Ask Dr. Land: Should pastors address political issues from the pulpit?

Question:  I've heard congregants complain that while they agree with their pastor on political issues, he talks too much about it and it's tiring.  While other pastors are criticized by never talking about any political issues from the pulpit, with some saying that's not their gift.  Should pastors of local churches talk about political issues from the pulpit?  If so, when should they do so and on what issues?

Richard Land Portrait
(By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

Historically, vast numbers of Americans have looked to their pastors for moral, as well as spiritual, leadership.  This is still true for tens of millions of Americans of religious faith. And, in most cases, questions concerning the sanctity of human life, racism, human rights, sexism, and sexuality, for example, are of an entirely different level of moral significance than the politics of what are the most beneficial tax policies or the most prudent trade agendas. In a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” such crucially important public policies cannot be entirely separated from the political process. The inevitable tension between the pastoral role as moral and spiritual leader and the ebb and flow of public policy and politics is one that pastors should seek to navigate prayerfully.

As an ordained Baptist minister who has served in a pastoral role in almost a score of churches and has preached approximately 10,000 sermons over the past half century, this is a question I have struggled with, and helped scores of colleagues to wrestle with, over the past decades right up to the present day.

When the issues confronting the congregation involve moral issues directly addressed by significant biblical teaching, then the pastor has a moral and pastoral obligation to share with his people the Bible’s teachings on these issues. That does not necessarily mean that the pastor is obligated to, or should, speak to the specific public policy aspects of these issues in the vast majority of instances. In discussing the significant Scriptures concerning the sanctity of all human life, from conception to natural death and everywhere in between,  one can assert, as I have on many occasions, that God is pro-life while at the same time making it clear that God, while pro-life, is neither a Republican or a Democrat.  

Similarly, the pastor can share with his people that racism in any form is anti-Gospel without discussing from the pulpit the particular merits or prudence of specific legislative proposals seeking to address particular injustices. This is also true of such issues as sexism, gender issues, stewardship of the creation, and religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

For instance, it is one thing to say that all human life is sacred and should be revered, and it is another thing entirely to endorse specific legislative remedies addressing abortion and euthanasia from the pulpit. It is one thing to make it clear “that God is no respecter of persons” (Act. 10:34) and quite another to endorse specific legislation seeking to combat racism and sexism.              

If we are going to follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition that Christians and their churches should be spiritual thermostats, setting the moral climate of society, rather than being thermometers merely recording society’s moral temperature, then we should focus on the biblical teaching while never completely ignoring the specific public policy alternatives and implications.

How do we accomplish this? At this point I should probably note that for every sermon I have preached in a congregational context on the divinely assigned sacredness of every human life from conception onward (approximately 250 sermons), I have probably preached only five or six sermons that have contained specific policy recommendations (almost exclusively advocating overturning Roe v Wade and/or advocating support for a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).

My approach is that when it comes to specific public policy proposals or controversies, I deal with it in the following way.  I explain to the congregation, either in my pastoral role or when I am a guest preacher (with the pastor’s permission), that after we have completed the morning or evening worship service and we have had the closing prayer, “The worship service is now over. If you wish to leave, you are free to do so while we take a brief break. A group of people have asked for a briefing and a Q&A on public policy issues on the nation’s agenda. I will be staying for an hour to answer questions.” Then I explain that I will come down from the pulpit to the floor level to illustrate that from this point on I am speaking from a much lower level of authority than when I was speaking from the pulpit and that they should take anything I say during the public policy briefing with that totally different level of authority in mind. In moving down to the floor level, I am attempting through visual imagery as well as verbal explanation to communicate that I have gone from a “thus saith the Lord” in the pulpit to “I believe this is the best way forward on this issue” from the floor level of the church auditorium. Such Q&A sessions are always done in response to requests from church members and they have been well received.

I always make it clear at the outset that to equate God with any human institution, particularly one as flawed and as intensely human as either political party, is a form of blasphemy. I also make it clear that I do not believe that a church should ever endorse any candidate for office. We as Christians should be looking for candidates who endorse our convictions and our values. I still remember when Ronald Reagan, speaking as the Republican presidential candidate to the National Affairs briefing in Dallas in 1980, declared, “I know you cannot endorse me. I am here to endorse you.” The great communicator was right then, and he is right now.

The question of the propriety of Christians in general and clergy in particular being involved in the nation’s public policy and political disputes has been controversial from our nation’s earliest days. A vigorous debate about that involvement helps ensure that a healthy and constitutional balance is maintained. More about that next week. 

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.

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