Originally Posted: June 15, 2018
Evangelicals need less politicking, more soul-searching
Partisan politics are costing evangelical churches their souls.
The Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Dallas this week. The two-day conference featured religious speakers from across the country, but the two that elicited the largest response were not pastors but politicians: Vice President Pence and Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.).
Both Abbott and Pence used their time to their political advantage. Abbott began Tuesday morning with stories of faith and service, only to transition to culture-wars rhetoric: an invective against the secularist “onslaught against religious liberty” by “sacrilegious” atheists intent on removing the Ten Commandments, declaring war on Christmas and elevating political correctness over “God’s truth and righteousness.”
Pence followed up Wednesday with a triumphant policy speech, highlighting President Trump’s victories in national security, economic growth and the “most precious freedoms” of religious liberty and life. He ended his speech with Trump’s catchphrase: “Make America great again.”
By inviting politicians such as Abbott and Pence to speak, the Southern Baptist Convention has done a great disservice to the evangelical cause. Such invitations are not without precedent. Presidents and politicians — including Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Ted Kennedy and George McGovern — have regularly spoken at SBC meetings. But by continuing to welcome political guests such as Pence, whose message is primarily partisan, the SBC is delaying an institutional reckoning that the largest Protestant body in the United States desperately needs, in favor of a political rally.
Generations of American pastors have historically warned of the perils of courting politicians, seeing a pattern of partisanship as detrimental, or even antithetical, to their ministry. Many of those who engaged politically did so with deep qualms, and sometimes regret.
Samuel Miller, who served as a Presbyterian pastor in New York in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was enamored with politics as a young man. Despite claiming that he was no “pulpit politician,” Miller consistently tried to ingratiate himself with prominent politicians such as George Washington, John Jay and John Adams. He was particularly fond of Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to a friend in December 1800, just a month after Jefferson’s election to the presidency, Miller bridled at those who questioned his support of a candidate many Christians believed to be an atheistic infidel: “I think myself perfectly consistent in saying that I had much rather have Mr. Jefferson President of the United States than an aristocratic Christian [John Adams].”
But Miller cautioned ministers against the “strange” choice of making religion “an engine of party” when they “ought to be its wise, prudent, and wary defenders.” Those seeds of doubt matured into full-grown trees of regret in his later years. He turned on Jefferson, whom he denounced in the 1830s as “one of the meanest and basest of men.” Indeed, Miller renounced his courtship of politicians and politics in general, which did “injury to my ministry.” Echoing Washington’s farewell address of 1796, he recommended that pastors avoid such “unnecessary political entanglements and alienations.” READ MORE