Should the Clergy Preach Politics?

“INVOLVEMENT in politics can help the poor, a Canadian archbishop told pilgrims . . . Even if the political system does not seem to be according to God’s will, ‘we need to get involved so that we can bring justice to the poor.’”​—Catholic News.

Reports of senior churchmen speaking out in favor of involvement in politics are not unusual; neither are religious leaders who hold political office a rarity. Some have tried to clean up politics. Others are admired and remembered for their campaigns on such issues as racial equality and the abolition of slavery.

Nevertheless, many laymen feel uneasy when their preachers take sides on political issues. “It was evangelical churchgoers who sometimes questioned the public activism of their clergy,” said a Christian Century article on political theology. Many religious people feel that the church is just too sacred a place for politics.

This raises some interesting questions that are of concern to all who wish to see a better world. Can preachers of Christianity clean up politics? * Is preaching politics God’s way of achieving better government and a better world? Did Christianity start out as a new way to practice politics?

How Politics in Christ’s Name Began

In The Early Church, historian Henry Chadwick says that the early Christian congregation was known for its “indifference to the possession of power in this world.” It was a “non-political, quietist, and pacifist community.” A History of Christianity says: “There was a conviction widely held among Christians that none of their number should hold office under the state . . . As late as the beginning of the third century Hippolytus said that historic Christian custom required a civic magistrate to resign his office as a condition of joining the Church.” Gradually, though, men coveting power began taking the lead in many congregations, giving themselves high-sounding titles. (Acts 20:29, 30) Some wanted to be both religious leaders and politicians. A sudden change in Rome’s government gave such churchmen the opportunity they wanted.

In the year 312 C.E., the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine turned a friendly eye  toward nominal Christianity. Astonishingly, the church bishops were content to compromise with the pagan emperor in exchange for the privileges he conferred on them. “The Church became more and more implicated in high political decisions,” wrote Henry Chadwick. What effect did involvement in politics have on churchmen?

How Politics Affected Preachers

The idea that God would use churchmen as politicians was promoted especially by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic theologian. He envisioned the church ruling over the nations and bringing peace to mankind. But historian H. G. Wells wrote: “The history of Europe from the fifth century onward to the fifteenth is very largely the history of the failure of this great idea of a divine world government to realize itself in practice.” Christendom did not bring peace even to Europe, much less to the world. What had been thought of as being Christianity lost its standing in the eyes of many. What went wrong?

Many who claimed to preach Christianity were drawn into politics with good intentions, but then they found themselves participating in evil. Martin Luther, a preacher and a translator of the Bible, is famous for his efforts to reform the Catholic Church. However, his bold stand against church doctrines made him popular with those who had political motives for rebellion. Luther lost the respect of many when he too began to speak out on political issues. Initially he favored the peasants who were rebelling against oppressive nobles. Then, when the rebellion turned savage, he encouraged the nobles to crush the rebellion, which they did, butchering thousands. Not surprisingly, the peasants considered him a traitor. Luther also encouraged the nobles in their own rebellion against the Catholic emperor. In fact, Protestants, as Luther’s followers came to be known, formed a political movement from the beginning. How did power affect Luther? It corrupted him. For example, although he at first opposed coercing religious dissidents, he later encouraged his political friends to execute by burning those who opposed infant baptism.

John Calvin was a famous clergyman in Geneva, but he came to have enormous political influence as well. When Michael Servetus demonstrated that the Trinity has no basis in Scripture, Calvin used his political influence to support the execution of Servetus, who was burned at the stake. What a horrific departure from Jesus’ teachings!

Perhaps these men forgot what the Bible says at 1 John 5:19: “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” Did they have a sincere desire to clean up the politics of their day, or was it the prospect of power and of having friends in high places that attracted them? In any case, they should have remembered the inspired words of Jesus’ disciple James: “Do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever, therefore, wants to be a friend of the world is constituting himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4) James knew that Jesus had said of his followers:  “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.”​—John 17:14.

Even so, while recognizing that Christians should be no part of the world’s badness, many object to being politically neutral, truly “no part of the world.” They claim that such neutrality prevents Christians from actively showing love for others. They believe that church leaders should speak out and play a role in combating corruption and injustice. But is the neutrality that Jesus taught really incompatible with active concern for others? Can a Christian keep separate from divisive political issues and at the same time provide practical help for others? The following article analyzes these questions.

[Footnote]

^ par. 5 Politics has been defined as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate or conflict between individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”​—The New Oxford Dictionary of English.

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Church leaders compromised with rulers, such as Emperor Constantine, to receive political power

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Musée du Louvre, Paris

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Why were well-known religious leaders drawn to politics?

Augustine

Luther

Calvin

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Augustine: ICCD Photo; Calvin: Portrait by Holbein, from the book The History of Protestantism (Vol. II)