Politics and the pulpit have always been a volatile combination. Ever since America’s founders decided that the church and state were to remain separate entities, leaders of all faiths and denominations have had to balance the temporary battles of American democracy with the eternal guidance found in their sacred texts.
The 2016 election was exceptional in many respects, not least because of the debate it stirred within the evangelical community. A group that had been more or less united for decades saw some high-level dissension, but on Election Day exit polls suggested that over 80 percent of evangelical Christians ultimately came together and voted for Donald Trump.
At Brownwood’s First Baptist Church, senior pastor Dr. Rodney McGlothlin acknowledged the “intensifying” politics that 2016 revealed. But McGlothlin said he avoids talking about partisan politics during his sermons because his primary responsibility is to take a Biblical view of issues rather than a worldly one. “Partisan politics, whether it’s Democrat, Republican or independent, is a human view of how to go about being an empire, or being a nation,” McGlothlin said. “I don’t think Jesus, in scripture, expressed much confidence whatsoever in the kingdoms of man.
“Our concern is about something bigger than a particular vision of what it means to be American, but rather instead what it means to be a follower of Jesus,” he said.
At First Baptist Church in Bangs, Dr. Pepper Dill said he saw a good deal of angst and frustration in 2016. “I don’t mean to use a broad brush to describe everybody,” Dill said, “but kind of an overarching consensus and feeling was, things are not right.”
Dill said the “waves of change” that accelerated during the Obama presidency alarmed many Christians and contributed to this feeling. “Having said that,” he said, “I am as surprised as anybody else that Mr. Trump got the nomination and was elected. I would also say, I don’t think anybody … thinks politics is going to be the answer for our country or the world.
“To put hope in an election period or a political shift as an answer for what ails the heart of people would be wrong,” Dill said. “That’s not going to change people’s hearts.” Dill said this reality doesn’t preclude Christians from taking a stand on important issues, like the sanctity of life. Rather, he said, it simply means acknowledging that no political party will ever be completely reflective of Biblical leadership. “I talk more about issues,” Dill said. “I really don’t advance a party or a candidate — not that candidates’ names don’t come up — but at best, it doesn’t really matter who the candidates are. We’re all flawed people.”
Tim Skaggs, the lead pastor at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church, said he also tries to avoid partisan politics, though he does encourage his congregation to vote and to vote based on Biblical principles. “Essentially, my role as pastor is to be a spiritual leader and not a political leader,” Skaggs said. “I want to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday more than anything else. If their heart gets right, then their politics is going to get right. If their heart gets right, then they’re going to be a better everything.”
In the months leading up to the election, Brownwood’s House of Prayer church on Belle Plain displayed a Trump campaign sign under its marquee. Skaggs said his congregation could never so publicly endorse a particular candidate. “I would not do that,” Skaggs said. “Again, part of the reason is because I feel like the church’s main job is to see people come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and disciple them to be more like Christ. That’s our commission, to share the Gospel and make disciples. And nowhere in there … says that my job is to get involved politically.
“That doesn’t mean I will not speak to issues,” Skaggs said. “I’ll speak to issues from a Biblical standpoint, such as sanctity of human life.”
Skaggs gave the recent Trump administration travel ban as an example. “Sunday I just said, hey, I think there are extreme views on either end of this,” he said. “We certainly need to be protected, and any president swears to protect us against foreign and domestic enemies when they take the oath of office. So there’s an element of, we need to protect ourselves from terror. There’s also an element of, we have some refugees who are unbelievably needy right now, and we need to pray for them.
“We need to tell them about Jesus, and we can do that better if they’re over here,” he said.
McGlothlin said that he doesn’t alter his sermons in differing political climates. The bigger issue, he said, is being aware of how his sermons will be interpreted. “Sometimes, because of things that are going on in society and culture, people hear you out of a particular context or worldview,” McGlothlin said. “Let’s say you comment on marital fidelity during the Bill Clinton years. That’s a subject we preach about all the time, but someone hears that and thinks that he’s dogging on the Democrats.
“Or if you preach a sermon about avoiding consorting with mediums, and this is during the Ronald Reagan days, people hear this as a word against him,” he said. McGlothlin also mentioned immigration as a topic that will draw political parallels. “How is that heard, when this is an issue that I might have preached on for years,” he said, “about the importance of loving our neighbor as ourselves, regardless of how they got here.”
The Southern Baptist Church is still dealing with the consequences of the 2016 election. The president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, took a strong anti-Trump stance during the campaign. Many Baptist leaders considered this position out of synch with their own congregations. Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Plano congregation of about 41,000, even announced this week it will temporarily withhold funds from the SBC over the disagreement.
McGlothlin said that Moore was “certainly swimming against the current of most Baptist thought” during the election and has paid a price for his stance, though he has retained his job so far. “Which, to me, is part of the reason we ought to stay out of partisan politics and the publication of the candidate we’re supporting,” McGlothlin said. “Because I think somehow or other, once the election becomes centered on Rubio or Trump, in the case of Russell Moore, we stop centering it on the question of what Jesus would say to both candidates.”
Skaggs said the public discussion about Baptist values can ultimately be a positive thing — but only if the discourse stays respectful, which is the main problem in an age of social media. “If it gets ugly and nasty, I think it is not helpful,” he said. “Often it does turn to that, and I think it’s destructive, which is why if you were to be on my Facebook page, I don’t comment politically.”
It remains to be seen how big the rift between the SBC and its member churches could ultimately grow, though none of McGlothlin, Dill or Skaggs said they have any intention of withholding funds from it. But at the end of the day, Dill said, the SBC is just a man-made organization that won’t impact his relationship with his congregation, or with God. “Do I think I should quit giving because someone has a different opinion? How are you going to screen all that?” Dill said. “I just don’t see how that’s possible. So what we do is find issues of agreement and commonality, and those are the primary things.
“We have common things about Jesus Christ, and about who He is, who we are and how we should touch the world around us.”