The principle known as “separation of church and state” enjoys regular attention in American political discourse. The phrase has been in the public square since 1802, when Thomas Jefferson enshrined the phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Conn., praising the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment restrictions on the federal government. The historic amendment blocks government authorities from making any law that establishes a state approved religion or impedes the free exercise of religion by any citizen.
Although the constitutional constraints technically apply to the government, it is common for Americans to understand the separation of church and state as a double-edged sword.
Thus, governmental institutions should not meddle in the establishment or exercise of religion, and religious institutions should not meddle in the establishment or exercise of governmental affairs.
The idea is so pervasive that 87 percent of Protestant church leaders said they believe pastors should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit, according to a 2012 survey conducted by LifeWay Research. Only 44 percent said they have personally endorsed candidates for public office, even outside their official church role.
Protestant pastors, by and large, seem to agree that church and state should keep a healthy distance. That consensus may be deteriorating, though, at least in terms of public perception.
Rafael Cruz, ordained minister and father of U.S. presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz, said in a recent radio interview with Breitbart News Daily, “Christians have been lied to and have believed the lies, have been drinking the Kool-Aid for too long with things like so-called separation of church and state, which of course is neither in the Constitution nor in the [Declaration of Independence].”
He added, “too many pastors across America for too long have been hiding behind the pulpit because of fear, fear of losing their tax exemption.”
Rit Varriale, pastor of Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby, seems to agree with Cruz’s sentiment. He contended in a recent guest column for the Biblical Recorder that modern political ideologies should not be imposed on the Bible.
Varriale made his case in response to a post by Chris Hefner, senior pastor of Wilkesboro Baptist Church, who said preaching the gospel and planting churches must take precedence over political action, referring to the example set by the Apostle Paul and other early Christian missionaries.
“Applying the modern notion of separation of church and state to the early church, and subsequently interpreting the Bible as if the apostles approached politics as we do, is a mistake,” said Varriale. “In the apostles’ world, there was no separation of religion and state.”
He believes pastors should lead with love, but they should not be afraid to mix religion and politics in their preaching.
If the past is any indication, the topic of separation of church and state will remain prominent in public dialogue for the foreseeable future, especially as it relates to politics in the pulpit.
The Biblical Recorder wants our readers to know what North Carolina Baptist pastors think about the issues. So, we asked a few to give us their response to this question: Do you intend to endorse any political candidates in your preaching or some other ministry platform? Why or why not?
Here are their answers:
Joel Stephens, pastor,
Westfield Baptist Church, Westfield
I do not endorse any political candidates in any official pastoral capacity.
Pastors hold a sacred trust from the Lord. We are called to “preach the Word” and “rightly divide the Word of Truth.” No pastor can fulfill this God-given responsibility while side-stepping the ethical issues that face modern society. Our mission is to “make disciples,” which includes “teaching [believers] to observe all the things [Jesus] commanded.”
In the realm of political action, this means teaching believers the biblical, timeless principles expressed in the scripture and assisting them in applying those timeless principles to the issues we face today.
Believers should not shrink from, but rather engage these issues with tenacious, yet loving conviction in the marketplace as well as in the voting booth.
But pastors must beware of the temptation to use the platform of the pastorate to cast our influence into areas that are not within the bounds of our responsibility. Officially endorsing a political candidate crosses that boundary, in my opinion.
A Spirit-filled, biblically-discipled believer should not have to be told who to vote for. Certainly, pastors can and should give their congregation the tools to make that decision: an explanation of the issues, a biblical response to those issues and resources that explain where each candidate stands on those issues.
At that point, in my view, a pastor that has done so has “equipped the saints” for their civic duty. Those believers are then responsible for what they do with this knowledge – “To whom much is given, much is required.”
This can be a thin line upon which pastors are called to dance at times. My dance step goes like this: “As your pastor, my job is to equip you to cast your vote in a way that would please King Jesus. I will not tell you who to vote for by name. But, it is your Christian responsibility to vote for the candidate that most closely affirms the teachings of King Jesus. However, if you’d like my personal opinion, ask me in private. I’ll be glad to tell you who I plan to vote for and why.”
Jake Thornhill, senior pastor,
Life Community Church, Jamestown
I have endorsed political candidates in times past and will do so again as the Lord leads. We’ve created a culture that says the pulpit is not for politics, but we fail to understand the issues we’re dealing with today are not political but biblical issues.
The Bible is very clear about such issues as debt, money management, abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I believe separation of church and state was never intended to keep the church out of the government but to keep the government out of the church.
I strongly believe we have the responsibility to educate our people concerning the issues of our day and endorse those who embrace biblical values and morals. Adrian Rogers once said, “It is inconceivable that God would ordain government and then ask His people to stay out of it.”
These are dark and difficult days and we are to expose the darkness with our voice and our vote.
Michael Waters, pastor,
Parkwood Baptist Church, Concord
I believe the separation of church and state was intended to restrict the government’s rule and keep their power out of the church. Yet, that does not mean the church should not or cannot influence the conscience of the state.
The direct question of endorsement, however, is more complex. As a pastor, I should never back down from an issue which the Bible addresses. I should teach my congregation to discern biblically. If I teach them how to discern, then I don’t have to “endorse” a specific candidate.
When our hearts are aligned with God’s Word and God’s values, we will in turn support a candidate that reflects the bigger picture and needs of our country. As a Christian and an American citizen, I have a right to express my concern when I think the country continues to deviate from its founding principles.
At our church we have formed a cultural impact team that is lay-led and designed to bring awareness and educate folks on the issues our nation faces.
My first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, my second is to my country. Paul’s Roman citizenship was important to him and helped him in some cases (Acts 22:22-23:11), but Paul also reminded the church at Philippi that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). I tell my folks often to think and discern by looking through the lens of scripture. Vote the values that God supports, but don’t expect an elephant or a donkey to fix the problems we face. Our only hope is trusting in the “Lamb.”