Pastors’ Corner: How to Pray Boldly for This Election (And All the Others)
We are one week out from Election Day
With an election coming next week, every American Christian ought to be praying, and every American church should model how to pray about it. Churches I’ve been around have tended to go cautious on this, with generic “Thy will be done” petitions. I believe the time for such caution is over. The potential for public, government-sponsored evil gets clearer with every election. In our speaking, in our voting, and also in our praying, we have got to take a stand.
Evangelical churches tend to be wary of getting politics confused with the gospel, and for good reason. In the U.S. we have rules against endorsing any candidate or political party. Those factors make speaking out look complicated. So let me simplify it for you if I may.
Pray on the basis of candidates’ alignment with godly principles. Pray that the good candidates would win. Pray that the less-good ones would lose. And pray that the truly bad ones would would go down in flames. Electorally speaking, that is.
That’s it. It’s that simple, at least in principle. In practice there remain complications, so let’s look at some of them.
“We’re Not Allowed to Do That Here!”
One key complication in the U.S. comes from thinking that part of what we pray is up to the IRS, based on the “Johnson Amendment,” which says we shouldn’t preach for or against any political candidate or party. Churches can lose their tax-exempt status for it.
So if you name names when you pray, there’s an IRS threat hanging over your head. So what? Should the state decide our theology? Does it have any business running our prayer times? Are we really going to cower before the state and say, “We’re not allowed to do that here”?
Enforcement on this rule has been rare to non-existent, anyway. If you want to name names, then name them.
Gospel and Politics
The second complication is different: We can’t just say “So what?!” for this one.
Our purpose at church is to preach the gospel. That’s paramount. At many churches the thinking goes that abortion, sexuality, economics, border policy, and other political topics aren’t the gospel, so we shouldn’t waste time on them in church. We have more important things to attend to. Worse than wasting time, politics can even interfere with the gospel message, driving people away who need to know about Jesus Christ but disagree with our politics.
The argument sounds persuasive until we delve deeper into what we mean by “the gospel.” The term refers first of all to the basic good news of God’s love, human sin, God’s call to repent, and His gracious gift of life through the work done in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is indeed the message of all messages, the most important thing we must all hear.
The Full Scope of the Good News
That does not, however, make it the only good news we need to hear or practice. When Jesus came teaching the gospel, it was the gospel of the Kingdom of God. I couldn’t begin to give that topic the space it deserves for an explanation, but one thing is clear from the prophets onward: It means personal salvation but a whole lot more. Its scope reaches far beyond individuals’ hearts.
I’m well aware that liberal Christians have distorted the Kingdom message beyond recognition. I heard one pastor preach that it amounts to treating one another well, without bothering to mention it also means God is King. I was tempted to stand up and ask him about that, right there in the middle of the sermon. (I still almost wish I had.)
The usual liberal error amounts to saying it’s up to us to bring “the Kingdom” by our good deeds. That’s wrong in a thousand ways. But we can’t let liberal errors rule our teaching, any more than we can let the state rule over our praying.
We won’t see the Kingdom manifested fully in the world until Christ manifests Himself fully in the world. Nevertheless we need to live out our part of it in the world. That’s a church matter, too. And it’s a public matter.
Private vs. Public
But it gets complicated there, too, for many of us, when we have trouble sorting out so-called private religion from public policy. Surveys show that Americans dislike religion meddling in public policy. More often than not that means they don’t like good, godly values, period. That’s no reason for us to stay silent on what is good and godly!
It’s a serious mistake to think we can stay silent on the public side of it. If you and your church won’t take a stand on public good and evil, it’ll be very hard for you to teach a consistent, compelling message regarding private or personal good and evil. For there really is no distinction between public and private (or “personal”) religion, any more than there is any purely private person or purely public person.
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If I speak up about public policy on (for example) abortion, I am expressing my personal values. If I refuse to speak my personal values in connection with public policy, I’m saying in effect that I don’t (“personally”) care enough about public policy to say anything. The two, private and public, are inseparable.
Bad Behavior, Bad Reputation
Some of us hold back on politics because we’ve seen Christians politicking badly. Their message is shrill. They exaggerate their opponents’ flaws. They use all the same manipulative ploys their non-Christian opponents use. So we duck our heads, hoping not to get caught in guilt by association with them.
How much better would it be, though, to set a good example instead? To show that there’s a way to talk about public policy – and even politicians – honestly and truthfully?
Some elections involve tough decisions. One candidate may not be noticeably better or worse than another, and some decisions are too complicated for non-specialists to sort out. It’s not the pastor’s job to solve all that. You can still teach and pray according to godly principles.
The problem for some may fall under the category of “judging,” as in, “We should never do that!” That’s a silly modern misconception. Jesus never meant we shouldn’t discern good from evil!
We’re talking about voting, anyway. Do I know (for example) whether Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two self-described socialists, are evil persons with evil hearts? Romans 3:9-18 covers that question – for all of us. Otherwise, I know little about them except their policies are based in error and laced with evil. Turns out that’s all I need to know for the purpose at hand. I hope they lose every election from now on. I wish I could vote against them. I’ll certainly pray they lose. (Psalm 140 sets a good example for that prayer.)
The Power Trap
Finally, there’s danger in getting involved in politics for the seat it can give us at the table of political power. Power by itself isn’t bad, but its abuse is. Getting involved in it for dishonest, power-seeking purposes is bound to be evil.
It could be as obvious as calling on your candidate for favors after you helped get him elected. Or it could be as subtle as shilling for a candidate who can feed your congregation a social service contract. Whoever we support, let it be because we believe they’re the right people to do the job right for all persons.
One commitment above all can keep us from this trap: To place truth and humility above power and privilege. So we must let our voices and our votes speak truth. If that includes criticizing people we helped elect – and losing favor with them as a result – we must speak truth regardless.
Complications? What About Leadership?
There are complications, I’ll grant that. I purposely omitted one of the biggest, for many: Your church’s biggest giver is telling you to keep quiet on elections.
I think you already know the right thing to do as a Christian is to do the right thing. And the right thing to do specifically as a leader is not to hide from complications but to lead your people through them.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.