When a Brooklyn Park pastor told his congregation this past Sunday he was supporting Michele Bachmann's presidential bid, it reignited a long, smoldering debate over the political activities of churches.
Federal law says clergy who endorse political candidates from the pulpit can endanger their church's tax-exempt status. Some religious leaders passionately oppose the law, while others strongly support it.
MPR's Cathy Wurzer invited two pastors to debate the issue on Morning Edition this week, as part of the series One on One.
Greg Boyd, senior pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul and author of "The Myth of a Christian Nation," supports the law. Brad Brandon, senior pastor of Berean Bible Baptist Church in Hastings, opposes it.
An edited transcript is below. And click here to read more pastors' opinions from MPR's Public Insight Network.
Cathy Wurzer: Pastor Brandon, I'll start with you. I recall last year during the political campaign, you endorsed some political candidates, including Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tom Emmer, from the pulpit.
Pastor Brad Brandon: I did.
Wurzer: And at the time you said you were hoping someone would file a complaint against you.
Brandon: I was hoping, yes, I was.
“Everything Jesus did had an impact on the society. He was a revolutionary. It's just that he didn't do it the way Caesar did it, by trying to get control of the laws.”Pastor Greg Boyd
Wurzer: Why is it important for you to take a political stand as a pastor?
Brandon: It's important to me to exercise the freedom that America is known for, and that is the freedom to speak out and criticize. Whether you're conservative or liberal, it makes no difference to me. You should have the freedom as a pastor to be able to speak your mind from behind the pulpit.
Wurzer: Pastor Boyd, why do you think it's appropriate for the federal government to dictate what you can and cannot say from the pulpit?
Pastor Greg Boyd: Well my main reason is really theological. Jesus never did that, and there were plenty of issues in his day. Roman government was ruling over Israel, and politics was a hot topic at the time, and Jesus never weighed in on that, and it's because the kingdom he was bringing was a totally different kingdom. He says my kingdom's not of this world.
I also think that the Bible tells us to submit to governmental authorities, and this is one of the laws that I think that we should obey. If we're going to be receiving tax benefits, then I think we owe it to the people who are paying the taxes not to use the authority of the pulpit to give our own opinions on politics.
Wurzer: Pastor Brandon, Pastor Boyd says he feels there's a theological basis to his stance on the issue. Do you see it that way?
Brandon: Well, I don't because I look at Christ and his teachings. Pastor Boyd claims that Christ never talks about those issues. He does talk about those issues. They asked Jesus Christ about taxation. He says render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. He also says in his prayer, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So certainly there is an aspect to Christ's ministry that was concerned about the things that were happening here on earth. So for Pastor Greg to say that, I completely disagree.
Boyd: That particular example is interesting because they were trying to get him to weigh on the issues. Should we pay taxes? That was one of the main issues that they were debating. So they came to Jesus to try to divide the crowd because whatever position he took, just like today, it would divide the audience.
And so he says, 'Whose face is on this coin?' and it was Caesar's of course, and all Jews regarded that as idolatry to have your graven image on a coin, and so he's really saying there, 'Are we going to really fight about how much of this idolatrous metal we should keep? If it's got his face on it, give it back to him,' which if you took it literally would mean, 'Give all of your money to Caesar.'
But then he makes his point, and he goes, 'but give to God what belongs to God.' And what he's saying there is we bear the image of God, so we owe him our whole self. But Jesus is saying, 'I'm not going to weigh in on this silly issue. Here's what is important. Are you giving to God all that belongs to God?'
“Whether you're conservative or liberal, it makes no difference to me. You should have the freedom as a pastor to be able to speak your mind from behind the pulpit.”Pastor Brad Brandon
Brandon: Churches have been receiving tax benefits for 170 years before the Johnson amendment happened in 1954. I mean so what did we do then? I mean they got involved with political issues.
I'll give you some examples of Christians being involved with political issues. You have the Civil War. Two-thirds of the abolitionists were outspoken pastors, talking about it from their pulpits. You have Martin Luther King, a Baptist pastor who stopped prejudice and racism in government here. He was part of that movement, a good part of that movement. And they're all outspoken members of clergy who are making a difference.
