Religious Leaders as Pundits
[THIS IS THE FIRST POST OF A BLOG SERIES ON RELIGION & GOVERNMENT BY BOB ROBERTS]
George Washington had a personal faith in God. Daily he read the Bible and prayed. He served at his church. He didn’t talk a lot publicly about his faith, but neither was he silent. He encouraged his men to worship and to be moral.
Thomas Jefferson was a Deist. Washington according to Chernow, he was very careful with religious figures publicly, perhaps because he never wanted to be seen as using religion as a means of gaining power or pandering to people for votes based on religion.
He, as did all our early presidents (and even later ones), believed in separation of church and state but also believed the church should influence the country for good, morally. He also believed in religious freedom and went out of his way to make sure the Jews in America felt welcomed.
In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin believed in religious freedom so much that he built a pulpit so that even “if the Grand Mufti of Constantinople wanted to preach here, he could.” In a healthy democracy, you need both religious freedom and separation of church and state to complement one another. You don’t have one without the other.
I see three roles religious leaders can play today that impact our nation and the gospel, the first is the PREACHER/FAITH LEADER AS PUNDIT.
Historically, since the 1980s, we’ve seen an especially vigorous and overt wedding between religion and government. Before that, there was civil religion, deeply influenced by Protestantism, and politicians and leaders felt free to invoke God’s name and seek the prayers of Americans. It was a generic religion that was found in the public square, and no particular faith tried to dominate that public square. But beginning in the 1980s, with rise of Jerry Falwell and the religious right, this changed. I was one of those young evangelicals that was glad about it – at first. He called his movement the moral majority, and he sought to impose his particular religious values on the whole nation. He became what I call a pundit.
When pastors and religious leaders become pundits—people who try to influence government to promote their particular religious values—they easily become corrupted by the pursuit of political power. It starts to become more important that morality, character, and even theology. Policies are promoted by pundits with talking points no longer looking at all sides of an issue. You have to use Scripture and questionable hermeneutics and invoke the name of God at every turn to justify your politics. Even though this approach was started by the religious right, I see people on the religious left doing this as well.
You wind up with all kinds of crazy rationalizations about the leader or party and why she/he/they must be supported at all costs. I’ve heard pastors actually use Romans 13 as a basis for supporting political leaders, but that passage isn’t carte blanche, meaning there are still some moments when we have to disobey leaders.But Christians did not, for instance say Caesar was Lord and perform an act of worship to him. That refusal cost many early believers their lives.
There would have never been a Martin Luther or a Reformation with that kind of hermenuetic. There would never have been a United States of America with that kind of hermeneutic – we should have simply done whatever King George wanted. They definitely disobeyed the King. What about the prophets in the Old Testament challenging the Kings?
There is something very significant about America: we aren’t governed by kings but by our constitution. Politicians, the military, judges and law enforcement officials all swear allegiance to a constitution – not a person. It is “WE THE PEOPLE” who govern together with all three branches of government. NEVER in the history of humanity has a nation been built upon ideas like the United States. What a tragedy to try to be like all the other nations and call for king or to give our president powers like a king, including unquestioned fealty. Israel tried to have a leader like that, and it didn’t work out so well. Pray for your presidents, support them in every way possible, but be a responsible citizen of first God’s Kingdom.
I have always prayed for every president and supported each in every area I could. Less than half the time of my voting career have the presidents been people I voted for, but I prayed for them the same. I hate this mutual hatred of political parties and how the church is now swallowed up in that. Guess what church: not all Democrats are liberal, immoral, and demon possessed, and not all Republicans are mean, hard core, unloving, racist people! For the follower of Jesus the Kingdom of Jesus must come first and political parties must not be allowed to divide us into voting blocks, or we wil have lost our Gospel and will cease to be salt and light.
Part of President Trump’s appeal to evangelical pastors, particularly mega-church pastors, is granting them freedom to endorse candidates from the pulpit. I’m sad about that – because it’s just another way to divide churches and body of Christ. I want Jesus loving Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents in the church I pastor. I have my own views politically, but the reality is that we live and as pastors lead for the Kingdom of God more than any other earthly kingdom. We already have a King–King Jesus.
Pundits love the lime light and photo ops. I’ve heard this story from two different long-time friends and relatives of Billy Graham. The first President that Billy Graham met with was President Truman once, and when the meeting was over some reporters asked him to pose praying in front of the White House, so he did. When he saw the picture in the paper, he realized how bad it looked. He later found out Truman didn’t like it at all, and felt like the young evangelist was using him. Graham realized his mistake and from then on, when he went to the White House, he went in the back door and out the back door, and he didn’t tell other people about it unless the president first said something. You can’t be a pundit and be humble and a servant.
The truth is the President needs pastors and faith leaders around him, but not pundits – they already have a lot of those. Neither can a pundit always be quiet and save what he has to say for the backroom—otherwise, the the pastor will be seen to be endorsing wrong behavior or values. Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, . . . . all provide models of how to relate to a king or leader . . . but that’s the next blog.
Bob is the founder, senior leader, and chief spokesman for Glocal.net . His primary focus is to connect leaders and estabish relationships to explore transformation. Follow Bob on Twitter at @bobrobertsjr.