Being a Pastor in an Election Year

February 27th, 2012
Is this legal? Yes. Is it advisable? No.

It’s hard enough to act like a Christian during an election year; trying to be a pastor while all this political hoopla is going on is downright hazardous. Because political campaigns stir such strong emotions in folks, because so many of us get “a bit testy” about our political opinions, it’s small wonder that a lot of pastors avoid any and all discussion of an upcoming election. The conventional wisdom certainly dictates that, as a pastor, you should treat election year politics with all the enthusiasm you would bring to the youth department’s request to re-enact Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal (sacrificial oxen included) behind the fellowship hall this Sunday.

As with most things, the conventional wisdom is half right and half wrong about this. In what follows, I want to explore when you should listen to the conventional wisdom about pastors and electoral politics, and when you should chuck it out the window.

1. Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t support or denounce a candidate, especially from the pulpit.

You have to admit that sometimes the conventional wisdom gets it right–and boy, is this one of those times. Most of us know that directly endorsing a candidate will land your congregation in hot water with the IRS, and quite possibly lose its tax-exempt status. Federal law will not allow tax-exempt non profit organizations—including churches—to “endorse or oppose” candidates for public office.

Some groups and pastors have been pushing back against this restriction, claiming that it amounts to censorship. I say the restriction should stand. For one thing, it helps us recognize the real difference between policy and politics. Policy is about the laws and regulations that affect the lives of people. Often, policy decisions raise ethical and moral questions that churches should be free to address, and which the law freely allows us to do. But shift to supporting or opposing an individual candidate and we’ve crossed the line into politics, a different kettle of fish altogether. Electoral politics provides the framework necessary in a representative democracy to make policy decisions. But in a world made up of sinners like me and you, politics is also a morally ambiguous contest for personal and group power. Those who want to allow churches to endorse candidates fail to see that other, better ways to affect policy decisions exist, ones that don’t require politics’ ethical compromises.

2. Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t answer when someone asks for whom you’re going to vote.

I’m more ambivalent about this bit of conventional wisdom. On the one hand, avoiding the question when it’s asked can become just another one of those games into which pastors get dragged. If you want to conduct your ministry with transparency and integrity, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to evade conversations, even difficult ones. Doesn’t the question represent a teachable moment, in which you can bring your spiritual and theological judgment to bear on important issues?

On the other hand, the situation carries with it certain dangers. Every congregation has its share of partisan warriors, who think everyone—or at least every “real Christian”—should share their fierce political opinions. Their “us vs. them” view of the world leaves little chance that your answer is going to meet their approval. But even if the questioner isn’t a member of this contentious tribe, the question itself is rarely a simple one. All kinds of feelings about you, your predecessor, the rest of the congregation, or life in general often come rolled up in that seemingly innocent query about what you’re going to do on Election Day.

Try to read the situation and respond accordingly. If you suspect that the question is motivated by anything other than a sincere desire for pastoral advice, then turn the question back by saying “I don’t know; what do you think you’ll do?” You will now have several minutes to plan your next move.  If you’ve not yet developed the necessary pastoral skill of nodding, looking thoughtful, and changing the subject at the speaker’s first pause, it’s high time you did so, and here’s your chance.

If the question isn’t carrying a lot of baggage, you can say that you’re still making up your mind (and unless you are dead solid certain that nothing could possibly happen between now and election day that would change your mind, you’ll be telling the truth), and then talk about some of the issues and concerns that will figure into your decision–making it clear that you’re speaking for yourself, not for God. If you are open to hearing what your questioner has to say in response, you’ve been blessed with a genuine pastoral conversation, and just maybe learned something in the process.

3. Conventional wisdom says that pastors shouldn’t be politically active.          

Here’s where the conventional wisdom just gets it wrong. This bit of advice, it seems to me, comes from the “don’t rock the boat, and try to keep everybody happy” school of pastoral leadership. Anyone who has been a pastor for fifteen minutes knows the futility of that endeavor.

Do you believe that God calls Christians to alleviate suffering and injustice in this world? Do you believe that the right kind of political leaders can make a difference in how well we can fulfill that calling? Then, just like every other Christian in a democracy like ours, you are at the least called to serve as an informed and active voter—and quite possibly more than that.

Successfully engaging in the political process as a pastor requires two things. First, that you constantly make it clear that your opinions are your own, and that you are acting as an individual. Second, and more important, let your congregation know that God calls all Christians to a similar service. You can tell them that, as their pastor, God has not and will not fill you in on which candidates and causes they should support; that is a matter between their individual consciences and God. But God has made clear that the divine will for them when it comes to politics does not include apathy, inaction, or cynicism.

Are some forms of political engagement better for pastors than others? Of course. For example, if you own your own home, putting a candidate’s sign in the yard counts as something you do as an individual. If you live in a parsonage, this distinction is much harder to maintain; better to just put a bumper sticker on your car. Better yet, forget about signs and stickers (which are often just about whose club we belong to), and instead stuff envelopes or make phone calls for your candidate. Even better, volunteer with the voter registration drive, a supremely important yet (largely) nonpartisan way to contribute to the political process.

For more information and advice on the dos and don’ts of pastors and politics, check out the Congregation Education Project sponsored by the Wake Forest University Divinity School.


This article is the third in a series of three by this author on living our faith during a presidential election year. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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