It’s no secret that we’re in a heated political season. Many people are suffering from political fatigue, and it’s merely February. November is quite a distance off and the heat will certainly be turned up on the political landscape as summer approaches. As we consider politics, what role does the pulpit serve in relation to politics? Does it have any business weighing in on the issues, the candidates, and seeking to influence the voters? For some, this is a cut and dry issue and they claim the idea of separation of church and state as an absolute rule. What exactly does that separation look like and is it complete separation?
The Meaning of Separation of Church and State
The Kingdom of God is not built upon the shoulders of a dictator, earthly king, emperor, or any other ruler or ruling body. The Kingdom of God is built by God and His method of bringing about His Kingdom is through the preaching of the gospel. Therefore, when the United States of America was established, the founders made it clear that the government was not to officially sanction and govern a state sponsored church. This pattern has always been problematic throughout history. In fact, when Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian – it was not a bright moment for the church of Jesus Christ. When the state sanctions a church it rules over it as well, and God is unwilling to add another ruling seat to His triune table of authority.
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The exact wording of separation of church and state doesn’t actually appear in the Constitution. This phrase was first coined by Thomas Jefferson and was intended to address the functionality of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The popular phrase of separation of church and state first appeared in a letter on January 1st, 1802 by Thomas Jefferson, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. The point was clear – the state should not establish the church and the church should have freedom to exercise religion separated from the state.
Roger Williams, the founder of the oldest Baptist Church in America (Providence, Rhode Island in 1638), expressed this same idea as he stated:
“[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world”—Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 
The idea of a separate state and church had everything to do with keeping the state out of the church, but it didn’t have in mind keeping the church out of the state.
When Should the Pulpit Become Political?
The pulpit should be political on a regular basis – perhaps in every sermon. This may not be a popular point among some people, but it’s indeed true. Let me explain my reasoning. In the world of politics, the candidates are running for office to represent a specific sector of people. In local politics, the group may be smaller than in national level politics, but the fact is – politicians are elected to represent the people.
The way in which politicians are elected to office is by establishing their campaign upon a set of values, principles, and ideas. For instance, if you visit Bernie Sanders website, you will see that he has a page dedicated to specific issues that he’s committed to and believes to be vitally important to the American people. On the issues page, you will see another page dedicated to expressing his views on the issue of women’s rights. On this page, Bernie Sanders says the following:
We are not going back to the days when women had to risk their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy. The decision about abortion must remain a decision for the woman and her doctor to make, not the government.
If we suppose that the pulpit must be silent on all political issues, that would mean that all pastors must be silent on the subject of abortion and homosexuality. If abortion and homosexuality are political issues and if the pulpit is muzzled from saying anything about a political issue, that would mean any sermon that addresses abortion or homosexuality is suddenly out of bounds. That is precisely what the liberals want all pastors to believe. This is a means of controlling and silencing the pulpit. In fact, this is where the government infringes upon the rights of the pulpit with threats and fear. That’s an absurd idea and it must be rejected completely.
As preachers do what they do (preach), the pulpit will by its very nature will be political. Issues will be covered from a biblical worldview. Topics will be explored through the pages of the Bible. This means everything from laziness to abortion will be covered as the preacher explains the Bible on a weekly basis. If a preacher is doing his job, he will not avoid these political issues. When the Bible is preached as God’s authoritative Word, all of the content will be covered – including ethics on stem cell research, homosexuality, the sanctity of marriage, gluttony, adultery, murder, gossip, anger, pride, and the list goes on and on.
It goes without saying that when a preacher preaches, his sermon will likely touch on a subject that’s political. The faithful preacher will proclaim God’s Word accurately while remembering that since God isn’t running for office, the sermon doesn’t require any political spin.
Avoiding Mission Creep
It’s disheartening to watch popular preachers have their pulpit hijacked by politicians during the political season. When the pastor of a megachurch is parading around with a presidential candidate, he has capitulated on his mission of the gospel. Rather than seeking to make Christ known, he turns to make a specific political candidate known. Politicians are savvy at swaying preachers, and it’s an unfortunate debacle that occurs in pursuit of the “church vote” during every political season.
Just as it’s the duty of the government to be sure that they haven’t drifted over the line into the realm of the free exercise of religion, it’s the duty of the church to be sure we haven’t drifted over the line into politics. What is the mission of the church? The mission of the church is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to disciple them in the faith by careful teaching and exposition of God’s Word. John MacArthur writes:
The basic task of the church is to teach sound doctrine. It is not to give one pastor’s opinion, to recite tear-jerking illustrations that play on emotions, to raise funds, to present programs and entertainment, or to give weekly devotionals. In Titus 2:1 Paul writes, “But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.” 
The church and the state have two different missions, and it’s highly important for both to be sure they haven’t drifted. When mission drift occurs with the state it can be harmful to the church. When the church experiences mission drift, it will be harmful to the state and detrimental to the health and vitality of the church at the same time.
When a preacher trades his pulpit for a political stump, it may be due to the fact that he’s a much better politician than a preacher. When a preacher turns his pulpit into a political stump, he has relegated the throne of God’s Word down to a political platform reserved for the word of man rather than the Word of God. At the end of the day, the man in the pulpit must decide if he wants to be a politician who speaks for man or a preacher who speaks for God.
- Jefferson, Thomas. Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists: The Final Letter, as Sent. The Library of Congress Information Bulletin: June 1998. Lib. of Cong., June 1998. Web. Aug 7, 2010.
- John MacArthur, Master’s Plan for the Church, (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 84.