Last week I asked my Facebook friends: “Are you a signed-up member of a political party? If so why? I’m thinking about it…” There were over 70 comments which is a lot for one of my Facebook status updates. I have found the engagement interesting so share some of the ideas here.
My initial question wasn’t intended to be about pastors and politics, but that was one of the dominant themes that emerged – probably because a lot of my Facebook friends are pastors. A few main themes emerged, and I outline them below.
Setting the scene
In New Zealand we have an election near the end of this year, and in our mixed-member proportional representation system, it is common for the two major political parties to form coalitions with minor parties and this adds significance to voting for minor parties that the previous first-past-the-post system never had. Politicking has begun and the New Zealand media is full of it.
Pastors shouldn’t join political parties
Some people articulated something of a conflict of interest. Jemma, a pastor who was once a party member but now isn’t said:
…it felt like being a member of a party could get in the way of creative and open conversations about politics.
Another pastor, Stu, who isn’t a party member commented:
…it now feels tricky to join as a pastor – yet my political ideals are visible at times in my preaching. Something to do with some bloke named Jesus.
Dale, another pastor said:
It’s a case (for me) of the tension between mission-in-the-world and fellowship-in-the-church? On one hand, we’d surely have to say that *some* kind of political activism is necessary to following Jesus – on the other, if a church leader/pastor clearly weds himself/herself to one particular party, it could (at best) challenge or (at worst) alienate some in the church community??
If the point is the portraying of allegiances, pastors do this all the time, for example, if a pastor decides to buy more than one house, that could be seen as making an implicit statement about capitalism, or if a pastor decides not to eat meat, that could be seen as making an implicit statement about environmentalism.
Joining a political party is an explicit way of showing an allegiance.
Pastors should join political parties
Paul, someone who used to be a pastor, and is currently a member of a political party, said:
I maintain that, since we live in a parliamentary democracy, that active involvement is one of the best ways to foment societal change.
Lyall, a pastor and previous-but-not-now political party member offered the following positive view of party membership:
Being a member of a party is the best place to influence the future of a country. You get to debate policies before they happen. In your town or electorate you may be one of just twenty or thirty people debating a policy – you have a far greater influence than signing a petition or writing a letter or phoning your MP. And your influence in your room of twenty or thirty may become a remit that get’s tabled at the national conference, that may become the policy of that party that may become the law of the land.
A New Zealand pastor/politician example
Chris offered the example of J K Archer (1865-1949) who was a Baptist pastor, who also had a turn at being the President of the Baptist Union, and the Secretary of the NZ Baptist Missionary Society. He was a Labour Activist and Politician, including being the President of the Labour Party, a member of the Legislative Council, and Mayor of Christchurch. Looking at his biography in the Digital Baptist it shows overlap with all of these different contexts, J K Archer:
…was one of the most radical Baptist leaders. His powerful [Baptist] Presidential address of 1918 is a classic statement of religious political activism. A vigorous, even aggressive debater, he was never long out of public controversy. He nevertheless maintained his involvement in denominational affairs throughout his career and won the respect even of conservative Baptists.
Paul, in describing some of Archer’s “Kingdom of God” focussed achievements in Christchurch said:
There were no major riots during the Depression due to his Coal & Blankets Fund, which we now call the Mayors Welfare Fund. Archer also, from what I can tell, championed wastewater reticulation in working class areas that lacked it, a vital public health measure. He also worked for full employment and created relief paid work schemes.
Gustafson, in Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, states:
To Archer there was no conflict between his political and religious activities; both were the same sacred vocation.
Articulating the tension through theological reflection
Mark, a pastor-in-training, articulated some tensions around politics and being Christian:
The tensions I wonder about aren’t in the first instance to do with particular political affiliations & policy preferences. Rather, following folks like Stanley Hauerwas, the tension I wonder about is a distinction between political realities which might (might – I’m thinking aloud) be exacerbated by political affiliation. In the paraphrased language of Hauerwas, “Jesus does not just affect politics, because Jesus is a politics”. I take that to mean at least in part that Jesus creates a new political order; a reordered politics which revolves totally around him. So it is not just a case of: “does the fact of Jesus mean I should vote left or right?” – rather: “Am I pledged to the Lordship of Jesus, or the Lordship of New Zealand democracy?”
This adds to the issue of allegiance already mentioned.
There was more and varied theological reflection in the Facebook comments along lines of biblical interpretation to do with the “Kingdom of God”, Creation, and eschatology (end times). To keep this post focused I am letting those comments rest for now.
A no-vote option for pastors
One pastor, Robyn, made the following point which totally removes the question of party membership or not:
Last election I chose not to vote because as a pastor I wanted to be able to converse with people of all different political persuasions on different issues from a faith point of view. Not coming from a particular political standpoint helped me to be an impartial observer and supporter. I felt that’s what God wanted me to be.
I sometimes feel frustrated when people are disinterested in the country’s politics. When I talk to people I try to encourage engagement that brings an awareness that allows them to make an educated vote. I usually say:
I don’t mind who you vote for as long as it’s an educated vote.
I sometimes add:
I hope your vote will consider the bigger picture and not just yourself.
As a pastor I am therefore encouraging engagement rather than any particular political persuasion, and as Jemma commented:
I think anyone who knows me would have a fair idea of where my political sympathies lie.
I suspect the same for people who know me.
Opinions are thorough and mixed
Being a political party member could model fuller participation, and political involvement as a pastor also has the potential for abuse of power.
I would never explicitly promote one political party from the pulpit. However, in conversation about different topics of concern, such as child poverty, I might find it useful and interesting to compare a range of policies from different parties that impact child poverty.
What do you think about pastors and politics?
Do you have any stories to tell?
Are you a member of a political party and church leader?
All Facebook quotes and names used with permission.
Images: Facebook screenshot, Mike Crudge. J K Archer, from the Digital Baptist.