The piece below first ran as the cover essay for the March 2021 issue of our magazine that we’ve been printing since 1896. But we’re publishing it online for the first time for paid subscribers of A Public Witness. As we find ourselves entering a campaign cycle, the issue of who we trust as moral authorities remains a key issue to consider.
Pastors will be as prophetic as their churches allow them to be. That observation seems obvious, but it came as an epiphany to the college version of myself when I read The Prophetic Pulpit, an impressive study of clergy political behavior conducted by political scientists Paul A. Djupe and Christopher P. Gilbert. Churches constrain (or give permission to) what their ministers say and do in public life. Institutional expectations encourage or restrict the witness offered by those who claim their only loyalty is to God.
This should not be dismissed as a mere survival strategy from clergy dependent on their congregation for a paycheck. Shepherding a flock involves being pastor as well as prophet, tending to the spiritual needs of everyone under your charge. I know from experience that sometimes a minister must play the long game. Conversion in the realm of religion or politics is rarely an instantaneous affair. Stewarding a church involves not only being concerned with the demands of the present but also the vitality of the future.
Rather than cast aspersions on clergy, we should be honest about the uncomfortable limitations they face. Despite the provocative nature of prophets, the political import of Jesus’s teachings, and all the other ways scripture is relevant to public life, most American Christians report wanting their pastors to stay out of politics. According to a poll from the Barna Group released just a few years ago, less than 10% are interested in what their preacher has to say about social and political issues.
When it comes to the big moral questions we face, Christians would prefer their pastors remain quiet.
The skies may proclaim the work of God’s hand (Psalm 19:1), but sermons apparently should not comment on the destruction of creation. Scripture is silent on carbon emissions, deforestation, and rising sea levels. The story of Noah and the flood that destroys everything might seem relevant, but God promised there wouldn’t be a sequel, so where’s the concern?
The Hebrew Bible and the Gospels have a lot to say about foreigners and strangers. Exodus specifically says they should not be mistreated or oppressed (23:9). After all, the Israelites were once wanderers in the wilderness. Their experience of exile should shape how they treat the refugees they encounter. Jesus asserts that his followers meet him in the face of the stranger and they should respond accordingly (Matt. 25:35). Yet, there apparently should be no critique from ministers about immigration policies that separate families, lock children in cages, and systematically deny the humanity of people who bear the image of God.
Throughout scripture, the most frequent temptation facing God’s people is idolatry. Moses ascends the mountain to meet with God, while Aaron remains below to fashion a golden calf. God’s followers are quick to turn away, to give their ultimate loyalty to something that is less than the Holy One. Jesus can successfully resist the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, but his followers are rarely as disciplined. We bow down before fame, fortune, and power. Still, pastors apparently should not speak about the ways that ideologies, nation-states, and political leaders become our gods.
There are reasons we have arrived at this place where ministers are expected by their congregations to wear a muzzle.
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