Churches and the Siren Call of Politics

John W. Whitehead November/December 2004

The Evangelical church in America is in real danger today.

As if the effort to save people's souls weren't enough to deal with, today's church must also grapple with sex scandals, skyrocketing divorce rates, debates over gay marriage, and a nation in the midst of what seems to be an escalating religious war.

Sensing the vulnerability of Evangelical churches and the potential power of the church to influence large numbers of individuals (according to statistics reported in the World Churches Handbook, in 1995 Christians made up close to 70 percent of the total U.S. population), those in politics began circling early on. And given the fact that religion is now the biggest predictor of vote, after party identification, it is evident why churchgoers are being targeted heavily by both parties during a presidential election that could be determined by a few swing states.

This blatant effort by politicians to turn churches into vehicles for garnering more votes can most clearly be seen in the Bush/Cheney presidential campaign's outreach to Christian congregations. A detailed plan of action sent to religious "volunteers" around the country, the Bush/Cheney campaign's directive revolves around a time-sensitive list of 22 "duties" intended to mobilize Bush's base of religious supporters.

For example, the Houston Chronicle reports that by July 31, volunteers were asked to "send your church directory to your state Bush-Cheney '04 headquarters" and "talk to your pastor about holding a Citizenship
Sunday and voter registration drive." By August 15 volunteers were to "talk to your church's seniors or 20-30 something group about Bush-Cheney '04" and "recruit five more people in your church to volunteer for the Bush-Cheney campaign." By September 17 they were to host at least two campaign-related potluck dinners with members, and in October to "finish calling all pro-Bush members of your church." Evangelicals were also asked to identify other "conservative" churches in their communities "who can organize for Bush."

These outreach efforts are not limited to the Republican ticket, however. Considering that Democrats are losing the vote of regular churchgoers by a 2-to-1 margin, it is clear why vice presidential candidate Senator John Edwards addressed a crowd of worshippers at St. Mark's A.M.E. Church in Orlando.

These attempts to turn the pulpits of tax-exempt churches into political platforms seem to fly directly in the face of current IRS guidelines for nonprofit entities such as churches. Indeed, these guidelines make it clear that churches or other religious organizations may lose their tax-exempt status if they actively participate or intervene in any way in a political campaign, including supplying the type of information requested by the Bush/Cheney campaign.

This is reflected in a case decided in 2000, Branch Ministries v. Rossotti (the IRS commissioner). Four days before the 1992 presidential election, Branch Ministries, a tax-exempt church, placed full-page ads in two prominent newspapers, urging Christians not to vote for then presidential candidate Bill Clinton—supposedly because of Clinton's positions on certain issues. The IRS concluded that the placement of the ads violated the statutory restriction under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code on organizations exempt from taxation. For the first time in its history the IRS revoked a bona fide church's tax-exempt status because of its involvement in politics. The church lost its case in federal district court, and this was upheld on appeal.

There are at present several pieces of legislation before Congress that would ease the restrictions on churches in regard to political activity. However, until the current law is altered (if ever), churches must be mindful of the fact that the IRS is aware of the increased involvement between political parties and churches. Indeed, in June 2004 the IRS sent a memorandum to both the Republican and Democratic National Committees, among others, advising them of the current law on churches and political activity.

Despite the problem with the law, I believe there are much bigger issues to be considered as Christian congregations are encouraged to dabble in politics. These concerns have to do with the true nature of the church.

The church, as Jesus Christ proclaimed, exists to teach the good news (i.e., "the gospel") that there is a God who loved the world so much that He was willing to sacrifice His own Son. This universal sacrifice necessarily means that Christ's message is for everyone, irrespective of their status in life or their politics.

But Christ's message of love is difficult to reconcile with much of what we hear coming from certain quarters of modern Evangelical fundamentalism—a religion steeped in an "us versus them" mentality. "We're in a religious war, and we need to aggressively oppose secular humanism," Tim LaHaye, coauthor of the Left Behind novels, said several years ago. "These people are as religiously motivated as we are, and they are filled with the devil." This type of thinking is in opposition to the philosophy of the early Christian church, which cut across all lines that divided people—Jew and Greek, Greek and barbarian, male and female, religious and political philosophies.

