Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Gushee on Christian Leaders and Politics

My friend David P. Gushee, finishing his tenure as Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, TN is about to begin a new venture as Professor of Christian Ethics, McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, GA. (Hat Tip to Aaron Weaver and Melissa Rogers for this news.)  Dave has just written a provocative article for the Jackson Sun listing 17 “rules” for “Christian Leaders” regarding political involvement. (Hat Tip to Bruce Prescott.)  He defines “Christian Leaders” broadly to include pastors, youth ministers, missionaries, evangelists, leaders of parachurch organizations that are not registered lobbies, theologians and professors of Christian ethics, among others.

 (One question to ask in the following reflections is whether Dave has defined “Christian leaders” too broadly. What about the town councilwoman who is also an Elder in her local Presbyterian church? Does this mean that a Baptist deacon body cannot include any registered lobbyists? When Jimmy Carter was U.S. president, should he have quit teaching Sunday School?)

Dave has the U.S. scene in mind and has proposed these “rules” (some are actual legal requirements if churches expect to stay within the IRS tax codes as non-profits, but others are non-legal suggestions) as a way to counter the toxic partisan politicization of the gospel in the U.S.  I leave it to those in different contexts to judge how much or how little applies in their own context–I think quite a bit would apply in any constitutional democracy–and some even wider.  I list Dave’s rules as he wrote them, but then I will ask questions about a few that may need modification, even though I agree with his overall perspective.

1. Christian leaders must not officially or unofficially endorse political candidates or a political party.

I completely agree with this one.  I also think the pattern, common in Europe, of naming certain political parties with the word “Christian” in them is a bad idea.  It gives the impression that Christians should only join party X–even if party Y or Z has a platform more in keeping with biblical principles as one understands them.  In the U.S. far too many conservative Christian leaders have tried to make it sound as if Christians must be registered Republicans.  A few (very few) Christian leaders have tried to do the same with the Democratic or Green or (rarely) Socialist parties.  As I have said before, political parties are all flawed and while one or more may, at a given time and place, be more in line with gospel values than another, this is likely to be transient and Christians should be of independent spirit even if registered as a member of one party or another.  No candidate or party should ever think they have a “lock on the Christian vote,” as if we were just one more special interest group.

2. Christian leaders must not distribute essentially partisan or single-issue voter guides that purport to be apolitical or nonpartisan.

I’m on board here.

3. Christian leaders must not publicly handicap or comment upon the political horse race.

I’m not as certain here, at least not as broadly as Dave has defined “Christian Leader.”  Of course, my hesitation may have to do with the fact that I did handicap the upcoming presidential race a few months back.  None of us likes to think we have screwed up, and I certainly wouldn’t have done this if were (currently) on a church staff or employed as religion faculty, or still employed by Every Church a Peace Church, etc.  Does having a religion and politics blog make one a “Christian leader?”  What do you think? I understand Dave’s concern, here. Such public “handicapping” can influence support for a candidate based on whether so and so thinks s/he can win, rather than on the issues.  Also, under the guise of handicapping chances, a minister or other religious leader could actually be endorsing a particular candidate.  Hmm.  Should I refrain from further handicapping to be on the safe side??

4. Christian leaders must not provide private or public advice to particular politicians, parties or campaigns concerning how they can strategize in order to win evangelical or Christian votes.

I am definitely on board here. I have privately rebuked a few fellow theo-bloggers for this and am not happy with UCC minister Chuck Currie for playing this kind of role with a particular candidate–even though I largely agree with Currie and like much about the candidate he is advising.  Giving politicians, parties, or candidates moral advice on e.g., items of social justice and/or making them aware of the concerns of a certain faith-group about issue X is one thing.  Teaching said pol how to “woo” those voters is another–it is a form of nationalist seduction with the “Christian leader” in the role of pimping out his or her segment of the church!

5. Christian leaders must not calibrate their public teachings or writings in order to affect the outcome of political elections or to gain and hold the support of politicians.

This is a strong temptation that REALLY needs to be resisted.  Suppose candidate X is “pro-choice” on abortion and minister Y is pro-life.  Minister Y may believe that, overall, candidate X is the best candidate on the full range of issues and want said candidate to win over candidate Z who is vocally “pro-life,” but seems to stop caring about human life once it has left the womb.  Nevertheless, Minister Y should not cease his or her preaching a pro-life position in order to help candidate X win.  Same with many other issues.  Once in office, too, politician X should be confronted with the full range of moral concerns–including the ones s/he doesn’t share.

6. Christian leaders must not attend political rallies or campaign events of one candidate or party unless they are prepared to attend rallies and events of all candidates and parties.

This seems overly broad, given Dave’s very broad definition of “leaders.”  I can see this rule for pastors and for famous Christian leaders, but for the more obscure, I would make a distinction between attending the rally as just part of the crowd and attending as a platform speaker–clearly an endorsement.  Last year, I went to a rally for then-candidate John Yarmuth (now the freshman U.S. Rep. from KY’s 3rd district) with my daughter (12) who is very interested in a future in politics.  Barack Obama, not a presidential candidate at the time, was the keynote speaker and I thought the experience would be both exciting and educational. No one knew we were there, nor was our presence any kind of “Christian endorsement,” so I felt no compulsion to go to a similar rally for then-incumbent Rep. Anne Northup–the only elected official I have ever had who NEVER, not even once, voted the way I asked her too.  But this rule does make sense for those on church or para-church staffs.

7. Christian leaders must not invite political candidates to speak in church pulpits or on church grounds unless they are prepared to invite all political candidates of all parties to do so.

Agreed.  In fact, without such a “come one, come all” rule, the church in question is in danger of losing its tax-exempt status. But I would go further and say that it is a bad idea to allow a sitting politician or candidate to speak in pulpits or on church grounds. I don’t like it when the Religious Right does it, and I don’t like it when Democrats use (mostly African-American) pulpits to show how concerned for racial justice they are. There are other venues.

8. Christian leaders must not identify the potential or actual victory of any politician as a victory for God or God’s kingdom.


9. Christian leaders must limit their direct contact with politicians or staff in order to avoid even the appearance of undue loyalty or involvement.

This rule would seem less necessary in other contexts, but given the extreme politicization of the U.S. churches since c. 1980, this is good.  Of course, Christian leaders still have the right to petition leaders like any other citizen and they might want to voice concerns, but if they are regularly seen in circles of power that will give the appearance of being part of a “kitchen cabinet,” or of being a lobby, etc.

10. Christian leaders must not engage in voter registration campaigns or get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at mobilizing the voters of one political party rather than another.

The last clause in this sentence is key.  Voter registration per se is a good thing.  Partisan mobilization, as if the churches were part of the grassroots efforts of party x or politician y, threatens the integrity of the gospel.

11. Christian leaders must not direct the funds of their churches or organizations toward direct or indirect support for a particular political candidate or party.

In fact, this is illegal in the U.S. context, although it happens more often than one would believe. 

12. Christian leaders may not sidestep these rules by drawing a distinction between their activities as a “private individual” over their service in their public role.

This one I think may depend on how broadly one defines “Christian leader.” But definitely pastors, para-church officials, and the like are far too identified with the church to be able to make a public/private distinction credible.  When I was a pastor, I would not even tell my congregation to which party I belonged–although I had no problem discussing ISSUES from the pulpit.

13. Christian leaders must offer Christian proclamation related to that large number of public issues that are clearly addressed by biblical principles or direct biblical teaching.

Dave’s point here is a warning against reducing our moral teachings that have political implications to one or two “hot button” issues.  Abortion is a moral issue–but so are nuclear weapons.  Justice for the poor is talked about more from Genesis to Revelation than probably any other moral issue–but it doesn’t get the “air time” in many Christian circles than others with much less biblical support.

14. Christian leaders must encourage Christian people toward active citizenship, including studying the issues and the candidates and testing policy stances and candidates according to biblical criteria.

Just because Christian leaders don’t endorse parties or candidates doesn’t mean we should encourage apathy or quietist withdrawal. We want to equip folks so that they will be able to discern the leading of the Spirit themselves.

15. Christian leaders must model and encourage respectful and civil discourse related to significant public issues as well as political candidates.

The erosion of civil discourse has long been noted and is now at a half-century low.

16. Christian leaders must model and encourage prayer for God-ordained government, its leaders and their policies.

One can, as my friend Thom, following John Howard Yoder, does, question whether God “ordains” government or simply “orders” it, uses it pragmatically.  That is a valid exegetical and theological debate. But there should be no debate over the many biblical commands to pray for leaders (whether we like them or not).  Failure to do so is simple disobedience to God.

17. Christian leaders must teach and model respect for the constitutional relationship between religion and the state as these are spelled out in the First Amendment.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the church is not to be the master of the state, nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.  The early champions of church-state separation, such as Roger Williams, did not believe such foolishness as “religion and government have nothing to do with each other.” Rather, they held (rightly, in my view) that only if the institutions of government and religion were separated, would the churches (synagogues, etc.) be free to give a prophetic word to the state.  The U.S. pattern is controlled by the opening 2 clauses of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor abridging the free exercise thereof;” and by the final clause of Article VI of the Constitution, “no religious test shall ever be required as qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

July 12, 2007 - Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, citizenship, human rights., politics


  1. Michael,

    As one whom you have admonished, I find Gushee’s rules intriguing but unworkable. He is, it seems to me, saying that if you are in any way shape or form involved in church life you can have no involvement in the political realm. I try to draw a distinction between my church life and my political life, but as a citizen of the United States it is appropriate to be politically involved. We must not ever become beholden to a candidate or a party, but that doesn’t preclude any involvement at all. And that’s what I see this being — it is an over reaction to the theocratic impulses of the religious right.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | July 12, 2007

  2. As a strong advocate of keeping the church out of the state’s affairs and, just as importantly, the state out of the church’s affairs, this entry poses the ethical question “Do I practice what I preach?” I’m not a Christian leader, although I am a Christian, so the rules aren’t designed for me. But as a political leader of sorts, I must reflect on these ideas. Overall, like the previous commenter, I think the rules are unworkable and impede on a “Christian leader’s” first amendment rights. As a strong believer in the first amendment, overall I would be opposed to such a manifesto. Rules for Religion should not impose a gag rule on one’s right to speech, assembly, and practice of one’s religion, which may or may not include and encourage participation in one’s government.

