The preaching of the gospel ought to be a unifying force upon the church of Jesus Christ. The clear proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom ought to draw people together in unity – except for when it doesn’t.
Preaching is particularly challenging during election seasons. I was taught that preachers should steer clear of politics and to focus strictly on the gospel. That sounds like sound advice, given the risk to congregational unity when preachers choose a side. Yet, this non-partisan approach to preaching feels a little weak, knowing what is at stake. People want to know where we stand, sometimes because they do not know where they stand themselves, and sometimes because they do. The latter demand the preacher make clear their position so that they can know whether or not they are able to support the preacher, given their political pre-commitments. There is little doubt that preachers who take a strong position will gather numbers of people already settled in the same conviction. Of course, this kind of growth will come at the expense of all those whose views run contrary. In either case, the church is divided, even if it might be growing.
It is tempting to believe that sticking to the gospel will help us avoid the discomfort and disunity that follows when we mess with politics. We might even happily accept the fact that this could cost us the support of people who are hardened in their particular political point of view. Sometimes the subtraction of those folks feels like addition, if we were being honest. Yet, the gospel will not always allow for the comfort we might value. The gospel itself can be dis-unifying. Jesus suggested that when we take our discipleship seriously, it might divide us from our friends and families. No one said there would not be consequences.
The gospel is not an abstract proposition, disconnected from the complicated realities of our cultures. The gospel touches down, bringing the Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. The challenge for preachers is not to be a-political, but to understand the places where the gospel shapes our politics.
How does a theology of grace translate into public policy? How might citizens of heaven, driven by eternal values, reflect on the economics of any specific moment or election cycle? Trying to articulate a gospel-shaped politic will be messy. It will not typically surface a single issue or lay along a particular party platform. The gospel is not red or blue. It adopts neither donkeys nor elephants. It would, of course, be easier if it did, but political parties are human institutions built for the purposes and interests of temporal life, admitting to nothing but the personal interest of those they seek to serve.
This is not to say the gospel has no bearing. We do not preach an abstract theology untouched and unsullied by the concerns of life on earth. It is to say, rather, that the gospel will surface the places and ways that our positions reflect or rebuff the heart of God. Our human systems might ask we choose between a godly passion for the right to life for the unborn and a godly passion for quality of life for people of colour. The gospel knows no such distinction.
Elections are blunt instruments. They take incredibly complicated issues and force them down to simple binary choices – this candidate or that candidate – this party or that party. It is terribly frustrating that we can’t order from a menus when we come to the polling booth. By that time, most of the choices have already been made for us.
Despite that frustration, we need to appreciate that elections offer a tremendous opportunity for dialogue around root issues that deeply matter. When else do we have opportunity to speak deeply to one another about race, money, power, and sexuality? Preachers can’t afford to sit this out. If we could embrace the dialogue, especially in the formative stages when the cement is still wet, we can help our people think about how the principles of the gospel can shape our perspectives and our priorities.
I still believe that preaching should not be partisan, given that no party has ever fully articulated and embraced the values of the Kingdom. Parties are at their base about the exercise and retention of power, which is antithetical to the interests of the gospel. Our concern, then ought to be less about winning elections, than it ought to be about shaping the heart of those who will eventually lead us, and of all of us who will follow.
When I was young, I thought seriously about entering politics. It seemed exciting and I thought it consequential. My thinking was challenged, however, when I heard an influential preacher say, “Never step down from the pulpit, to become Prime Minister.” That seemed a little strong at the time. Surely a gospel-driven Prime Minister or President could do a lot of good. But over time, I came to see that politics is as much theatre as it is substance – especially from an eternal point of view. Politicians deal with the “art of the possible.” Preachers deal with the eternal power of the cross. I know where the real power lies.