Thursday, November 3, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Talking politics in the barbershop

Our job is not to tell you everything! I refer to preachers, of course. We are not experts in science, medicine, home decorating, clothing styles, or athletics. We do claim dome expertise in spiritual concerns.

All this comes as a comment from me that I think sometimes the clergy overreach, and that sometimes temptation is put on preachers to extend themselves beyond the boundaries of their competence. This column is usually placed in or near The South Reporter’s editorial page. It is, therefore, opinion, and this is what I am going to give here today.

A friend of mine writes that two members of his congregation are running for the same local elected office. In small towns this can happen from time to time.

One of the candidates asked my friend if the campaign could put a bumper sticker on his car and a sign in his yard. My ministerial friend reminded the candidate that another member of the congregation was running for the same job and said that, as a pastor, he had to be cautious about taking sides in the election.

This was the correct response, in my opinion. To me, the less a minister says about politics, the better, unless some great moral issue is involved. Even then, I think it is better for Christians to express their ideas and work for the cause through a political organization.

The pulpit is for the gospel, and while the pulpit must urge people to care and act on behalf of the wider community, the pulpit ought not to be used for any other purpose than the basic message of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

A minister, of course, represents the pulpit and its message 24/7. I am just as much “on duty” when I shop at the grocery store or rake my leaves in the front yard as when I don my gown and conduct divine service on Sunday morning.

This is especially true in a small town, and some of my minister friends through the years have wilted under that expectation. I resolve this by telling you that all I can do is be who I am, and hopefully I am the same person in and out of my pulpit. I do not mind being a minister, and am pleased that some people are willing also for me to be their friend. I like to think that the two roles are not incompatible.

When I was younger, there was a great deal of outcry about “liberal” ministers who preached politics. In the last 20 years, conservative preachers have embraced politics, too. I was struck when Billy Graham said before his recent crusade in New York City that he disapproved of this, even though he is a political conservative. Billy Graham said that when preachers get too political it restricts their opportunities to preach the gospel. I agree (and I am going to be very “editorial” here), but I think there is a lot that is called “conservatism” in both church and national politics — that isn’t.)

I believe, further, that there is a danger when the church relies too much on government and the political process to get important things done. Certainly government and the political process is one way to address important needs and concerns in our society. But it is not the only avenue, and perhaps it is not even the most effective avenue. The all-day news channels, perhaps, give an impression that Washington, D.C. is the only pathway to power that matters. But perhaps the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court have less influence than is thought.

There is a reason why we have both houses of worship and political parties. Each has work to do in its own sphere. The spheres intersect, but they do not completely overlap. The tragedy of our time is that some on the left and now some on the right think they do completely overlap. How sad (for the cause of religion).

I do not think doctors should try to be lawyers, or that bank presidents should be plumbers, or that chefs should be carpenters (my apologies to any multi-talented people who read this). But ordinarily one sticks to one’s own area of competence. Of course, I have opinions about politics and enjoy discussing them. But I want to make it clear that as a minister I have no more qualification for my opinion in politics than the next fellow in the barber chair.

I do not think my congregation would pay a bit of attention if I tried to tell them how to vote. In a democracy people are taught to think for themselves, and I think something like this may have been what St. Paul had in mind when he said it was his goal to present “each one mature in Jesus Christ.”

What I am certified to do is preach the gospel, and because I respect religion’s power, I do not want to collapse it into politics. God does speak to kings, but I believe religion’s best work is done when it does not hit people between the eyes, but rather has its effect obliquely — this is why, I think Jesus spoke in parables.

All that is to say why I don’t put political signs in my yard and bumper stickers on my car. It is also the reason why former Senator John Danforth of Missouri, an Episcopal priest, never wore his clerical collar when he was on official business before Congress. Christians are called “to serve the present age,” but as ministers — I believe — we are most effective when we stay just a bit above the fray — especially in such a bitterly partisan time as this. The church loses a great deal when it surrenders the ability to be heard by both sides.

Our job is not to tell you everything — just about the one thing that is nobody else’s business to say. Nothing on earth is important enough to compromise our ability to talk about that.

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