Why are Presbyterians sticking their noses in politics?

Leaders in PC(USA) ministries say involvement in ‘political’ issues is foundational to faith

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — They are questions the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins gets over and over doing his work as the director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness (OPW) on Capitol Hill: Why are Presbyterians getting involved in politics?

Isn’t there separation of church and state?

Shouldn’t you be preaching the gospel?

“We are speaking out following the mandate we have received from Jesus and from Scripture,” Hawkins says. “You cannot read Scripture and not talk about justice. It’s throughout the pages. As a matter of fact, the second book of the Bible, the Book of Exodus, is about deliverance from slavery and how God intervened to set right that which is wrong.

“I think people have a real misperception of what it means to be a person of faith, especially in this American context we’re in. People talk about separation of church and state and think that means there’s no engagement. That’s not what it means. Actually, it’s to protect our rights as people of faith so the government can’t dictate to us what to believe and how we are to do it. But it does not say we cannot be involved.”

Hawkins cites the Johnson Amendment, 1954 legislation introduced by then-Senator, later President Lyndon B. Johnson, which said nonprofit organizations, including churches, could not endorse or oppose political candidates. But that, Hawkins notes, is where it ends. No endorsements, and no financial contributions to or from politicians. (President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2017 attempting to ease restrictions on political speech by churches, but the amendment’s rules remain in place.)

Speaking out on issues, Hawkins and others say, is following the lead of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Christian Brooks (left) and Rev. Jimmie Hawkins spoke to Presbyterian gathering at Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“As we look throughout the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament, we see Jesus talking about how you have some people being greedy and taking advantage of women, taking advantage of the poor and how that wasn’t right,” said the Rev. Christian Brooks, Representative for Domestic Poverty Issues in OPW and co-founder of the Presbyterian Voting Campaign. “As we’re still talking through those issues, we have to talk about the effects of that, the effects of taking advantage of the poor, taking advantage of marginalized communities, which includes things like food insecurity and homelessness. Also, as we are in community with folks we have to speak to the issues that they live with.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE PRESBYTERIAN VOTING CAMPAIGN

“I can’t say that I love my neighbor, I love you, you’re hungry, but I’m not saying anything about the fact that you’re hungry,” Brooks said. “I’m not addressing the root causes of why you’re hungry. I’m not speaking out against the policies that are putting you in the position to be hungry.”

One part of the reason people sometimes don’t understand why Presbyterian leaders speak out on political issues is that mainstream evangelical Christianity in the United States emphasizes a message of personal salvation that some think should be the sole focus of ministry.

“If you claim yourself as a Christian, it’s not just preaching that everybody needs to be saved, and all this other kind of thing this warped American Christianity has done,” says the Rev. Lee Catoe, Managing Editor of Unbound, an online Christian social justice journal produced by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, where Catoe is the associate for Young Adult Social Witness.

 

In addition to his work with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Rev. Lee Catoe (top left) hosts “Just Talk Live,” an online talk show with co-host Destini Hodges (top right) that frequently delves into political issues.

“A lot of times we talk about the birth and the death, and we don’t talk about the life of Jesus for 33 years. The man lived and walked on this Earth and was obviously affected by tyrants that ruled the empire. He saw poverty, experienced it. His family was in some ways refugees that had to flee their land because a tyrant was trying to kill them. The foundation of our faith is God walking with us, and that God was human and talked and walked and did all these things, and that is the foundation of what we believe. It is foundational that these things aren’t ‘political.’”

Of course, they note, religion and politics have been intimately tied since the founding of the United States. Scripture was used both to justify slavery, in error, and in the cause of abolition. Churches were bases of operation in movements from the abolition of slavery through the Civil Rights movement and up to today’s calls for social justice from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other denominations.

But it can be easy to focus solely on personal salvation when you are not facing oppression, the ministry leaders say.

“There is a certain level of privilege in the idea that we shouldn’t be involved in political issues,’” Brooks says. “There is a certain privilege and comfort because the folks who are saying that are not the folks who are fighting to survive and they are not the people experiencing the issues that we are speaking out about.

“When you are not in a position where you have to fight for your survival, you have the option to say, ‘We are not going to engage.’ But when you are faced with engage or die, engage or be hungry, engage or not have anywhere to live, you don’t have an option.”

But there is a difference, the ministers say, between being political and being partisan. The church leaders do not endorse or denounce specific politicians or political parties. They focus on issues. It is up to them and their constituents to decide which leaders best represent their beliefs. And partisanship, they say, can be a trap.

“People can be so partisan they hold onto it when it does not help their situations and does not help their communities,” Catoe says.

Hawkins says he regularly deals with ministers who tell him they have red churches, blue churches or purple churches.

“That’s not your main sense of identity. We’re Christian churches, period,” he says. “All other identities are subject to being a Christian first and foremost. Political identities should not divide us.”

“It’s hard to summon up the inner strength to stand for what you know to be true, but that’s the power of the gospel,” Hawkins said. “That’s what the gospel does for us: It gives us that type of strength, those inner reserves to say, ‘This is what I hear from every facet of life which I live … but I don’t know. I think there’s something else here.”

“God keeps nudging us,” Hawkins said, “to explore different ways of looking at things.”

The Office of Public Witness and Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy are Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.


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