The Rock and the Hard Place: Pastors and Politics


The White House recently released its budget plans. I looked over articles that summarized the plans from several of the least biased sources I could find (AP, Reuters, etc.). Essentially, large increases in defense spending are paired with pretty massive cuts to programs that feed the poor, protect the environment, educate kids and care for those who are on the margins of society. I saw potential cuts to Meals on Wheels, reductions in helping the poor with heating bills, elimination of housing programs that keep a roof over the heads of those in need, and cessation of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes and groundwater, just to name a few. With all that in view, I realized that I was between a rock and hard place, as they say.

On the one side, there are the voices that, as a pastor, tell me all this is none of my business. These voices are often anonymous, but they are real. These voices are concerned that saying anything that might offend someone’s political commitments is too big a risk. That making someone mad, or perhaps, not making everyone happy is a detriment to a congregation’s unity.  These voices believe that the “separation of church and state” means that the church should not have an opinion on such things; that matters of faith are singularly private and never public. I get that. I hear those voices and understand them. To listen to these voices means that I keep my pastoral and theological mouth shut about injustice and a lack of compassion in a federal budget; that I do not speak for those who will suffer. It is certainly the easier path. But then I wonder, who will speak a word about what God might think about something that impacts creature and creation so deeply?

On the other side are voices that remind me that the kingdom of God is, in fact, a present reality that addresses every aspect of life – including economics and politics; that the reign of God is a very public matter, even as it has profound personal meaning. For a pastor, these voices include Jesus telling us we must address the needs of “the least of these;” prophets condemning the government for neglecting the widow, orphan and alien while they make war and get right; saints of every age who spoke – and died – calling for justice, peace, compassion; voices like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero. There are also the voices that rise from governing documents that tell the pastor to speak for these things and the people affected, and ordination vows that make it a solemn, sacred promise. To listen to these voices means I keep promises I have made; that I assert that God has an opinion about federal budgets that make the poor poorer, the hungry hungrier, the planet victimized. It also seems to be the harder, riskier path.

You can say that my reading of this matter (and all others) is shaped by my own personal agenda. While I spend a lot of time trying to make it about God, my thoughts are ultimately my own (which means no one has to listen to me). However, my reading of the matter as a pastor works not to be centered in the liberal philosophy of Noam Chomskey or the progressive politics of FDR, JFK, or LBJ; it is not to be informed by the individualism and social Darwinism of Ayn Rand or the conservatism of Reagan. These voices, to the extent possible, have to be constantly pushed to the background so that the voice of scripture, Church, saints, ultimately, of Jesus take the center. I believe all of the philosophies and politics mentioned are, at best, misguided and often, just terribly wrong. Progressive notions that humanity can fix every ill and end every suffering is nonsense. Conservative notions about an unrestrained world where individuals all thrive if they are free and accountable enough is equally flawed. God’s future is the only future.

Most of us pastors sit between a rock and a hard place, pinched between the rock of what is popular and practical (and safe) and the hard place of promises made and theological commitments shaped by what we believe are about God – a God who has everything to do with this world and today. It is a place we all knew would exist when we signed on. It is the place of the cross.

So, what is a pastor to do when stuck between a rock and a hard place? Any suggestions?

© 2017 Timothy V. Olson, all rights reserved


4 thoughts on “The Rock and the Hard Place: Pastors and Politics

  1. Jean Barrington

    It IS a rock and a hard place for pastors, isn’t it? I believe that all what we can do as pastors/preachers is to stand in the middle of that hard place and preach the Gospel, inviting folks to apply that gospel to all aspects of their lives, including the political aspect. My questions in light of the gospel were always; How, after much prayer and discussion and deliberation, do we best love our neighbors, especially the last, lost, least and little? How will we explain our action or inaction when we sit with Jesus? As pastor, I can’t answer those questions. I can only hold up the Gospel and help individuals search for answers through prayer and scripture.

  2. Gary Schmidt

    Any pastor has the right to their personal opinion. They are voters too. I think about Bonhoffer and his tangle with Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany. Maybe if more
    German pastors would have spoken up sooner and saw what was coming something could have been done about the Nazi regime. My paternal great grandmother’s family has a brass candelabra which was give to their church in Apelern-Schaumburg Germany. It was taken down and hidden (I think buried) until the Nazis were elininated. the Nazis would have confiscated it and it would have become bullets with which to kill people. Nazis were bad people. I think it is the responsibility of every Christian pastor to defend the gospel and say what they feel is right. It is our responsibility as fellow Christians to respect and love pastors even though we may not share the same political philosphy. Keep voicing your opinion pastor Tim. It is your right to do so.

  3. Janet

    Continue preaching on the gospels that we are the keepers of this great planet and that we are to love one another as Christ loved us. That means loving everyone and taking care “of the least of these. Everyone should see The Shack. It shows God doesn’t have favorites anymore than parents do.

    Loved the article.

  4. Ray W

    Thanks for sending. We all should speak up whether pastor or lay person. We need to defend the rights of all mankind, especially as part of God’s kingdom on earth. We are our brother’s keeper. Don’t hesitate to speak up .
    Too often we let the leaders go about their ways in the wrong direction. Helping tske care of man is just cause and I think directed by our maker.

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