 21, 2017 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    Want to be politically active start in Compton, Detroit, Watts Harlem, Macon County, Houston, . . .

  6. Joshua Toepper March 15, 2017 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    Great thoughts and im like 99% with you. Here is a thought i have that you might have some thoughts on: Is the idea of a non-partisan clergy a product of privilege? For instance, i find that the most partisan clergy tend to be minorities which stand the most to lose. Thus, they feel the deep need to call out the powers at be and align with those that will do what they believe to be “the most good.” Are we able to be non-partisan because no matter republican or democrat control, we will ultimately be ok? Id love to hear your thoughts.

    • Greg Goebel March 20, 2017 at 5:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks Joshua. That’s a very good thing to wrestle with and think through. And because “non-partisan” has different meanings to different people/groups/classes, etc, then you have to kind of look at that too. If non-partisan means to try and balance two or more parties, or equally praise them, then I can’t see how anyone, much less disadvantaged or oppressed groups could or should sign on to that. By my understanding of “non-partisan” there would be times when the Church should align with a particular party, law, etc. Its just that we should be starting with the Kingdom first, not party first. So to me, it isn’t partisan for a hispanic Church, for example, to support the DREAM Act. Not sure if that contributes to the discussion or not. Thanks for the great question.

      • Nyte March 24, 2017 at 6:30 am - Reply

        Goodness gracious.

        I am unclear how one rationalizes hat. In my view, it’s obviously partisan, the fact that the clergy is hispanic may cliche or stereotype the partisanship, but partisan it is.

  7. mike geibel July 29, 2017 at 11:01 pm - Reply

    I just found this website and this article. It is refreshing to find a Pastor who sees that political activism in the name of religion will divide and not unite a diverse church membership.

    I left the TEC after the November election and the political activism pursued by the Church. It was not that I believed its leaders were wrong on every political or social issue, but i was offended when Bishops and clergy used pledge money to rally protests where they claimed to speak for God and all members of the Church, when they do not.

    I have found a small and growing non-denominational church nearby where we leave politics at home and gather to celebrate our blessings.

    Please accept my donation to your fundraising campaign.

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