How Involved Should the Church Be in Politics?

Archpriest Lawrence Farley | 24 September 2021

This last Monday Canada had (or rather “endured”) another federal election. It was called in the midst of a pandemic and at a time when the country was badly divided. Given this, feelings have been running high all over, and the Church is caught in the midst of it. This provokes the question: how involved should the Church be in politics?

Please note the precise form of the question. It is not, “How involved should Christians be in politics?”, but rather, “How involved should the Church as Church be in politics?” The two questions are not identical. And of course by “the Church”, I really mean, “the clergy”, since it is the clergy whose task it is to speak for the Church.

One’s theories about the role of clergy have no relevance here. Regardless of how much the clergy may say, “This is only my personal opinion”, their utterances will inevitably reflect on the Church in the public mind and will be received as the voice of the Church. In a sense the cassock is like a second skin; it cannot really be taken off. Clergy are still clergy in public perception no matter what, and it will be understood that they are speaking for the Church. The only way they can have a private opinion publicly expressed is to speak under another name and hide the fact that they are clergy. I suppose I could express my private opinions in public and it not reflect on the Church if I said I was Lawrence Salinger, a plumber from Ottawa. But then one might ask why the opinion of a plumber from Ottawa should carry more weight than anyone else’s. Clergy usually express their opinions in public precisely because their clerical state is thought to give them more weight.

I suggest that it is emphatically not the Church’s job to pronounce on the political issues of their day, or endorse/ denounce specific candidates, or side with positions in debates. The Church should not pontificate about such matters and say, “All good Christians and people of conscience should vote for Mr. McDonald of the Conservative Party” or “All good Christians and people of conscience should vote for Ms. TacoBell of the Liberal Party”. They should refrain from saying such things as, “No person of integrity could ever support the building of this oil pipeline” or “No person of integrity would ever protest the building of this oil pipeline”.

So then what is the Church’s job in these things?—To train the consciences and minds of its faithful so that they, as individual Christians, may be equipped to deal with these complex matters.

For example, it is the Church’s job to speak on matters of morality, and for the clergy to teach the laity that abortion is murderous, that homosexual activity is sinful, that grinding the face of the helpless and poor provokes divine judgment. These are matters of black and white, and admit of no ambiguity. Laity who have been thus taught by the Church’s clergy are then equipped to begin to wrestle with complex political issues.

And these political issues are indeed complex, and are more gray than they are black and white. This is because a given political issue usually always involves more than one moral issue, and sometimes these different moral issues conflict. When they do, it is not always clear how to disentangle them or decide which moral issue should be given decisive weight.

Let me give an entirely fictitious example. The Happy Rhinoceros Party of Canada is running for office with a platform that says it favours claiming some land from an Indian Reserve, minimally recompensing the people who will be ejected from their homes, and building a new housing facility on the land that will house and provide a new start for 5000 homeless people. Should a good Christian or a person of conscience support this and vote for the Happy Rhinoceros Party or not?

On the one hand, grabbing land belonging to someone else is bad. On the other hand, recompensing them for it is good. On the other hand, recompensing them minimally is bad. On the other hand, helping the homeless is good. My point in this (admittedly absurd) example is that a political issue can involve a number of conflicting moral issues. Not taking people’s land is a black and white issue, as is helping the homeless. But though the various individual moral issues involved are clear and indeed matters of black and white, the political issue combines them in such a way that is not so black and white. That is why good Christians and people of conscience might be found on both sides of the political issue.

It is the task of the clergy to pontificate and preach on the individual moral issues. It is the task of the laity to strive with the complex political issues and decide which stand they should take and how they will vote. Clergy of course also decide and vote. But they do so privately in the voting booth, and should not make their private political conclusions a part of their public preaching. Christians as individuals should be intimately involved in politics and political discussions. The Church as Church should stay clear.

I admit that it is all very difficult, and that it is tempting for us clergy to step into the pulpit and thunder, “No person of integrity could ever vote for the Happy Rhinoceros Party with its immoral theft of land from the already oppressed indigenous people.” Or perhaps, “Every person of integrity will vote for the Happy Rhinoceros Party and give a helping hand to the downtrodden poor who desperately need a place to stay and get out of the rain.”

Especially during these divided days when feelings (and tempers) are running high, it is easy for us clergy to combine the timeless Gospel with the challenges of the current crisis, and think that we are preaching the Gospel when we are in fact simply picking a side in a complex debate. It is easy for us to believe that part of our task as clergy is to call our country back to God, as if each of us were the prophet Jeremiah. Let us remember that: 1. We are not Jeremiah, and that 2. Jeremiah functioned in a nation which was under solemn covenant with God in a way that no other nation was or is.

It is sadly true that Canada, America, and the West generally are immorally departing from God and are going down the tubes. But it is not the Church’s job to prevent that. It is the Church’s job to say to the world, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel”. The job of trying to impede the West’s slide into secularism belongs to individual Christians, not to the Church as Church.

This does not mean that the Church as Church should not address moral issues in society. The Church may still declare to the State that abortion is murderous, that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that racial discrimination is sinful and wrong. These issues are clear, simple, and unambiguous, unlike many political issues. These are moral issues, not political ones, even though they have political ramifications, and the Church should not shrink from speaking to society about them. A moral issue is not the same as a political one.

If the Church as Church forgets this crucial distinction and commits itself to one side of a political debate, the cost will be very high. While we clergy are thundering away and imagining that we are doing our bit to resist the slide into secularism, we will feel really good about it. The feeling of being righteous (and especially of being persecuted for being righteous) gives a certain emotional rush. Like all chemical reactions in the brain, it can be very addictive, which is perhaps why there is so much virtue-signaling in our society. But the bill eventually comes due, as history tells us. Usually when the Church as Church has committed itself to one side of a political issue the long-term results are not good. We pay for such political involvement in the coin of credibility, and it’s not like we have any credibility to spare. (Thus the Anglican Church was once famously derided as being nothing more than “the Conservative Party at prayer”.) We cannot afford such a tax on our credibility. We do not want future generations to say, “Why should I believe anything the Church says? They were in bed with the Happy Rhinoceros Party in the election of 2021.”

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