Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Recovering the Prophetic Voice of the Church

Recovering the Prophetic Voice of the Church
Kevin Shrum

A recent new Fox 5 – The Washington Times – Rasmussen Reports poll (11.19.07) reports that less than 25% of those surveyed agreed that it was inappropriate for politicians to campaign at their religious services. In fact, 62% said it’s not right. What are religious leaders, particularly Christian leaders, to make of this new poll? Is this the end of the political influence of the church? Or, is this simply the recovery of the clear lines of the separation between church and state?

Religious leaders and politicians have always had an uneasy and tenuous relationship. Politicians have courted the religious vote in places of worship because the vast constituent network of members affords them access to a large number of people at a very low cost. In other words, politicians have ‘used’ places of worship as a means to corner the market on a particular segment of voters. And let’s give the benefit of the doubt at this point – let’s say that most politicians are well-meaning in their motives toward the religious community.

Religious leaders have courted political leaders, as well. The thinking is – if I, as a religious leader, can gain access to the halls of power I can influence the great moral issues of the day reflected in the legislation politicians vote on. Again, let’s give religious leaders their due by saying that their motives are as well-meaning as, say, the motives of the politicians.

So far, good enough, right? Wrong! In recent years the lines of church and state have become so blurred that the church has become just another political constituency for the politician to tap for votes and religious leaders have become supportive lackeys for politicians who are hypocritical and not as well-meaning as previously thought.

The consequences have been devastating to the religious landscape and the political process. Religious leaders are consistently duped by their ‘political friends’ and political leaders have become hypocritical in what they say in order to gain votes from the religious community.

Does this new poll portend the end of the religious/political dialogue, co-influential relationship? Should politicians continue to speak in worship services? And should the religious leaders of the day give up on influencing the nation through the political process?

The answer to these questions is that politicians will be what they are and religious leaders will always have an awkward relationship with political leaders. However, this recent poll may actually be good news for the religious community. Let me explain.

I believe in the separation of the church and state doctrine as Jefferson intended it, but not as some interpret it. It was a wise, but non-Constitutional statement made to the members of the Danbury Baptist Association (Jan. 1, 1802) assuring them that the government was not interested in interfering in their religious processes or in establishing a state church. The phrase “separation of church and state” was never intended to squelch the church from influencing government; it was a protective legal device for the churches from government intrusion.

Recent polling data and the coolness of the religious community in this election cycle, especially evangelicals, toward politicians may be as telling about the role of the church as it is the state. I believe that for far too long the church has lost its prophetic voice by aligning itself with a particular party rather than by addressing the issues of the day, i.e. evangelical conservatives with the Republican party and mainline liberals with the Democratic party.

Maybe the new polling numbers are suggesting that the church needs to regain its independence and prophetic influence. Maybe mainline liberals need to acknowledge that there is something more to the pro-life movement than it being a plank in the Republican party platform. And maybe evangelicals need to acknowledge that there is something to the issues of poverty, fair income/wages and access to healthcare. You pick the issues. But don’t miss my point. The church must be able to address these issues from a point of view that is independent of a particular political party.

What would happen if the churches railed against political corruption no matter the party? What would happen if from the pulpits of America religious leaders preached the Word of God, calling a decadent, materialistic nation back to its senses so that government would not be viewed as the answer to every problem, yet for politicians to recover the concept of citizen-leaders as they work together to solve problems that cannot be solved alone?

Personally, I am a pro-life, pro-family, pro-citizen, pro-Constitutional (constructionist), pro-landowner type of citizen. But I am at the point of saying that I refuse to hitch my wagon to any one political person or party. As a religious leader I cannot afford the liberty to speak against sin and evil wherever I see it; nor can I be silent in commending righteousness and goodness no matter what party produces it!

In the new polling numbers I hear the faint echo of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Jesus who scoffed at the hypocrisy of the political,/religious leaders of their day as they ignored the poor and needy, while at the same time calling them to a life of holy leadership that honors God! I can hear them call for God’s people to pray for their leaders, talk with their leaders, but also confront their leaders when unrighteousness is the order of the day. I can only hope!