Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Church and Political Stands

As a general rule, I think that the Church (meaning both the collective Body of Christ and denominational bodies) should be cautious about taking stands on political issues. When I wrote about this yesterday, John Meunier responded:

I'm intrigued by the desire to have Christians active but the church silent.

Doesn't this run counter to all our talk of Christianity being fundamentally a communal or social religion? We talk about how tough it is to have a genuine Christianity that is private. Why does that stop when Christian conviction impinges on the political realm?


Imagine this scenario: I serve as Chairperson of the General Board of Church and Society, and that agency is filled with like-minded libertarian Christians. One day, after prayerfully examining the Scriptures and current events, we announce:

"The Social Security program is thievery, as it takes resources from people without their consent. It is therefore contrary to the commands of Christ, who never advocated theft to alleviate poverty. We condemn the criminal enterprise of Social Security and call its advocates to repent of their sin and seek the grace of God."

The next day, news sources run the headline: "United Methodist Church Demands Immediate End to Social Security." Sincere, faithful Christians who are members of the UMC but disagree with this position on Social Security face the insult of one of their church agencies denying their fidelity to Christ.

Wouldn't that bother a lot of you?

And I hope that it would bother you for more reasons than merely because you disagree with the policy analysis. Harry Browne once said of overreaching government "The problem is not the abuse of power; the problem is the power to abuse." In like manner, the problem here is not the Church taking a stand on political minutiae contrary to yours; the problem is the Church taking a stand on political minutiae.

16 comments:

Elizabeth said...

The problem with this analysis is the assumption that GBCS takes stands on things that aren't supported by the UMC. GBCS can't speak in a way that is contradictory to the UMC - The GC, the Book of Discipline, the Social Principles. Those are the official positions, and even though individuals may not like them, when a UMC body speaks to them they are 'in line'. I may not like it when bodies speak out against homosexuality, but I can't be mad or accuse of wrongdoing, because that is the official position of the UMC, even though I, a faithful United Methodist, disagree with it. It works both ways, really. Now, if the GBCS spoke out in conflict with the UMC position, that's a different ballgame.

Michael said...

Elizabeth,

Are you then saying that the UMC officially supports the impeachment of President Bush? When Mr. Winkler speaks out loud and into a microphone, it is inferred that he is speaking on behalf of his agency and the UMC. Whether it is "officially" true is irrelevant. The general population reads the article, "Jim Winkler, HEAD/DIRECTOR of UNITED METHODIST blah blah.." Anything after this is, of course, percieved as "official church".

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I think GBCS takes stands contrary to the UMC's social principles all the time, usually appealing to some other part of the social principles, so that "one part is expounded to be repugnant to another" as the old Anglican Articles of Religion (that our Articles are based upon) warn against in Scriptural interpretation.

Still, it seems clear to me that the church can take ethical stands or stand for a principle that have clear political implications. But you are right to say that we shouldn't get TOO specific on things like a federal program or budget - as if the Christian morality of the federal budget could be seen in clear black and white by UM general board members who did not sit in on the details of putting the budget together.

Elizabeth said...

Michael, no, I'm not, obviously, but I also don't infer that he speaks only for the UMC and never for himself. As a pastor, I often speak for myself, and often for my congregation. I think it would be pretty unrealistic for members to expect me never to express publicly a view they disagreed with. If I said that St. Paul's believed something when I was actually just meaning it for myself, then I'd be in trouble. But I have a personal voice.

CBrulee said...

I see two challenges when it comes to religion and politics.

First, Christians should feel free to speak their mind and address any and all ethical and moral issues pertinent to our world. The caveat is that church leaders and church bodies at all levels shold not speak for or against any politician or candidate. Doing so would also jeopardize the non-profit status of the religious organization.

Second, Christians should strive to "play fair" and not deliberately slant their "pitch" by addressing only a few positions about issues such that the result is to favor only one politician, party, or candidate. That's akin to a government office putting so many stipulations on a request for bid for a purchase that only one item can satisfy the request for bid. That's an unethical pre-selection trick that Christians should avoid.

John said...

Beth, would you be comfortable with a hypothetical GBCS making the statement that I wrote above?

Keith McIlwain said...

The GBCS has many problems, to be sure, but the Church needs to speak prophetically. My hope would be that the GBCS would do so in accordance with our stated positions, which are strong, rather than, as is too often the case, be a voice against UM positions.

You can read my recent post on war and torture for other suggestions as to how the Church might be a faithful witness (though you may not agree!).

Michael said...

Christians can and should speak to social situations, but with these voices come enormous responsibilities. Persons such as Mr. Winkler or any other board leader should be very careful about what is stated in public because of the inference that he is speaking for all Methodists through his position. Otherwise, would anyone even care that he had an opinion? His deliberate comment against President Bush was careless (if not orchestrated), irresponsible, and downright ignorant. Is this what we want our boards to sound like? It seems to me that he has crossed a line in which he is using the power of that position to further his own personal agenda. Hence the danger.

Oloryn said...

This may be something of a side issue rather than a direct answer, but what catches my eye is the unspoken assumption that between Christianity as an individual religion, and Christianity as a social religion, we have to find some point on the continuum between the two, and make all of our positions conform to that point. I'm really not sure that's true. Christianity is both an individual religion and a social religion. The problem isn't finding some point between the two, it's combining the two effectively.

