If you answered no or had to think about your answer to that question, then you obviously need to get out more. And, perhaps expand your circle of friends. There are other things I am tempted to write, but that will have to suffice for now. In light of the recent politicization of the pulpit on so-called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” that question has been on my mind as of late. I would not say that it has haunted me, but the vitriol (much of it coming from Christians) during this Presidential Election season has certainly made me think about what it means to be a follower of Christ living in a post-Christian, modern-day America. In these politically charged times, it seems that many American Christians — including pastors and other spiritual leaders — would trade their birthrights for a hoppin’, heapin’ helpin’ of political pottage if it assured them that the “right” candidate would get elected.
I first started pondering my question following the F.S.U. Seminole’s upset loss to N.C. State on Saturday night. While commenting on a Facebook post that one of my friends (actually a cousin of mine) had written following the football game, I was struck by something that she wrote. Understandably exasperated from the Seminole’s loss and the apparently poor play of the Atlanta Braves (do they play a sport of some kind ), my cousin made the following comment:
“YES, and they and the Braves have just stepped on my very last nerve. Between that and people who think you can’t be a Christian if you are a Democrat, I’m done with Facebook!!!!!!! At least for tonight!” (emphasis added)
As an admittedly conservative pastor (socially, politically, and theologically) who has more often than not voted for candidates with an (R) by their name, it would be easy for me to answer that being a Christian is incompatible with being a Democrat. It would be easy for me to say that all Bible-believing Christians should identify with the Republican Party and can never be members of the Democratic Party. It would be easy for me to question the spiritual health of someone who claims to be both a “Christian” and a “Democrat.” It would be easy, but it would be wrong.
At this point, I have no doubt that some of my readers — particularly those who have an intense
hatred dislike for President Obama — will question not only my answer, but my sanity. Perhaps even my salvation. Been there, done that. That comes with the blogging territory. For those who so misunderstand, there will not be much that I can say that will change your reaction. It would not be good enough to say that I will vote for a candidate not named Obama on November 6. It would not be good enough to write that I think that much of the modern-day Democrat Party platform (i.e., abortion and same-sex marriage) is incompatible with what I consider a Biblical worldview. It would not be good enough to admit that I have not cast a vote for a Democrat candidate since I left the Commonwealth of Virginia over five years ago. No matter what I say will persuade some of you, but at least I hope you read the rest of the story.
My story is one where the Lord led me to serve a church in the Appalachian Mountains of far southwest Virginia. On the border of Kentucky and West Virginia (you can’t get any further west in the Commonwealth of Virginia), in a small town called Grundy, I was privileged to serve as the Pastor of Grundy Baptist Church from January 2002 to July 2007. During my 5 1/2 years in Buchanan County, I came to meet some of the nicest, most down-to-earth folk that you would ever want to meet. From coal miners to law school students and from county employees to retirees, Grundy and Grundy Baptist Church was (and still is) a wonderful mix of Americana.
However, for a conservative pastor who had identified as a Republican since I was old enough to register to vote (just a week after Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Fritz Mondale in 1984), the culture of Buchanan County and Grundy Baptist Church was, by-and-large conservative, but far from Republican. As best I could estimate, the county that I called home was easily 70% registered Democrat. And, so was the church. Not just Grundy Baptist, but every church in Buchanan County reflected the political affiliation of the county.
Being “outnumbered,” what’s a conservative Southern Baptist pastor to do with all those Democrats? How would I respond to my men’s Sunday School teacher and head usher — who also happened to be the Chairman of the Buchanan County Democratic Party — when he asked me to pray at the Democratic Campaign Rally two days before the state and/or national elections every year that I was in Virginia? And, most importantly, how was I supposed to handle the Presidential election that pitted incumbent President George W. Bush against Democratic Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in 2004 (in the days before “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”)?
The answers to these questions — at least for me — were really quite simple. Be a non-partisan pastor who loved people, regardless of their political party. When asked to pray for political leaders and candidates for office — even those I knew that I would not vote for — I said yes. Not only was it an honor to be asked (thanks, Jay), but it was an honor for a kid from a small town in Florida to be able to fulfill 1 Timothy 2 by praying for state and national leaders in person. As to the 2004 election, I did what I have always done and will continue to do — preach that God’s people are to trust God in all things (including elections) and encourage people to use God’s Word as a guide for how they cast their votes on election day.
No politicking from the pulpit and no endorsing political candidates or parties. Just good, old-fashioned preaching of God’s Word and the life-transforming message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Every conservative and/or Republican-leaning pastor needs a Grundy Baptist Church, a place where — politically speaking — the pastor is in the minority. It helps keep your partisanship under control and gives true pulpit freedom to preach the whole counsel of God to a people whose hearts are open to hear a Word from the Lord about moral issues, but whose hearts will be closed when the word of politics rears its ugly head. Despite what some might say, there is a difference between the two.
Across American this past Sunday, approximately 1,500 Christian pastors — most of them in churches that are “safely” conservative and predominantly Republican — took the bold step of endorsing Mitt Romney, a Mormon, for President of the United States. For those pastors less bold, they publicly stated their opposition to President Obama’s re-election. Considering that a 2009 Federal Tax case in Minnesota effectively limited the I.R.S. from auditing churches which are accused of violating the Johnson Amendment (which prohibits churches from endorsing candidates), one could conclude that, in terms of the boldness scale, these pastors exhibited a bravery on par with television shows that dare to mock
Islam Christianity. All in all, not too bold or edgy.
However, what many of these 1,500 pastors and churches did this past Sunday — whether they realized it or not — is to answer the question that is the title of this post. By endorsing specific candidates representing a political party — mostly Republicans — these churches are sending a message to Democrats and the politically unaffiliated (1/3 of adults under 30 would now fit this category) in their communities that they are not welcome in these churches. Oh, the answer wasn’t given in such a direct and forthright way. No pastor is going to say that Democrats or non-Republicans aren’t welcome. But, then again, these pastors didn’t have to spell it out. The answer is plain for all to see.
Can you be a Christian if you are a Democrat? That’s an easy one to answer if you have family and friends who you know are Christians and Democrats. For me, that question is now a no-brainer. Perhaps it wouldn’t be if I hadn’t been blessed to serve my brothers and sisters in Christ at Grundy Baptist Church in southwest Virginia. When it comes to religious liberty, politics, and the church, I suppose I’ll always have a little bit of Virginia (and Grundy) Baptist in me. And, that’s not bad. Not bad at all!