“Time won’t leave me as I am, but time won’t take the boy out of this man”--”City of Blinding Lights”, U2

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Venice UMC-Sheehan Discussion Post-Mortem, Part 3

Here is my response to comments (here and here) by both Stephen Fife and Dean Snyder:

Dean and Stephen:

Dean writes here:
Why did no one call preaching about Clinton's sexual mistakes partisan? Aren't policies that result in people living or dying just as much a matter of morality?
A sentiment echoed by Stephen:
Thank you Dean for raising my point again. Why is it only bad when it involves Bush and not Clinton?
I’ve made it clear on my blog that I believe it wrong to mix partisan politics with religious activity regardless of the political party being supported or denounced. I'm not expecting you to know that, after all, my blog is only a month old. But let me state for the record, I’m no fan of the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family (when they are involved in politics), or any other politically active religious right group even if I share some political and theological values with them. Raising the issue of Clinton seems to me to be a diversion, as I haven’t suggested that it was okay to preach against him nor was my blog around at the time to comment upon it contemporaneously.


Stephen asks here about pastors who spoke against Bill Clinton and John Kerry:

So what am I supposed to do? Should I write to all these pastors and demand them to explain their actions?

My answer: If they are United Methodist and you are in covenant with them, then, yes, you should engage them. (Which incidentally I did when I contacted the Rev. Tom Zeigert, appealing to our order as the ordained, about the Venice UMC Event that sparked this discussion). Be respectful, but seek a conversation with them. Regarding clergy from other denominations, I don’t think we really have a covenant that can allow for such conversation to take place except with our own personal relationships with pastors from other denominations. And, I would add, ecumenism can be damaged if we regularly practice judgment with one another without that convenant.


The fact that you raise the issue of Clinton pretty much confirms my point to begin with. Mixing religious and political activity leaves the preacher and the church open to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy. It is almost impossible to be completely fair because of our own political predispositions. We tend to turn a blind eye to those whom we agree with politically while searching for ways to condemn those with whom we disagree. And surely you aren't suggesting that its okay to do anything just because the other side does it. (That is how conflict escalates into war, btw). I punish my kids equally for hitting one another, no matter who started hitting first.

Further, it is easy to recognize political problems that require a Christian response. *Solving* those political problems can be much more difficult. Prayerful, reflective responses may involve a variety of faithful but diametric approaches.

An example: poverty. Very few Christians will debate that one of our primary places of ministry should occur among the least and the lost. But how do we evaluate governmental social policy in light of these concerns? For example, many of the Christian left opposed the Welfare Reform Act during the Clinton administration. (I know the National Council of Churches opposed it. I’m pretty sure that the General Board of Church and Society did as well but the links were broken when I did a search at the United Methodist website.) They did so with a certainty that would take the breath away from the most die-hard fundamentalist (one of the glaring weaknesses of the fundamentalist is the perspective that sees things so simplistically that it is almost dualistic: black and white or right and wrong, there are no gray areas).

Was the Welfare Reform Act that sought to fix the problems of the Great Society programs immoral? Did the Bible say that the welfare programs of the Great Society were the right approach? I don't know. I don't know enough about economics, law, political theory, or the welfare program to be able to speak with that kind of certainty. I'm just preacher. But I have read widely enough to know that the issue is complex and that reasonable people will disagree. Here I want to point you to two secular writers. Read this post by Megan McArdle which deals with the complexity of social change. The book I would like for you to buy is this book by Mickey Kaus, The End of Equality. It is a bit utopic and pretty radical in its suggestions, but does a good job of explaining how damaging the pre-reform welfare programs were to the very people they intended to help.

The preacher and the church that takes sides with such specificity on political issues or candidates (or elected officials) stand in judgment, right or wrong. When the pastor and the church speak, they speak with authority, and with authority comes great responsibility for ones actions. And while judgment isn’t necessarily evil, the possibility of evil being committed when doing it should cause one to tread very, very lightly.

Here Dean writes:

Then too I am thinking this way: once a candidate is elected, talking about him or her isn't partisan anymore. They are now everyone's president, everyone's Secretary of Defense, etc., whether you voted for this administration or not. Criticize away if your engagement with Scripture leads you to this word.

Me: I have never written nor addressed a sermon to an individual person. Criticism, if required, should be a private concern, not a public one. I don’t believe my authority from the pulpit gives me the freedom to criticize by name anyone. The instances in scripture where this is done are very, very rare and were done by widely admitted “prophets”. I’m not a prophet, I’m a pastor. And only in extremely exceptional circumstances would I admit that I should.

So, if you think Bush is about to start a genocide that will kill 6 million people, well then, bang away.

UPDATE: After Dean left a comment I reread the post and feel like I wasn't entirely fair to Dean. Here's my apology and the full quote of his comment.

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