Three Consequences for Pastors Meddling in Politics

As evangelist Billy Graham ages, he has time to think over past regrets.

And there are likely a number of memories that particularly bother him. He was burned when the Watergate scandal broke, as he was particularly close with President Nixon. As he said in an interview a few years ago, one big lesson he’s learned is to keep the lines between church and state clearer: “I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.” Not that Graham necessarily followed his own advice in 2012.

During this recent election, Graham has been quiet. The same cannot be said of his son Franklin Graham, who, alongside his wonderful charitable endeavors, also offered tacit support to Donald Trump by stressing the importance of a conservative Supreme Court. He’s not alone: a whole host of old guard Religious Right leaders—from Dr. James Dobson to Jerry Falwell, Jr.— joined the younger Graham in supporting Trump. This, despite the sage reminder by the elder Graham in 2011.

Even these well-intentioned efforts to take a stand for certain moral principles in the public square often carry with them painful consequences for the church.

1.There is a temptation to excuse the inexcusable. Donald Trump’s past statements and actions might not prove prohibitive for the presidency, but they cannot be white-washed. Trump’s half-hearted apology to the American people rang hollow when his sexist statements and toleration of abusive behavior persist into the present day.

2.There is a temptation to prioritize civil affairs over spiritual ones. While Christians should be actively engaged in the public square, their first and foremost cause is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all who will listen—just like Billy Graham. When common concerns come to the fore rather than common causes, then we begin to obsess over (obviously important) matters like the Supreme Court and resort to hyperbolic generalizations, like “the liberal media,” that tend to antagonize a fellow group of sinners in need of grace.

3.Finally, there is a temptation to let the ends justify the means. While saving the lives of the most vulnerable members of society is incredibly important, it is not the primary end of the Christian life—which is to glorify God in all things (1 Corinthians 10:31). Protecting life and liberty under the reign of a civil government is a worthy, God-glorifying task. Bending over backward to excuse sin from one’s preferred candidate while castigating his opponent does not glorify God. While it could be said that God is partisan on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized, He displays no partisanship in calling sin “sin” nor in saving to the uttermost those who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

Doubtless, a great many Boomers have been profoundly affected by the ministry of the elder Graham and a great many younger evangelicals profoundly affected by the ministry of the younger Graham. Yet, in this past election more than any other, those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior were given reason to believe that truth is really just a means to power, that Christians hang all of their hopes on a president of a country instead of on the creator of the universe.

It confirms suspicions that truth is used by religious leaders as a bludgeon against their political enemies and as a tissue for their political allies. An unambiguous, biblically-faithful Gospel will never be popular in mainstream society, but there is no reason to provide further ammo for cynics to cast aspersions upon such a glorious message. Salvation is not wrought through the Supreme Court, but by the Savior of sinners—Republicans and Democrats alike.

Billy Graham closed that 2011 interview with this powerful reminder: “The central issues of our time aren’t economic or political or social, important as these are. The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ’s forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.”

People are watching us and I’m afraid they’re not seeing spiritual ambassadors, but political ones. The integrity of the Christian church and witness is at stake. Let’s not trade that precious birthright for the porridge of political and cultural influence.