When Pastors Talk Politics: A Political Scientist’s Perspective

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Written by Danielle Vinson

Danielle Vinson is a political science professor at Furman University where she teaches courses on American Government, the Presidency, and Congress.  Her research focuses on media and politics.  She is the author of “Religion and Politics and the Media” in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics, and (with James L. Guth) “Misunderestimating Religion in the 2004 Presidential Campaign” in Blindspots: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.

 

When I hear a pastor start talking politics from the pulpit, I hold my breath and wait for the cringe-worthy moment.  It’s not that I mind political talk.  I’m a political scientist; I talk politics for a living.  And it’s not that I think pastors shouldn’t discuss politics from the pulpit.  As a Christian, I believe it’s appropriate, necessary even, for pastors to address public issues from a biblical perspective and offer guidance to their congregations in response to current events.  It’s just that there are so many ways to go wrong when pastors talk politics.  They can become partisan, leaving parishioners in the opposing party to wonder where the biblical commandment regarding party affiliation appears.  Pastors can pass on speculation as fact and validate unfounded political fears that reinforce the polarization and dysfunction of our political system.  As a political scientist, I’d like to recommend a few guidelines for pastors who want to talk politics from the pulpit.

1) Stick to issues, not parties and ideologies.  The Bible offers principles that can readily be applied to issues and events.  For example, consider our responses to poverty in society.  The Bible advocates personal responsibility and also compassion for those in need, providing a rationale for policies dealing with poverty from opposing ends of the ideological spectrum.  But I find nowhere in the Bible that God has a registered party affiliation.  To suggest that one party or ideology always has the moral high ground or correctly displays a biblical worldview is to set yourself up to be labeled hypocritical when the one you’ve exalted inevitably fails.

2) Stick to your expertise. This expertise should be understood as related primarily to moral and biblical principles properly applied.  Moral issues and politics intersect in many ways.  As a political scientist, I readily admit to my students that there is a moral or religious component to many of the issues we discuss.  For example, when the Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage is a constitutional right and some county clerks refused to grant licenses to same sex couples, I acknowledged that for some this issue was a matter of civil rights but for others it was a violation of their religious tenets.  However, I did not debate or evaluate those moral claims in my political science class; that’s beyond my expertise.  Instead, we considered how government might deal with the constitutional problem this issue raises—one person’s civil rights potentially in conflict with another person’s religious freedom.  How could we accommodate one’s religion without discriminating against the other person? That’s the political issue—not whether same sex marriage is a violation of God’s laws.

In contrast, pastors should absolutely preach on what they understand the Bible to say in relation to these issues and our individual responses to them.  I don’t, however, want to hear my pastor taking on the task of constitutional interpretation from the pulpit and claiming the court misapplied the Constitution or simplistically blaming ideology for the decision.  Leave the political explanations to the political scientists.

3) Stick to reality. Don’t acquiesce to the hype and fear conjured by candidates, parties, and the media.  MSNBC, CNN, and FOX News have one thing in common—they exist primarily to entertain, not to inform.  Consequently, they rely on drama, exaggeration, and oversimplification to evoke fear, concern, or outrage among their viewers.  If you watch FOX exclusively, you will soon fear all things liberal.  MSNBC viewers will be horrified, or mystified, by the latest conservative utterances.  And CNN viewers will fear flying and weather disasters.  And our social media echo chambers tend to reinforce whichever partisan news sources we embrace because our friends are like us.  This leaves us narrowly informed and often disconnected from political reality.  For example, in the wake of the gay marriage ruling, I heard pastors suddenly worrying they would be forced to perform gay marriage ceremonies, in part because conservative media outlets were raising the issue.  However, there is nothing in the Supreme Court ruling that requires such an outcome, and there is much in the court’s history to prevent it.  The Court protected Hobby Lobby from having to provide contraceptives it objected to, and Roe v. Wade did not force doctors to provide abortions.

What’s my point?  If you’re going to talk politics, ground your comments in reality not the hyperbolic speculation of partisan media or politicians.  Understand the issue from reputable, preferably nonpartisan, sources, or at least consult sources on different sides of the issue.

