You’ll recognize this trope. The firebrand preacher stalks to and fro across his dais, an open Bible draped over one hand, his tie raked loose, sweat dripping from his forehead.
He inveighs against the devil and godless Democrats and worthless vaccines. He names candidates for high office his congregation should support. He dares the government to try — just try — to revoke his church’s tax-exempt status.
We all know this guy, right? The preacher as political powerbroker?
Except that, mostly, we don’t know him. In real life, that species isn’t common.
Sure, preachers like him exist. They often make it into the newspapers, viral video clips or cable news programs — hence our perception that they’re plentiful.
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However, the very fact they’re in the news hints that they’re not the norm. An ancient bromide of the news business says, “If dog bites man, it’s not news. If man bites dog, that’s news.”
Political preachers are cases of man bites dog.
In fact, one political scientist argues that most ministers from the right, left and center intentionally dodge political topics.
That’s not because they fear the Internal Revenue Service, political scientist Ryan Burge wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.
Instead, it’s “a strategic calculation about their own careers and the future of the churches they lead.”
That is to say, it’s fear of their parishioners.
In 2019, Burge, a professor at Eastern Illinois University and also a Baptist preacher, surveyed more than 1,000 Protestants. He asked if they’d heard their pastor discuss any of a list of 10 political issues from the pulpit over the previous year.
“The list ranged from simple encouragement to vote on election day to hot-button issues like abortion and gay rights,” Burge said.
Of respondents, 30% hadn’t heard any of the 10 issues in church, and 25% had heard one — religious liberty was the most common. Only 1 in 4 had heard a sermon about gay rights or abortion, and just 16% had ever heard Trump’s name mentioned from the pulpit.
“These results suggest that overall, there is an overwhelming absence of sermonizing about politics in American houses of worship,” Burge said.
Clergy generally have fewer job protections than workers in other segments of society, he explained. They see political sermons as too incendiary.
“Pastors are worried about their jobs,” Burge said.
Also, most churches desire to grow numerically. They try to cast the widest net possible. If preachers tout the Republican line, they repel many potential new members. Ditto with preaching the Democratic line.
Of course, having spent more than 40 years in the pastorate, I have plenty of first-hand experience with the bugaboo of secular politics in church.
It’s always been my practice to bar political discussions at the sanctuary’s front doors. What parishioners do or say on their own time is their own business. But I insist they leave their partisan views at home when they come to worship.
I try to leave my political beliefs at home, too. I may occasionally comment on politics here, for instance, but I don’t preach about it from the pulpit.
I take this approach for several reasons:
First, my congregation tends to be made up about equally of Democrats and Republicans, as nearly as I can tell without meddling.
The few times anybody has expressed strong political views inside the church house, it’s led to un-Christian scenes. I once stepped between two guys before they came to blows over a presidential race — during a prayer meeting, no less.
I don’t worry so much about job security or even church growth. I do worry about avoiding fisticuffs in our place of worship and peace.
Second, as Christians we have bigger fish to fry. I’m patriotic. I love America, where my family has lived for 400 years, as of 2022, and has fought in nearly every war since the 1600s.
But Christians serve a kingdom not of this world. We’re proud U.S. citizens, but foremost we’re citizens of a realm that transcends the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and the United States and even this planet.
Our true kingdom is spiritual and eternal. It existed before the English landed in Jamestown and will be here long after Joe Biden, Donald Trump and all politicians lie a mouldering in their graves.
When we gather, we shouldn’t be distracted by lesser concerns, such as the political cause of the moment, whatever it is or how important it might seem.
Third, as Christians, we’re called to love people of all stripes. You can’t easily demonstrate love to a parishioner, or a visitor, while you’re simultaneously haranguing her politics and tarring her ilk as spawns of Satan.
Love demands humility. The Lord knows that achieving humility is difficult for us humans, but it can be especially hard when we’re in the heat of some hot-button political argument. We’re wiser to speak less on such matters and avoid judging.
This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
Paul Prather, author of four books, has been a rural Pentecostal pastor in Kentucky for more than 40 years. Also a journalist, he was the Lexington Herald-Leader’s staff religion writer in the 1990s before leaving to devote his full time to ministry.