These early Christians did not seek to either dominate the political establishment or maintain the status quo. To the contrary, they were not political conservatives. Instead, they were revolutionaries who saw what they had to say as truly universal and relevant to all segments of society.

"One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative," theologian Francis Schaeffer once wrote. In fact, for Christians to be stridently aligned with conservative politics is to miss the point of their religion. Conservatism, as such, means promoting a political agenda and, thus, maintaining the flow of the status quo. True Christians, however, are revolutionaries against a status quo dedicated to materialism and the survival of the fittest.

Indeed, Christians should stand outside the status quo. This includes politics!

Unfortunately, all too often Christians wrap their religion in the flag, so to speak. For the Christian, country and faith are never synonymous, and they are not two equal loyalties. As Francis Schaeffer noted, "It must be taught that patriotic loyalty must not be identified with Christianity." As Christians in past regimes have found, identifying with the establishment, as much of modern Evangelicalism is doing, can present a grave danger—the establishment may easily become the church's enemy.

Not only is it perilous to identify with the established powers; it also negates the true mission of the church. The church is not to identify with power, but to speak truth to power—even at great costs. Martyrs, past and present, testify to this.

The reason Christians have been willing to sacrifice even their lives for truth is their love of people. In propounding the greatest commandment, Christ said that we should show our love for God by loving those around us. There is no way this can be accomplished if Christians are politicizing their religion. Politics, by way of its very nature, does not speak truth and does not seek the best interests of people. Indeed, politics, by its very nature, is driven toward division, compromise, deceit, and, inevitably, corruption.
All this does not mean that Christians have to be silent. This is definitely not a day for a slumbering Christianity. While Christians should avoid politicizing their religion, this does not mean that pastors or individuals should not address the pressing social and moral issues of the day. Just the opposite is true. Christians need to be clear in what they say, and stand by it. The wishy-washy political correctness that characterizes many churches will simply not meet the challenges of the day.

As one considers involvement in society and culture and, in particular, the political establishment, he or she must be mindful of an essential point: Although it is important to become involved in the activities of everyday society, the true believer must do so without compromising any Christian principles.

Jesus Christ, as we all know, did not seek political power. He was apolitical. Likewise, Christ did not command Christians to seek it either. Indeed, as He says in John 18:36: "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" (NIV).*However, Jesus Christ did not say that Christians should not be involved in political affairs. If democratic governments are to survive, Christian influence and involvement in government at all levels are important. At the same time, Christians in politics must avoid being compromised by their involvement in the political establishment.

This will mean that the Christian in politics, as well as in every other area of life, will have to tell the truth. This is especially so in light of the current moral malaise. However, the very words "political" and "politics" imply avoidance of the truth. In other words, Christians may run for government office and get elected, but they must avoid being politicians. Instead, the Christian involved in government matters should be a statesman, which is defined as "one who exercises political leadership wisely and without narrow partisanship." Unlike politicians, statesmen will go against the popular flow for the sake of what they believe.

If Christians do not tell the truth and, if need be, stand against the governmental and political establishment, they will lose their integrity. To some extent believers must always, as John the Baptist did, stand outside the political establishment and criticize (when necessary) the political Herods of this world.

Christians must also be mindful of the proper use of power. The legitimate use of power does not include using it to impose one's will upon others. From the Christian standpoint, the proper use of power is, again, to speak the truth and seek justice for all.

Citizens of any country must be mindful that, even in a democracy, there are no heroes on white horses. Christians, therefore, must be wary of anyone who, while posing as a political savior, preaches a sermon of political power. The goal of the true believer is justice, not power. Believers must avoid forsaking the gospel for a bowl of political porridge or short-term gains. Although we need to be active in our culture and in politics, our real purpose is to extend the grace and mercy of Christ in all areas of life.

Finally, there is a dire need for a compassionate Christianity. Like the early church, the modern church needs to cut across all lines and reach out to every segment of society. If not, as Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, the church will eventually become irrelevant.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute, Charlottesville, Virginia.

*Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright
Article Author: John W. Whitehead

John W. Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Foundation, writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.