the pulpit and politics

i spent most of the week in the library at smu. i am coming around the last turn on my doctoral project, the first major part of which is due nov. 15. the project centers on the question of pastors preaching on moral, sometimes even controversial, topics in sermons. for the most part, very few pastors in "mainline denominations" do this. their reasons are legion: do not upset parishioners; separate politics from religion; wanting to avoid any potential consequences to their ministry. i understand these concerns, but i have chosen to take the opposite direction in my preaching, especially this election year.

my research this week focused on the social gospel movement in american religious history, roughly 1865-1918. one of its principal leaders was walter rauschenbusch, a baptist minister and seminary professor in new york. during his pastorate at 2nd german baptist church in hell's kitchen in nyc, rauschenbusch witnessed first-hand the suffering of the poor, who had little voice or power in the political process, at work, or in everyday life. while just a few blocks uptown the rich were celebrating "the golden age," pastor rauschenbusch used his pulpit to address issues of justice in the same city. the social gospel movement believed Christians had the moral right and responsibility to speak and act on behalf of all who suffered. the Christian faith was social in nature, not only private (just me and Jesus).

the social gospel addressed several contemporary issues: child labor; rights for women; a fair workday and week; living conditions; the rights of (european) immigrants; safe working environments. it was an attitude that was very positive, believing in the inherent goodness of humankind. as models from the Bible rauschenbusch offered the hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, who spoke on behalf of God, insisting on holiness and righteousness from all, and Jesus, especially as portrayed in the gospel of luke, who came to institute the Kingdom of God in this life. the social gospel lost its momentum during world war I, when horrific suffering undermined its belief in human goodness. the excesses of "the roaring 20's," the great depression, and world war II swept the movement under the rug for decades. it was dismissed as utopian and naive.

nowadays people look back on the social gospel and appreciate the notion of the Church as a vehicle for lasting changes in society. the parallels between 1908 and 2008 are striking. we are dealing with the consequences of excess, not just on wall street or in d.c. but everywhere. just about everyone is over stretched with debt. some of that is a result of predatory lending, but most is our sense of entitlement and greed. the poor continue to suffer, with limited access to healthcare, good jobs, decent places to live. we are more concerned with gas prices than issues of justice in our country, and preachers have a unique position-- and responsibility-- to call folk to repentance and to understand our common relationship with our brothers and sisters.

a couple of weeks ago some preachers took this call to address social/political/moral questions a little too far, openly challenging the irs. preachers are allowed to espouse political views, but churches, or any non-profit 501(c)3, may not openly endorse candidates, or they risk losing their tax-exempt status. these preachers endorsed mccain or obama from their pulpits as a challenge to the system. while i appreciate their courage, this puts the ministry of the churches in danger. it also places preachers in the spotlight, not the poor or the oppressed.

i do not know where the crisis will lead us, with an election a few weeks away and economic reports that are worse every day. the tone of the election has gotten louder and more personal, adding to national anxiety instead of helping to address it. this places churches and their pastors in an extraordinary position to speak to people who are hurting and worried and deliver a message that is challenging and loving at the same time. we have a great model for that in the social gospel. what meaningful changes could we see in our country and world if we reclaim that tradition of optimism and public responsibility?

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