Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Should churches talk in political accents?
September 23, 2012
Should churches take moral stands on burning political issues like war, immigration and abortion?
Colonial clergy certainly mixed religious conviction with a political agenda by demanding freedom from taxation. From the pulpit on Jan. 21, 1776, the Rev. Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg dramatized his stand against King George III. He voiced revolutionary ardor and strengthened his rejection of British authority symbolized by the clothes he wore.
Muhlenberg chose as his sermonic text Ecclesiastes 3:7, which teaches “there is a time to pray and a time to preach.”
“But the time for me to preach has passed away,” Muhlenberg thundered, “and there is a time to fight, and that time has now come.”
Descending high pulpit steps, this pastor ripped open his clerical robe. Underneath, worshippers saw their pastor wore the uniform of a colonel in the 8th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army. George Washington had personally recruited Muhlenberg, who merged patriotic ardor with Christian devotion.
Drums beat alarms for war outside the church. The music alerted parishioners to their duty to nation and God. Many kissed wives goodbye, bid farewell to children and marched down the sanctuary aisle toward the drums, where they enlisted in the Continental Army. Less than an hour passed before 162 men in the congregation had exchanged their Sunday garb for the fawn and blue colors of the patriots’ army.
Parishioners and their pastor used religious conviction’s accent to spur political rebellion. Spiritual concerns favoring freedom stood on a firm political base. Religious sentiment and political rallying cries against King George III were of one voice.
Colonial clergy pushed a political freedom agenda from pulpits. Evangelical historian Mark Noll, in his book “One Nation under God? Christian Faith and Political Action in America,” relates how Pastor Muhlenberg’s heroic sermon and sartorial make-over wasn’t unusual in the run-up to the Revolutionary War.
“Sermons encouraging a defense of political liberty, however, were by no means restricted to New England,” writes Noll. “Presbyterians in New Jersey and the South preached a similar message, as did representatives of the Baptists and other smaller denominations. Even many clergy of the Church of England, contradicting the official allegiance of their denomination, denounced the grasp of Parliament.”
Who today sounds like a patriot? Who believes it’s wrong to reduce faith to private conviction?
First lady Michelle Obama, speaking June 28 to an African Methodist Episcopal Church conference, showed how voter registration is a spiritual matter and a political necessity.
“Our faith journey,” she testified, “isn’t just about showing up on Sunday. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well. … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.”
The first lady then clinched her argument for introducing political issues into church corridors from pulpits.
“And to anyone who says that church is no place to talk about these issues, you tell them there is no place better – no place better,” she hammered home her conviction, merging things of God with things of government. “Because ultimately, these are not just political issues. They are moral issues.”
Revolutionary pulpit firebrands and the first lady are of the same mind. When morality needs improvement in public policy, churches are meeting places to discover how reformation is best achieved. A church at its best is a rallying center where information is disseminated, biblical teaching informs, inquirers question and energy is pointed toward the common good.
The first lady is conversant with scripture. She’s no novice when it comes to biblical knowledge. Michelle Obama is a realist who knows that when churches tackle hot-button topics, protests sometimes erupt among sincere Christians on opposite sides of the political aisle.
She asks, isn’t this the biblical model? The church is not a club for the like-minded. It is a ring where sparring matches are held. She painted dramatic imagery of controversy in the Bible, out of which opportunities replaced obstacles.
“If a young shepherd could defeat a giant (David vs. Goliath), if a man could lead a band of former slaves against the most powerful city in the land until the walls came tumbling down (Joshua at Jericho), if a simple fisherman could become the rock upon which Christ built his church (Peter),” the First Lady declared, “then surely, we can do our part to be more active citizens.”
Of course, when the church works on public policy, it mustn’t assume it’s on God’s side. Should Christians ask whether God is on their side? The church presses on to solve problems in the public square, despite controversy within its ranks. Here’s patriotic spirit at work worth
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.the
livinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.