It isn’t unusual for some readers to respond to my columns saying, as one did recently, “A man of the cloth should stay out of politics.” That advice is most often not cause-neutral but reserved for clergy expressing a political opinion with which the speaker disagrees.
Pew Research recently looked at the intersection of faith and politics in the public arena, concluding that while most Americans feel churches shouldn’t endorse candidates, 49% believe “churches should express their views on political and social questions.” The number was higher among Republicans than Democrats (59% versus 42%).
Interestingly, those claiming no religious affiliation tended to oppose clergy involvement in political and social issues. Those identified with a religion are “more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion.”
Admittedly, the poll shows a deep division on the question with 49% supporting clergy involvement and 48% opposed. When you drill down into the data, discoveries become even more interesting.
Sixty-six percent of white Evangelical Christians expressed support for churches speaking out publicly on political issues. That number has increased from 56% who felt that way when polled just four years earlier. The Conservative Republicans of Wyoming is an example. CROW unabashedly demands candidates support a religious-political agenda with founding principals that include acknowledging “the sovereign nature of God,” and the “Judeo-Christian understanding of human nature.”
Comparatively, 58% of mainline Protestants favor church political involvement, as do half the Catholics. The numbers reverse when the “none-of-the-above” crowd responds. Nearly two-thirds of those with no religious affiliation say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.
All of that caused me to wonder about what such a poll might have looked like in other times. Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” to white clergy who opposed his political activities. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” By urging King to refrain from political action, the white clergy were themselves taking political action.
One might guess that at that time in history more than two-thirds of religious blacks and less than a third of religious whites would have supported clergy involvement in politics.
Even more poignant might be to exercise the same sort of speculation about the results of such a poll in first century Jerusalem. What if people then had been asked about clergy involvement in politics as that rabble-rousing-rabbi from Nazareth was stirring trouble? What would they have thought about Jesus calling for an end to Roman violence, asking the rich to share with the poor, to treat the downtrodden with dignity, and to free the captives?
Roman citizens, like CROW, so closely confused religion with the state that they wouldn’t have understood the question if polled. But, if the Jews were polled, they’d have found great disparity on the question among the faithful.
“Ethics of the Fathers” is a repository of Jewish wisdom. It admonishes, “Love work, hate being in charge, and remain anonymous when it comes to the government.” Rabban Gamliel urged caution. "Be very careful with government authorities, as it is their habit to be friendly when they need you, and an uncaring stranger when you need them."
Not all agreed. According to learned Jewish friends, the Sadducees were the politico-economic elite mostly aligned with Rome. Pharisees, while opposed to Roman rule, were pragmatists who didn’t want to give Romans a pretext for crucifying more Jews. Most would have steered clear of political controversies.
There was one decidedly non-scientific poll on point. Pontius Pilate asked, “Whom should I release? Barabbas or Jesus?” Scripture informs us a large majority of respondents supported releasing the murderer and crucifying the politically offensive rabbi.
It’s uncertain what was learned from that poll. The lesson was either “be willing to sacrifice for your beliefs” or “steer clear of politics.”