I mean if everybody were like Greg Boyd, then all of a sudden, we'd be like the Christians in Nazi Germany who sat around and did nothing while the Jews were being burned.
Wurzer: Pastor Boyd?
Boyd: I'm not against Christians being political activists, and there's a distinct way that Jesus calls us to be involved in politics. Everything Jesus did had an impact on the society. He was a revolutionary. It's just that he didn't do it the way Caesar did it, by trying to get control of the laws and having superior opinions about what the society should do about abortion or gay rights or taxes or whatever.
He did it by the way he lived, and he called on people to live a distinct way, a countercultural way. And so the way that the kingdom people are to change society is by imitating Jesus, which the Bible tells us to do, and living a self-sacrificial life. I think we should keep the kingdom of God distinct.
Brandon: Well, I don't know what fantasy world that you live in, but most Christians that I know live in the world here and the kingdom is to come, and we've got issues to deal with here, Greg, and we're supposed to stand for righteousness.
Brandon: We're called to do that, to be the salt of the earth, and that's on a whole gamut of issues, including the kingdom and this world here.
Wurzer: Pastor Boyd?
Boyd: Why would you want to endorse? I don't get it. Why do you want to endorse particular politicians from the pulpit? ... My dad, he became a Christian at the age of 73, after we had this series of dialogues and led him to the Lord.
Brandon: I'm glad to hear that.
Boyd: He was a liberal, liberal Democrat until the day he died, and he was real passionate about that. Aren't you concerned that you would, by endorsing Republican candidates or any candidate, drive away from Christ people who would disagree with your political opinions? Why put a political obstacle to people coming to Christ?
Brandon: The Bible says that when the righteous rule, the people rejoice, and when the wicked rule, the people mourn. We are given a great freedom in this country to choose who rules over us. And if I can influence, I'm not imposing my will on anybody else, but I am persuading and I'm called to persuade as a pastor. I'm persuading people to see that there are righteous rulers out there and there are certainly, from both political parties, both political parties, there are--.
Wurzer: Isn't it righteous in the eye of the beholder, too?
Brandon: It could be, but this is what I'm saying. My eye, my pulpit, my church, my congregation, and so I have to do what I feel is right, and I have to say what I think is right. Now again, I think that there are wicked people out there on both sides of the ticket.
Boyd: First, I don't see how you being a Christian, or anyone being a Christian, makes you smarter on politics, but I would see your point if it was as unambiguous as someone being righteous and wicked, but are you really going to say that people who oppose Michele Bachmann or oppose anybody are wicked?
Brandon: I didn't say that ... I simply said that ...
Boyd: Well you said, you quoted the verse, righteous and wicked, so here's the righteous one and here's the wicked one.
Brandon: What I simply said was that there are wicked people out there. And it's my job --.
Boyd: And you're going to tell us who that is?
Brandon: Yeah, I could, from my beliefs.
Boyd: So, 'Here's the righteous candidate and here's the wicked one.'
Brandon: Don't you speak your mind every morning when you get up, every Sunday morning when you get up (to the pulpit)?
Boyd: From the Bible, from Scripture, from kingdom.
Brandon: And I do the same thing.
Pastor Boyd: But my opinions on politics, I don't have any superior insight in that. I'm not wiser that anybody else. I'm not called to be a superior wise politician.
Brandon: Well, then don't stop me from doing something I feel I'm called to do. Why would you do that? I would never stop you from doing something you're called to do. So why would you be in favor of a law that would stop me from doing something I'm called to do?
Boyd: You compromise the beauty of the kingdom that Jesus brought when you invite all the divisive politics of the world into it. And now, to believe in Jesus, well you've got to go with Brad's opinion about this candidate or that candidate because there are some that are wicked and some that are righteous. And I think that's just very, very sad.
Brandon: Greg, this is great then. All we have to do to silence Christians is call an issue a political issue, like marriage or life or how about witnessing to people and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ? Why don't we just make that a political issue, then all the Christians have to be quiet about it?
Pastor Boyd: That strikes me as silly.
(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)