My sixteen year old asked me a question recently that stirred up great debate between all three of my children and me as we were riding in the car.
16: Mom, why don’t we put a [political] sign on our lawn?
Me: We can’t.
16: What do you mean “We can’t?”
Me: We live in a church-owned home, and because it’s church property, not our private property, we can’t. It’s the separation of church and state.
16: That’s not fair. We should be able to tell people what we believe!
Me: As individuals that’s true. And if you want to put a sign on your bedroom door IN the house, or a sticker on your phone, or wear a t-shirt “go for it.” But we can’t put a sign on church property.
All three chimed in, agreeing with their sister that it wasn’t fair, and that they have as much right as the neighbors do to advertise their allegiances. They felt penalized for living in a church home since it stifled their desire to advertise. Understanding that they didn’t sign up for being pastors’ kids, I sympathized with their dilemma. But that doesn’t change the reality.
Anyone who knows me personally knows I can be very outspoken. I don’t think anyone who is my friend on Facebook or follows me on Twitter could wonder about my political leanings. But stating opinions on my personal Facebook profile is ENTIRELY different than putting a sign on the parsonage lawn or talking about how I think people should vote from the pulpit. Even on Facebook I have not and will not tell people who or who not to vote for – I think that’s wrong anyway, leaving the pastoral aspect out of it completely. I may be very vocal about who I’m not voting for (believe it or not I haven’t said who will get my vote), but I leave your decision up to you.
I take the separation of Church and State very seriously. Some pastors skirt the edge. They can’t cross it because of something called the Johnson Amendment, which you can read about. Some even support a certain candidate in this presidential election because they promise to do away with the Johnson Amendment (I leave you to discover which one). I think that’s dangerous. In our much of our society religious institutions still hold an important place. In some congregations what the pastor says “goes” because they are very authoritarian. For a pastor (or rabbi or imam…) to stand in worship, where their words carry significant weight, and TELL people who they should vote for – and in some cases that they’re damned if they don’t – is just WRONG. In the Christian tradition, the pulpit is the place for Jesus to be preached – and while Jesus was certainly political, he was political in the sense of fighting for those who were the “least of these” NOT those in power. Jesus would throw his weight behind the poor and homeless, not Clinton or Trump. If churches are able to put up political signs in front of their buildings and raise money for candidates, we become instruments of Caesar, not Jesus.
I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years. Sometimes the restriction of the Johnson Amendment has been frustrating, as it is now. But I am not sorry for it. It keeps me true to the gospel instead of my own desire for political power or to hold undue influence over others. It doesn’t mean I won’t talk about larger issues within politics – after all, I just said Jesus was political. But there is a BIG difference between saying, “Jesus calls us to serve the poor, so what are we doing about it?” and, “Vote for ‘so-and-so.'” One is a call to action, inspired by Jesus, for the sake of others – the other is a call to create a political base for the consolidation and promotion of a certain political power. As a pastor, I am called to do the one, but not the other. And if the other option becomes more important to me, then I should resign my position. Now, one is certainly able to be a “Rev” and run for office in a political party – look at Mike Huckabee or Jessie Jackson. But they do NOT serve specific congregations. And if I lived in my own home instead of a church-owned home I could litter my yard with signs, but that is not the case, much to my children’s dismay.
So, if you’re my literal neighbor, and wondering why you haven’t seen a sign on my lawn, now you know.