In what used to be confined to mostly Democrat, mostly African-American congregations, the politicization of the sanctuary has come to conservative, Republican-leaning megachurches near you. During this year’s Republican Presidential campaign, it seems that the
Mormon Roman Catholic candidates have found a welcoming environment during Sunday morning worship at several prominent Southern Baptist megachurches in the south. If the candidates were there to actually hear the Word of God, that would be completely understandable. But, that some churches have taken to allowing their sanctuaries to be used as just another campaign stop (there’s a Biblical word for that, but I will refrain from using it) is nothing short of reprehensible. Baptist churches are autonomous and therefore free to do whatever they think “is right in their own eyes,” even if that means disregarding historic Baptist principles of religious liberty.
Don’t get me wrong. I love politics and the political process, particularly campaigns and elections. From the moment I stepped foot on The George Washington University campus in Washington, D.C. in the Fall of 1984, I was hooked. Three blocks from the Reagan White House and in the midst of the Presidential campaign, I came of age during my first semester of college.
Growing up in a Democrat family, I entered college identifying with the Democrat Party. When I discovered that Democrats in the Northeast weren’t exactly like their counterparts in the south on a range of issues — including foreign policy, spending, taxation, and social issues like abortion — I began to distance myself from my family’s Democrat roots. When I was old enough to register to vote — which was days AFTER the 1984 Presidential Election — I registered as a Republican. That continues to be my party affiliation to this day.
However, a funny thing happened on my journey. The Lord called me from law to grace, from being a lawyer to being a pastor. For me, that meant that my passion was to be directed to ministry, not politics. That doesn’t disallow an interest in government and the political process, but it does call for a different type of engagement. And, if it weren’t for 5 1/2 years spent pastoring a church in a heavily Democrat area of SW Virginia, I would probably be engaged in the political process in a way that was an unhealthy mix of politics and religion.
I believe that pastors should be involved in the electoral process, but they should leave politics outside the sanctuary. In Virginia, one of the lay leaders in the church (he taught Sunday School and was our head usher) also happened to be the Chairman of the Democrat Party of Buchanan County. It was in his capacity as Chairman that he asked his pastor — me — to give the invocation at the Democrat Rally that was held the Sunday prior to Election Day. On at least three occasions, I was able to do just that, praying for the safety and well-being of the candidates — most of whom were already in elective office. Even though I only ended up voting for one of the Democrat candidates, I was nonetheless honored to take part in the political process. Of course, these rallies were at the local high school auditorium, not in the sanctuary of a local church. Big difference.
Should we pray for our leaders? Absolutely. The Apostle Paul, in the New Testament book of First Timothy, instructs the church to do just that. But, I don’t believe that Paul (or our Baptist forebearers) would instruct us to parade candidates onto the sanctuary platform during Sunday morning worship services to “pray” that “God’s will be done,” especially when the election is two days away. But, that’s exactly what occurred in the historic Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, TN, where Pastor Steve Gaines, who succeeded the late Adrian Rogers, invited Rick Santorum to come up on the platform during the 9:20 a.m. WORSHIP SERVICE to pray for the GOP candidate. If Mr. Santorum or Mr. Gingrich, both Roman Catholics (although Gingrich was a Southern Baptist who converted after his marriage to his THIRD wife — can anyone say Family Values?), were in the habit of frequenting Baptist churches at times other than days before an election in which they are vying for the Presidential nomination, then we might be inclined to give them a pass.
However, it is hard to take seriously the words of Dr. Gaines as reported in Associated Baptist Press:
Describing the opportunity to the 11 a.m. service, Gaines said the church is not Democratic, Republican or Independent. “We didn’t pray that he would win,” Gaines told the congregation. “We just prayed that God’s will be done.”
It should go without saying that the church is not “Democratic, Republican or Independent.” And, was it even necessary for Pastor Gaines to pray that Mr. Santorum would win? I think any intelligent person attending the 9:20 a.m. Worship Service at Bellevue this past Sunday would have a pretty good idea of what the answer to that question is. Oh, and I’m quite sure that Steve Gaines will invite President Obama to join him on the platform at the next available opportunity.
When prominent churches like Bellevue and First Redeemer — both SBC megachurches — offer their sanctuaries and worship services for nothing more than shameless stops on the campaign trail, then “Houston, we have a problem!” Maybe I have an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong when it comes to injecting politics — and politicians — into our churches. Am I off base? Does this overt politicization of our churches, particularly during times of worship, offend your sensibilities? What say you?