When Church Gets Political
I’ve heard the statement a thousand times, from longtime churchgoers to new converts or visitors, from Christians in the north to Christians in the south, from less traditional churches to more traditional churches: “Politics don’t belong in church!” When the preacher explicitly addresses politics from the pulpit, or simply seems to imply political sentiments, many Christians react with disdain. People might advocate for the presence of Christianity in governmental spaces (e.g. courthouses, the White House, law and policy), but many still reject the presence of politics in their congregations.
Admittedly, I have been there. I became a Christian anarchist briefly in college, and believed no Christian should be involved in politics. To me, political involvement, or endorsement of American government was idolatry. I had taken my cue from Christian figures (such as David Lipscomb, the founder of my undergraduate alma mater) who refused to participate in war, and refused to vote, in order to emphasize citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Nothing more. So even when a preacher I loved and admired openly endorsed the Republican party, deriding all Democrats, I became certain that such divisive politics should have no place in church. I publicly reminded the preacher that both Republicans and Democrats (and the politically unaffiliated) sat among each other in the pews. I reminded him that Christians do not belong to one political party. “Politics don’t belong in church,” was my solution.
But now I realize it is no solution at all, because the proposal to separate politics from church rests upon a faulty notion of politics. Politics pertained to governmental policies and squabbles between political parties, I thought. Political policies were decisions carried out by powerful people who sit in offices, I thought. Policies were impersonal, I thought. But my thoughts were far from truth: politics are directly tied to, and emerge from bodies—your body, my body, and our neighbors’ bodies. Politics are personal. And while you might be able to avoid talking about certain aspects of national politics in church, you are already participating in the political formation of your community and country. By being in relationship with one another, we are politically engaged with one another. To be in relationship with one another is to reckon with the pressing realities of our social power, privileges, prejudices, rights, and trespasses with one another.
When we think about the ministry of Jesus, we often uphold what accommodates our current faith practices, while we neglect teachings that “rock the boat.” We cringe when Jesus “gets too political” and pretend his conversations about money and taxes, and his embrace of religious and ethnic others are apolitical. But, was Jesus truly modeling a private approach to morality and charity? Or was Jesus operating within a political system, intentionally challenging policies and rules? Was Jesus’ death religious? Or was it political? Was he killed because he angered religious folk, or was he killed because he irritated political powers? Could it have been both? Perhaps religion and politics have always been bound together, because both religion and politics emerge from bodies—from real lives of people in society. And perhaps then, as it is today, religious expression was inherently political because religion concerns relations between people, and their relationships with authority.
I am not a political theorist. I am, however, a theologian who is deeply dedicated to the flourishing of humankind. It is from this position that I observe the political nature of faith gatherings. What we say, what we endorse, and what we profess all give shape to the political formation of our congregations. And what we don’t say or address is perhaps even more formative. The fact of the matter is that preachers don’t get political; preachers are political. Churches don’t get political; churches are inherently and unavoidably political. The question is, how are we forming our churches politically?
I am not asking how your church leans politically—conservative or progressive. I am asking how the messages we share in sermons and liturgies transform the way our congregants engage the bodies around them. The politics of Jesus were decidedly pro-human, anti-abuse, and concerned with equality. Jesus was against human exploitation, and actively challenged the religious and ethnic prejudices of his day. Jesus did not perform his ministry in a vacuum removed from surrounding political and religious context. He engaged the political and religious structures to bring good news to the poor, release captives, recover sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). And if these simple statements seem to push politically offensive buttons, I challenge you to interrogate the relationship between your faith and politics. If our churches are not equipping people to confront their own prejudices in order to bring good news to the poor, release captives, assist the impaired, and emancipate the oppressed, then I think we need to work on the relationship between our faith and politics. In baptism we confess Jesus as Lord. Surely we do not mean that Jesus is Lord of everything except our politics. It is time for us to put down the idolatry of party politics, and time for us to be formed politically in the way of Christ.