I’m watching TV a lot less these days, and for one reason. Virtually every broadcast dealing with news and opinion is dominated by the political campaigns leading to the November election. There was a time when the public political debate dealt with ideas, policies, and programs, which made it worth one’s time to tune in, but not this year. Even news casters and commentators whom I have valued in the past find themselves sucked in by the destructive character of the current campaign. My soul is troubled.
That’s why I sympathize—but only in part—with people who hope that in their churches on Sunday mornings they will find respite from politics. Instead of hearing more of the distortions and character assassinations that seem to be the nature of today’s political discourse, they want to be renewed in faith and once again be brought close to the eternal Spirit of Love at the center of the Christian faith.
Some preachers, however, resist this temptation to do the safe thing, which is to leave politics outside and preach only on the sublime truths of religion. Instead, they persist in connecting faith and public life. Here’s how one preacher explains the practice:
Ministers can’t help themselves. It’s an occupational hazard that goes back, not just through American history, but biblical history, too. Clergy feel called to speak the truth to the real situations of the day. You might like the truth. You might not like the truth. But that’s what ministers are called to do. And it doesn’t come from the authority of a church or a council or an employment agreement. It comes from a deeper place of faith. That’s why ministers speak.
This statement comes from a sermon by Scott Colglazier, senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. On the four Sundays of August, while the nation was preparing for the two political conventions, he preached a series of four sermons on the general theme, Politics and God.
The titles are provocative enough: The Separation of Church and State (And Why Every Christian Should Support It); God (And Other Liberals); God (And Other Conservatives); Dear Mr. President: One Letter from One Minister.
The sermons do not disappoint. The preacher speaks forthrightly about the liberal American political tradition in the light of a faith that is rooted in the message that was at the center of Jesus’ ministry:
Think about it… when he gave his first sermon in a Jewish synagogue, he claimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and that he was here to bring good news to the poor. He was here to bring release to the captives. He was here to bring sight to the blind. And he was here to liberate all who were oppressed. And he also said he was here to establish a year of Jubilee, and a year of Jubilee meant a year when old debts would be released and people would finally get out from under the crushing weight of all those student loans!
In his third sermon, Colglazier states his belief that a genuinely conservative quality also belongs to the Christian message.
So, is God a conservative? Well, in a way, the answer is yes. There is a part of God that never changes, like a great mountain that slopes down to the restless sea. God’s love for the broken spirit? That never changes. God’s desire for justice? That never changes. Just as in our democracy, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” should never change.
Although Colglazier draws upon the Bible to support his point of view (especially in the second sermon), he also draws extensively upon the American political tradition, including Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson.
Colglazier does more than proclaim these ideas in a broad, general way. He moves directly into public policy discourse, for example, commenting on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the current debate over health care. It is easy enough to see where the preacher’s personal sympathies lie, but he successfully (as I read and listen to these sermons) avoids taking an explicitly partisan view. There’s no advice about who to vote for or which way to vote on healthcare or banking legislation (or any other issue that confronts the electorate today).
If more preachers were preaching like this, the political discourse on TV might be better. I might even pay attention, once again, to what the politicians and commentators are saying.
Note: Colglazier appends this “personal word” to each of the sermons in this series: “I think it’s safe to say that everything I learned about church and state, politics and God, can be attributed in one way or another to my friend, Dr. Forrest Church, who passed away a few years ago. Simply stated, he is behind every word of this sermon.”
The image of Paul preaching to the city is a detail from a Povey window at First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon.