During the past presidential election, Russell Moore had a strong conviction: Evangelicals could not vote for Donald Trump. Moore used his role as the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention as a platform to promote this cause. Moore interviewed on Sunday morning national news shows. He tweeted his opinion about then-nominee Donald Trump relentlessly. He wrote an editorial for the New York Times saying Trump had “cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.”
In response to Moore’s stance, several prominent Southern Baptist churches withdrew their funding from the SBC and at one point Moore’s job seemed in jeopardy. The SBC has since affirmed their support for Moore who has also apologized if not for his opinions, then for the divisiveness with which he shared them; however, Moore’s stance is the perfect example of an age-old truth: For many, church and politics (especially ones they disagree with) don’t mix.
An article recently published by The Independent seems to confirm this premise. According to the survey, between September and November 2016, 14 percent of respondents left the church they had been attending. The survey indicated the shift seemed to have a connection to the strength of the churchgoers’ political convictions and their perception of their clergy’s convictions. Unsurprisingly, the more a member felt their pastor disagreed with their views, the less likely they were to stay (the above graph specifically charts the patterns of evangelicals). The easy assumption to make is that the increasingly divisive 2016 election is reflected in this data.
But that’s not necessarily the case.
2016 ELECTION: SAME SONG, DIFFERENT VERSE
The survey’s findings line up closely with previous surveys taken over the past 20 years. What this means is that though this election feels more polarizing, the effect on the church is nothing new. Truth be told, politics has always been a divisive element in church history. The existence of the Church of England (and thus the Anglican/Episcopal) church was born out of a political dispute. The early American colonies (pre-Revolution) were often founded by splintered denominational groups founding a community that could govern itself with its own political preferences.
For many pastors, this has led to a decision to largely ignore politics from the pulpit. Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren has often discussed his unwillingness to get into political discussions due to their tendency to distract from the message of Jesus. Much of the American non-denominational church movement has followed suit, with several surveys suggesting the majority of pastors and parishioners don’t want to see political endorsements at church.
WHAT THE CHURCH WANTS VS. WHAT THE CHURCH NEEDS
The question is whether or not pastors—regardless of preference or controversy—have a duty to speak out on political issues. First Baptist Church in Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress publicly campaigned for Trump, and Harvest Praise & Worship Center Pastor Mark Burns was, for a time at least, one of Trump’s most vocal cheerleaders. Many evangelical church pastors have spoken out on abortion and gay rights issues during church services for decades. More recently, prominent evangelical voices have voiced opposition to the refugee ban.
While previous election years’ statistics show the fallout from political pastors has remained constant, it does feel as though more pastors feel the pressure to say something from the pulpit. Whether it was commenting on Hillary Clinton’s voting record or Trump’s leaked audio clip in which he jokes about sexual assault, pastors have increasingly felt themselves pulled into the fray.
Ultimately pastors and their leadership teams have to seek God’s guidance for their own communities. At least part of the solution is to remember that, even when strongly convicted, it’s acceptable at times for followers of Jesus to disagree.