It's going to be tempting for a lot of pastors and Christians to get very specific this year to tell others who and what to vote for. In fact, I've been amazed at how clear so many Christians of all stripes seem to think such choices are. Here are three key pieces of advice, especially to those who are pastors or Christian leaders.
1. We need to operate on the basis of fact rather than feeling.
I do it too and have done it in the past. I hear something on the news or on cable. I hear something by the water cooler at work. If it has to do with a figure I don't like or an issue with which I have a history. I spark. I get upset. What a horrible decision! What an evil person!
If I actually talk to someone involved in the decision or on the other side of the issue, usually there is more to the story. Important decisions are often complicated and those in positions of high leadership usually don't make them in the simple terms we talk about them by the coffee pot. True, sometimes they do, but I have sometimes later found that my immediate fervent, zealous response to something is only partially informed.
Paul called it a "zeal without knowledge." Zeal is only good if it is truly informed zeal. Otherwise it's counterproductive or even dangerous. And to be informed, we have to truly listen to both sides of an issue. Both sides means going into "enemy territory" on the other channel, not the "straw man" pretending to represent the other position on my favorite channel.
A "straw man" argument is one where the other position is not truly represented but only something that looks a little like the other position. Even I could beat up a stuffed imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's harder to beat up the real thing.
2. When we are in leadership, we have to minister to everyone.
When I am in front of a classroom, when I am behind a pulpit, in these last days when I am Dean of a seminary, I am not merely representing myself. Even though this is my personal blog, I indirectly bring my associations with Wesley Seminary at IWU and the Wesleyan Church. There is a certain need for me to moderate my opinions because I am not merely bringing myself to this post. I have to stand for others.
There are Christians who strongly support current Republican emphases. And there are Christians who strongly support Democratic emphases. As pastors we have to minister to both. If we push strongly partisan positions from the pulpit, we are not only putting an unnecessary stumbling block in front of our ministry, we are probably revealing our own ignorance of the issues--the Christian position is rarely as slam dunk as the partisan thinks it is.
3. We need to distinguish our culture from our faith.
I am often amazed at how strongly we can come to associate positions that are a matter of our personal subculture with a Christian position. For example, I believe in capitalism. I've visited parts of Europe that used to be communist and there is simply no comparison between how prosperous in general the Western parts of Germany are in comparison to what Eastern Europe was like under communism.
But how some have come to embrace a certain form of American capitalism as a fundamental Christian value is puzzling to me. I have a PhD in New Testament. I read the real New Testament in Greek, not in some translation made by someone else. I don't see it. I'm a capitalist by philosophy, not because I find it clearly advocated in the Bible. It didn't really even exist in anything like it's current form until the 1700's.
Similarly, a desire to help the poor is a clearly biblical value in the gospels and Bible in general. But how to work out that fundamental value is complicated. Helping in some ways may not truly be helping in the long run. And there are legitimate questions about whether helping the poor is primarily a matter for the church or the government. In short, there is room for disagreement among Christians on how the value plays out.
My point is, our strong political feelings on these sorts of issues are very often more a reflection of our subculture rather than some supposed clear teaching of Christianity or the Bible. Having lived abroad, I guarantee you that there is not a little myopia in some of the fervor American Christians have on certain issues, where we cannot see how culturally driven our thinking is, even though we are convinced we are just following the Bible.
These are some things those of us who are leaders should keep in mind as we minister in this election year. When we wear our ministerial hat, we are best to stick to broad values and principles, not to specific candidates or legislation. That's more a matter for us as individual Christians. There are exceptions to be sure, but they are far fewer than we are prone to think.
This is one area where we are all too prone to justify hating our neighbor in the name of Christ. But that issue is slam dunk--we are never justified in hating our neighbor, in word or deed.