I conclude with a tale of two sermons that I recently heard from two different pastors.  One discussed the Court’s gay marriage decision and worried that religious freedom would be stripped away, forcing pastors to perform ceremonies for gay couples.  It blamed college faculty and liberal politicians for leading our country to this point.  The speaker quickly lost credibility with me (and, no doubt, my full attention) because of the unfounded speculation and the simplistic casting of blame.  The take-away from this sermon was that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, barring the appointment of more conservatives to the Court, and that college professors and liberals are undermining the moral foundation of society.

The second sermon began by mentioning the transgender bathroom debate and the unappealing presidential candidates as examples of rising fear that the world is falling apart morally.  Then, the pastor pivoted from our fallen world to God’s sovereignty and the hope Christians have in knowing that whatever is going on around us, God is in control.  I walked away from that sermon with a better understanding of how my faith should dictate my response to current events.  Instead of fear or worry about the direction of the country, I should pray to God who could do something about it.  Instead of wringing my hands and wishing for some better past, I should look hopefully to the future that God is authoring.  Instead of waiting for judgement, I should get on with doing what God has called me to do now.

The first sermon was partisan and political—blaming disfavored groups for the country’s moral decline and offering political speculation as reality in a way that simply fed the audience’s fear.  Though the problem was defined as people having departed from God’s laws, the implied solution was political, not theological.  The second sermon focused on biblical principles and how they should affect Christians’ responses to the unsettling political world in which they live.  In the first sermon, I found cringe-worthy moments throughout and exasperation with the factual inaccuracies.  In the second sermon, I did not cringe but found guidance in applying my faith to current events because the pastor did his job, not mine.

 

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4 thoughts on “When Pastors Talk Politics: A Political Scientist’s Perspective

  1. Zach

    Professor Vinson, how does someone, under your advice, maintain membership of both communities? If a pastor teaches on the moral gravity of a political ideology, I don’t think giving up the position of expertise is necessary to maintain epistemic humility. Properly labeling guesswork gives people license to talk about both political and moral ideologies with conviction. To say I can’t talk about political problems because I am a technologist betrays my philosophical mind. Or did I completely misinterpret your argument?

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  2. Robert

    I think the key question this article posed for me, as a parishioner, is “Do I want my pastor to be just another pundit?” For some, I’m sure the answer is yes. For me, it’s a strong no, so I appreciate the advice you offer on “how not to be a pundit from the pulpit”. I’ll add one more.

    Don’t make political jokes. A pastor conveys more in a joke than in a five point sermon. What typically gets conveyed is unspoken prejudices and judgmental social expectations. A joke that is funny to you can be hurtful to someone listening. If you make a joke that you know might hurt the feelings of a few people but will get everyone else to laugh, aren’t you being the definition of a bully?

    PS: Regarding jokes that may have hurt someone’s feelings, I laughed out loud at the “CNN viewers” line. I imagine you’re safe as long as Wolf Blitzer doesn’t read this.

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  3. Brandon

    Danielle, love this and I agree, but would go even further: that in well-developed democracies, there just is no talk of institutional politics. It seems the two areas for me that pastors have cause to “bring in politics” are ongoing social needs (raised through advocacy) and event trauma. I wonder then if rather than a “God of the gaps” we could have a “Church of the gaps.” Rather than trying to critique government with policies, elections, and court decisions, a church is rhetorically adept at handling those issues for which the government isn’t adequately responding, and thus leaves beside the issue of whether the government should or shouldn’t. We ought to be hearing every Sunday about the scars and trauma on the streets, the floods, the violence, etc., and organized every Monday-Saturday for addressing those issues in all the ways the government currently does not or cannot.

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  4. Russell Board

    There is a lot of wisdom here. However, I take issue with the claim that Constitutional interpretation should be left to political scientists. As American citizens, we all have an interest in understanding and preserving the Constitution. The document belongs to us, as does the Bible. There may be issues of interpretation on which political scientists should yield to experts in the original Biblical languages, but for the most part, political scientists can read and understand the Bible, and know when it is being disobeyed or misapplied. The same is true for informed citizens (including pastors) and the Constitution. We can read and understand the document, and know when it is being disobeyed or misapplied. That’s the way it was intended.

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