By Ronald D. Sisk
[This article is adapted from Preaching Ethically: Being True to the Gospel, Your Congregation, and Yourself by Ronald D. Sisk, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.]
Interim election, November 2006, the state of South Dakota. Petitions successfully force a statewide vote on a new antiabortion law passed earlier by the state legislature. The law would have forbidden virtually all abortions in South Dakota, except where necessary to save the life of the mother. Pro-choice and pro-life groups in the state, both extremely religious, square off, each prepared to argue that their position represents the will of God. Those on the “Yes on 6” side, which is the pro-life side, blanket the state with blue-and-pink placards, many of them appearing on the lawns of the state’s churches. Pro-choice pastors preach pro-choice sermons. Pro-life pastors preach pro-life sermons. The law itself, and the question of whether it was appropriately written to solve problems rather than causing more, tends to get lost in the rhetoric.
In this atmosphere, the Jones family went to church that Sunday morning not really expecting to hear the sermon they heard. Their tradition trumpeted the idea of separation of church and state. They, themselves, were very conservative on the abortion issue, but questioned whether this was something that should be regulated by legislative fiat. It seemed to them to be much more a personal moral issue. The pastor felt differently. He talked for half an hour about the sanctity of life, working up to his climactic statement. “Now we’re Baptists, and I can’t tell you how to vote,” he said. “But let me make one thing clear. Abortion is sin.”
Sunday dinner at the Jones house was a troubled affair that day. “How could he say that?” Sally fumed. “Doesn’t he know he’s not supposed to tell people how to vote?”
“But he didn’t,” John answered. “In his mind, I think he was playing by the rules.”
“Well, he pretty much said if you vote against this law, you’re a sinner,” Sally shot back. “Just because it’s antiabortion doesn’t make it a good law.”
“I know,” John answered. “I wonder why he felt he had to preach on this subject anyway. He knows plenty of people in the church are on both sides of the issue. All this does is create conflict. Why didn’t he just leave it alone?”
“I guess,” Sally reflected, calming down, “that he thought this is the type of Christian moral issue where we have to be a witness in the public arena. I’ve known too many women who’ve gone through this. I know these decisions are never easy. I wish Jesus had just told us clearly what to do!”
We will leave the Jones family there. Their story is fictional, but the facts of the South Dakota election in 2006 are not. Nor is the fact that the churches and the pulpits of South Dakota got heavily involved in that election. Nor is South Dakota’s experience by any means unique. Throughout the history of the republic, preachers have sought to influence local, state, and national policy from their pulpits. On issues from alcohol to Sunday closing of liquor stores, from gambling to civil rights, from war to welfare, from tax exemption to school vouchers, the preachers of America have weighed in time and time again in the national debate. Sometimes preachers have successfully drawn a distinction between partisan politics and issues. J. Philip Wogaman, longtime professor of Christian ethics turned United Methodist pastor, draws what I believe to be the correct distinction. Preaching on issues is fine. Preaching partisan politics, advocating voting for one party or candidate over another, is not.1 Sometimes preachers have confined their “political preaching” to instruction about what it means to be a good Christian citizen. More often though, I at least end up feeling that whenever the conservatives have been trying to affect national policy, liberal preachers have argued that the church should stay out of politics, and whenever the liberals have been trying to change national policy, conservative preachers have argued that the church should stay out of politics. Neither, in fact, has done so. All of which leaves us with the question for this chapter: what are the ethics of preaching about political issues?
Deciding When to Preach Politics
What can happen to preachers caught up in dealing with issues is what happened in South Dakota in 2006. An issue comes along in the political arena that also engages Christian values, and the preacher is faced with the dilemma of whether to address it. Before we jump in, we must ask whether in a particular case it is wise.
That can be a difficult decision. Sometimes an issue is so hot, so divisive, that any attention from the pulpit would only ignite further controversy. Sometimes, as in the civil rights struggle in the South, the gospel runs so contrary to public opinion that the preacher must decide whether the risks to life, limb, family, and job are worth it. Sometimes an issue is too new, too unformed, and attempting to stake out an ethical position from the pulpit would be premature. Some issues are simply better dealt with in formats other than proclamation. Sometimes the larger agenda of the church is so focused in other directions that the preacher may decide that dealing with a particular issue presents an unacceptable distraction from the church’s mission.
The preacher needs to ask himself questions like: Is there a clear biblical word with regard to this issue? Will dealing with this issue from the pulpit help members of the congregation in their Christian growth? Can I be fair to both sides?2 What would be the consequences of not preaching on this issue? Is this a transient tempest, or is there an enduring Christian value at stake here? Must I do this as a matter of faithfulness to Christ? Not every political subject rises to the level of a faith issue. Only when the preacher is convinced that she has something important to say, that more good than harm can be done by saying it, and that people will both be able to hear and to learn from her approach should she move forward to the next step in the process.
1. J. Philip Wogaman, Speaking the Truth in Love: Prophetic Preaching to a Broken World, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 1998, 58.
2. See Adam Hamilton, Confronting the Controversies: A Christian Looks at the Tough Issues (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)