There’s been much ado lately over the injection of presidential politics into the religious square. Contentious sermons by reverends Jeremiah Wright, John Hagee and Fr. Michael Pfleger have catapulted what is typical church fodder for many evangelical and black churches onto editorial pages, blogs and 24-hour cable news coverage.
The issue is heated, often pitting the religious against the non-religious, denomination against denomination, church against church and even congregant against congregant. While many Americans consider the merger of politics and religion to be a corruption of the sacred relationship between pastor and parishioner, not to mention a violation of rules governing the church’s tax-exempt status, many others believe it’s the pastor’s obligation to speak truth to power-tax-exemption and separation of Church and State be damned! After all, Hagee’s Cornerstone Church, Wright’s Trinity United Church and Pfleger’s St. Sabina Church boast memberships of 19,000, 8,000 and 2,000 respectively.
Democrats, largely due to black America’s adamant devotion to the party, have long exploited the storied tradition of social activism in the black church-not to mention the church’s blind and unwavering trust in the pastor. Year after year, like clockwork, come election season comes a parade of politicians, often stomping their feet and clapping their hands in rhythm-less fashion. However, Republicans have more effectively harnessed the conservative leanings of evangelicals into national movements that sweep them into office and their agendas to the forefront (e.g. the 1994 Republican revolution, the 2004 Defense of Marriage Act and conservative judges).
I’m not quite sure how the black church’s loyalty has been reciprocated, but I digress.
Preachers and politicians are kindred spirits. While politicians are moved by polls, the preacher is moved by roaring “Amens.” Both have a peculiar affection for money, as neither believes their mission is possible without it. Both often outstay their usefulness. Both tend to scapegoat. For the politician, blame the opposing party. For the preacher, blame the devil. Like politicians, preachers are failing miserably to live up to the dynamic leaders of the calling’s past.
Reverends Billy Graham and Martin L. King Jr. altered the course of America’s destiny by challenging both government and citizen. Graham served as confidant to numerous presidents, earning the unofficial title of “America’s Pastor.”
If Graham is America’s pastor, King is the conscience.
Both knew that it’s easy to speak truth to power when power isn’t listening; it’s another thing altogether when it is. Courage and conviction are required, but courage and conviction without wisdom and tact can be disastrous.
Consider this timely excerpt from a speech delivered by King to Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in 1967. It’s hard to argue that when wisdom and tact is exercised, the pulpit is no place for politics:
“If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.”