Most Christians want their religious leaders to speak out on important issues of the day. We want them to wrestle with relevant topics and to take a stand on the events that shape our world.
We don’t want the pulpit to fall silent. We have an important message to carry; our mission is to be a light in the darkness, a voice in the wilderness, a helping hand in times of trouble.
Throughout American history, Christian ministers have led the way to tremendous, positive change. They sparked the revival that fueled the American Revolution, advanced the cause of abolition, and organized the civil rights movement.
Today Christian leaders continue to guide the way on issues such as protecting the unborn and defending marriage, while others emphasize environmental stewardship or racial reconciliation. We benefit from the unique perspective members of the clergy bring to these topics, thanks to their religious training and spiritual devotion.
But sometimes religious figures cross an important boundary that separates healthy, constructive teaching from divisive, unfounded rhetoric.
When that line is crossed, we may feel something isn’t right in our gut, but often we have trouble identifying the problem and determining what to do about it.
They’re supposed to be the authority figures, we reason; they’re the leaders we listen to and depend upon for help in answering some of life’s most important questions. What if they know something about God’s word that we’ve missed?
Or, how do we know if they’ve taken it a step too far?
This is a dilemma I’ve pondered for years. I’ve wanted Christian leaders to speak up on political issues, but I’ve also been wary of the division and unwarranted judgement that can result if we politicize the church.
Recently, I stumbled upon a new way of thinking about that dichotomy and have developed a method we can use to unpack a minister’s political speech. This is how we know if there’s a problem, and what to do about it.
The error occurs when a religious leader ventures beyond teaching Biblical principles or sharing political opinions (advertised as such) and begins judging his brothers and sisters who hold other opinions, even to the point of denying the validity of their Christianity on that basis.
It is a serious offense that must be recognized, rejected and replaced with truth.
Recently much has been made of an encyclical written by Pope Francis in which he weighs in on global warming. His attention to the topic of climate change drew praise from the Obama administration. Tellingly, however, the White House press secretary was caught off guard when asked if the President also shared the Pope’s view on abortion, an issue which is intricately woven into the same message.
We should expect the Pope to honor human life and God’s creation. And if he’s serious about these principles, we should expect him to take a stand and seek policy solutions. Some of us may disagree with his conclusions, but we can understand his passion in advocating a particular set of political remedies. It is his role as a leader and a person of influence to speak out and share what he believes God would have us do; that’s precisely what we want from him.
If we are to believe the media reports, however, the Pope went much further with his position on firearms, allegedly saying those who manufacture weapons or invest in such companies “can’t call themselves Christians.”
In a case such as this, our first step ought to be verifying the accuracy of the quote, making sure it was translated correctly and was not stripped from context.
Next, we should identify the principle or value behind the statement. Was he referencing the value of human life, our reliance on God for our security, a combination of these, or something else?
After we have the principle in mind, we can test whether the Pope’s statement is correct and appropriate by observing whether there are other valid ways it can be upheld and implemented.
For instance, can we also place value on human life by providing a defense for it, through the manufacture of weapons? Can we rely fully on the providence of God by giving him the glory for giving us sharp minds, strong hands and material resources with which to defend ourselves from harm?
If the answer to these questions is yes, the Pope has gone too far. He has made an improper political judgement in denying the Christianity of those who hold the same core principle(s) but have reached a different political conclusion.
When such statements are made, our process should be this:
- Identify the principles behind the statement.
- Test whether multiple, valid conclusions can follow from those principles.
- If yes, recognize judgmental political statements as improper.
- Replace the improper statement with truth.
No political persuasion holds a monopoly on principles and values. Both the Left and the Right, Republicans and Democrats and everyone in-between, have ideas for implementing policies that reflect larger values and hopefully make the world a better place.
That doesn’t mean we have to consider both sides equal, or abandon our preferences as individuals. We will naturally tend to side with one particular camp or another. There will always be political disagreements and varied policy preferences, many of them at odds with each other, even when we share the same values and principles.
We should encourage our religious leaders to hold fast to principles and values, to speak out on them and take a stand, and to inform themselves and seek the best possible political and policy conclusions. We should encourage them to share their opinions and offer the best arguments they can muster.
But we should not allow any religious figure to deny people their Christianity or judge others on the sole basis of political preferences, as some are in the habit of doing. And when we hear such statements being made, we should call it out, deny it a foothold, and put truth in its place.