I've long been fascinated by G. K. Chesterton's characterization of Christian balance as "the collision of two passions apparantly opposite" (see Chesterton's Orthodoxy, chapter VI. If you haven't read the book yet, download and read it!). Rather than find the middle position between the two apparently opposite passions, which merely dilutes them, you find a way to let them both express themselves, er, passionately. Real Christian balance utterly hates sin, yet also utterly loves sinners. Our tendency to try and find a blend of the two to operate under is much more pagan than it is Christian.

The same with individuality vs a societal/communal approach. The challenge is finding not a middle position between the two, but finding the place where both can 'run wild' safely, without either tromping over the other.

And having gone through writing the above, I'm finding myself leaning John's direction regarding Christianity's interaction with politics. Our primary calling is not influencing world politics, but making disciples. As part of that outreach, I want to see Christians with conservative leanings able to influence worldly conservatives for Christ and Christians with liberal leanings able to influence worldy liberals for Christ (what I'm afraid we're often seeing now is that Christians with conservative leanings are influenced by the corruption inherent in worldly conservatives, and Christians with liberal leanings are influenced by the corruption inherent in worldy liberals (and yes, I see both conservatism and liberalism as the product of fallen humans and thus prone to corruption)). If church leadership, as a whole, takes a political position, it's liable to harm some Christians ability to reach out to their peers. And let's face it, prophetic witnesses against evil are usually made by individual prophets, not by committees. This may be a place to leave individuality free to 'run wild'. There are other areas where a societal/communal approach will be preferred, but I don't think this is one of them.

And now, reading the above, I wonder if I've overstated my position. You may want to put it down to trying to put an awful lot into one comment.

John Meunier said...

Well, after getting the honor of being quoted on the main page, I'm late to joining in the comment discussion.

Not to be pedantic, but it seems that there are some important distinctions here.

1) Is GBCS saying something the same thing as "the church" taking a position? If so, is the head of the GBCS speaking on his own behalf the same thing?

2) Ignoring the GBCS brew-ha-ha, should the church itself take a position on social/political issues?

I'm not really that interested in the first question - in part because I think other than Methodists, no one pays any attention to what our GBCS says. And even a lot of Methodists don't know it even exists. As the laity in your church about it some time.

I grant that any position the GBCS takes will cause "division." I understand why John suggests the GBCS should not get mired in the details of specific policy suggestions. The board is likely not expert enough to bring true discernment to the issue and will fall back on fairly simplistic analysis.

However, I'd hate to see our collective concerns and worries about the ability of the GBCS to determine whether HR 601 or HR 602 is the best policy solution undermine our committment to make our discipleship be about reforming both our own lives and the world.

I think Wesley was pretty clear that there is a social dimension to our witness. And that sometimes is going to cause division. Dr. Maddox of Duke spoke at my annual conference last year and he talked about this some.

As in all other areas of Christian life, our social witness is liable to error and mistakes. That is why we need to be in convesation and constant discernment. As individuals and as groups we need the testing and accountability of fellow Christians acting to hold us up in love can provide.

But even with our failures - individually and socially - we are called to live according to our convictions. We are going on to perfection. But we aren't there yet.

Bryan Morton said...

The call to act, for a Christian, is a personal one, turned inward toward himself. It is to convict one's self, not others. Christians are to try to act like Christ. Christ, who has the power to coerce any act He chooses, chooses instead to use persuasion to cause others to choose to act righteously. The State's only tools are coercion, (the threat of violence), theft, slavery, fraud and murder.
The only legitimate function of government is the defense of the RIGHTS to life, liberty and property and it only retains that legitimacy when it is able to perform that function while, at the same time, never violating those same rights of even a single individual.

John said...

Beth wrote:

I think it would be pretty unrealistic for members to expect me never to express publicly a view they disagreed with. If I said that St. Paul's believed something when I was actually just meaning it for myself, then I'd be in trouble. But I have a personal voice.

I completely agree that the pastor should have political opinions, and even carefully-delinated political positions. But not the collective Church. Unless, of course, you can build a genuine consensus on detailed political positions.

John Meunier said...

John wrote:

But not the collective Church. Unless, of course, you can build a genuine consensus on detailed political positions.

So, do you oppose the existence of most or all of the Social Principles? A great number of those are overtly political, yes?

John said...

I can sign onto almost all of them, since very few require government action. They are not inherently in conflict with my political perspective.

Elizabeth said...

Ack, I'm always forgetting to check back on comment strings I posted in.

John, you asked if I'd be comfortable with hypo-GBCS making the statement: "The Social Security program is thievery, as it takes resources from people without their consent. It is therefore contrary to the commands of Christ, who never advocated theft to alleviate poverty. We condemn the criminal enterprise of Social Security and call its advocates to repent of their sin and seek the grace of God."

Do you just mean a statement of that style? I do believe it is appropriate to say something directly/in a declaratory way, if that's what you mean.

John said...

I'm impressed, Beth. If I were a liberal, that sort of statement from a denominational agency would irritate me deeply.