Not all evangelical churches willing to push political agendas
Mike Smith, of Heritage Christian Church, said members attend with the expectation that they’re going to hear about God, not politics.
This is the story of the protest that didn’t happen, the speech not given, the campaign never launched.
As political activity exploded among religious conservatives in recent years, a certain profile of a politically active church emerged:
Such churches and affiliated groups are under the microscope these days for their role in picking a president and possibly Ohio’s next governor.
What’s often lost is the fact that many evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with the increasing intermingling of religion and politics. In reality, a majority even of those churches that fit “the profile” intentionally remain on the political sidelines.
To find out, The Dispatch went to pastors at three central Ohio churches that in many ways mirror those active in politics yet have deliberately steered their churches clear of the partisan political arena.
Interestingly, Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Columbus Vineyard, Jim Leffel, teaching pastor of Xenos Christian Fellowship, and Mike Smith, pastor of spiritual formation at Heritage Christian Church, encourage the 14,000 combined who attend their services to learn about and get involved in politics on an individual level.
But all three draw the line when it comes to partisan campaigning or involving the church as a whole in a political undertaking.
Smith, 40, who has been with Heritage for seven years, said, “When a person comes in and says, ‘Hey, I believe strongly about this, and I want to do something about it,’ The answer is, ‘Great! Do it!’
“The problem is when they want to … use the church as their pulpit.”
Nathan, 50, pastor of the Vineyard since 1987, said, “We think the Gospel has political implications, but it’s not partisan. And we don’t think that either the Republicans or the Democrats have the sole possession of the implications of the Gospel.”
Leffel, 48, who has been with Xenos for 16 years, said, “We’re very concerned that the white evangelical church in America is almost becoming … guilty of adding to the Gospel itself through social identity, namely (the) political right for the most part.”
While these three might speak for a largely silent majority of evangelicals, their stance runs counter to the current trend across America, said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and a national expert on religion and politics.
“The pastors in this story are swimming against the tide of today’s highly polarized politics, which has been sweeping more and more ministers into politics because of issues with a strong moral imperative,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“Many evangelical churches with all the characteristics that point to politics remain apolitical. And it is not an ‘either-or’ phenomenon. Many such churches are ‘just a little political.’ They might do a voterregistration drive once or only get involved in a really big issue, like same-sex marriage or the war.”
Smith said allowing a member to use the church itself to advance a particular political cause, even if it’s one in which leaders believe, amounts to a bait and switch. Those attending are given the expectation that they’re going to hear about God and his word, not a list of things or people they should support or oppose.
Smith said Heritage faced a dilemma a couple of years ago when a member put leaflets on windshields in the church parking lot.
“Everybody came out of church and the assumption automatically is, ‘My church put this on here while I was in church,’ ” he recalled. “It took us awhile to recover from that.”
Nathan also raised the issue of mixed messages.
“We never want to communicate to somebody that comes here that they’ve got to go through two conversions in order to come to Christ,” he said. “We don’t want to have somebody believe that first I must be converted politically from wherever I’m coming from politically, in order to then come through that to Christ.”
Green said such views, a sort of “both Democrats and Republicans need Jesus,” are common among evangelicals who avoid politics.
“This strongly implies that politics is secondary to faith, partly because politics passes away quickly and faith is eternal,” the political-science professor said. “Many clergy with this view actually have strong political views, but they don’t think that politics should matter in the church.”
Leffel pointed to today’s often harsh political battleground as potential source of unnecessary division within the church.
“We are mindful how polarized our culture is on political issues,” he said.
Leffel said he isn’t afraid to challenge church members who go too far.
“Sometimes, there’s the smirky kind of language used against the other side. And when I hear that, I feel constrained to say, ‘That doesn’t really have a place here.’
“Or to characterize (Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted) Strickland as a theological liberal, and demonize in that way. I think that has happened in the broader evangelical church. And when I hear that in my church, I say that’s slander, and it’s wrong.”
All three pastors say they agree with the “pro-life” and “pro-marriage” message of many politically involved churches. But they also see a mandate for other, broader issues that should be dealt with in the public square.
“I think it’s a mistake to have a political perspective that’s reduced to two issues: abortion and homosexuality,” Nathan said.
“You know the Bible goes so far beyond those two issues. I think those are two very significant issues, but in terms of number of verses in the Bible or concerns that we find in the Sermon on the Mount, there’re just so many other concerns. And that also needs to shape the way that evangelicals engage politics.”
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