    Comment by Jeff Noble | July 12, 2007

  3. Bob, I don’t think Gushee is saying that any church involvement means no political involvement, but it does mean that church leaders should not be partisan. One can still discuss the issues in church, invite congregations to compare candidates on the issues (with real, non-partisan voter guides, like those prepared by the non-partisan Project Vote Smart), hold candidate fora in which all the candidates are invited, etc. But I do wonder if Dave has defined “Christian leader” too broadly.

    Jeff, leading a non-profit always has involved some restraints on free speech. If a congregation wants to be a political lobby, or endorse particular candidates, etc., then it should voluntarily give up it’s non-profit status, register as a lobby, and pay the financial costs. But I think there are good reasons to keep a church’s political involvement from being partisan. The gospel is not to be identified with any one party or candidate and none will align perfectly with biblical values.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 12, 2007

  4. I’m not teaching anyone how to “woo” voters. My only role – a minor one at that – is to write about issues from my own viewpoint on Senator Obama’s website. But I appreciate the concerns you have mentioned.

    You can read my “Guidelines for Congregations and Clergy on Political Action” at:


    Best wishes.


    Comment by Rev. Chuck Currie | July 13, 2007

  5. Ah, but you see a difference in your language and mine. I speak of the rights of the Christian leader, a living breathing soul. You speak of the rights of a non-profit organization, an entity which may have a soul but exists on paper. And while leading a non-profit may restrict one’s rights in their role as leader, being that leader is something one does in one’s role as a person.

    It is a fine line and I talked about it last night with a couple of political friends, one of whom’s wife works with a non-profit agency. I understand protecting the tax status of an entity; I still am troubled by restricting the rights of an individual, irrespective of the role they serve professionally.

    Comment by Jeff Noble | July 13, 2007

  6. Well, Jeff, I am also trying to protect the rights (and ability) of ministers both to be able to proclaim the gospel and care for their flocks with integrity (without being thought to have a hidden political agenda) AND their ability to give necessary prophetic words to those in power–again without being thought to be just carrying water for the political opposition.

    Sometimes particular vocations can lead individuals to voluntarily give up some citizenship rights–members of the military have their rights severely limited; people in certain businesses sign confidentiality agreements that limit their speech–even after no longer working for said company; journalists (as opposed to pundits with columns) must strive to keep people from knowing their political opinions as long as they are reporting, etc. The same is even more true of ministerial callings.

    The question of what is legal for ministers to do (in view of their civil rights and liberties) and what is wise for them to do (in view of their vocation) are separate questions–though intersecting.


    Rev. Currie, I am glad you stopped by and clarified your role. I am also glad you linked to an alternative set of guidelines. I posted Dave Gushee’s (along with my few reservations) to begin a public conversation that is long overdue–not to give the last word. Thanks for helping to further that conversation.

    Before the weekend is out, I will show that even if one did adopt all of Gushee’s rules, the result need not be apolitical quietism. I will spell out several ways that “Christian leaders” can be very politically involved without being partisan.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 13, 2007

  7. Hi, Michael.

    Another point of agreement between us: Christians pray for worldly political leaders.

    My question to you is, since the reason we are given to pray for the leaders is not for the leaders themselves, per se, but for peace for the sake of the work of the church, would you consider imprecatory prayer against worldly political leaders (in certain contexts) to be a faithful appropriation of the biblical mandate to pray for them?

    This is not necessarily an affirmation on my part. Just a curiosity.

    Comment by Thom Stark | July 17, 2007

  8. Absolutely. Remind me to tell you more sometime about my take on how Christian pacifists can faithfully pray the imprecatory psalms.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 18, 2007

  9. Michael –

    I thought you might be interested in knowing that Northup for Congress contacted our church office wanting us to get involved with her campaign.

    Christ have mercy on us all!

    Comment by Jeremy | May 23, 2008

  10. Jeremy, I hope you reported her to both the IRS (for trying to involve your church in activities that could lead it to lose its tax-exempt status) and to the Federal Election Commission. Further, this should be reported to the C-J immediately, to get her some much-needed bad publicity over this–like McCain on his lobbyist problems.

    I am glad to be personnally supporting Rep. John Yarmuth’s reelection and keep Northup from getting her old job, back, but I would be HORRIFIED if my church were to become involved–or if Yarmuth’s campaign would ask us to do so!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 23, 2008

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