Pulpits and Politics

Robert Schmidt

Editor’s Note: Robert Schmidt has taught theology and political science at Concordia University in Portland. He has also taught homiletics in the Lutheran Seminary in Nigeria and in the Lay-Assistant Program of the Northwest District, LCMS.

“Should I say something in my sermon?” The political issues and the religious values behind them are going to make 2024 a tough year for pastors. Should the U.S supply bombs to kill kids in Gaza? How restrictive should abortion be?  Must the government separate refugee parents from their children to discourage emigration?  Will Trump destroy democracy? Is climate change real?

Some preachers advocating varieties of Christian nationalism do not have a problem. With righteous conviction a conservative agenda is put forward as the truth to be enforced by the government or possibly, a militia. Nor is there a problem for pastors (Lutheran?) raised in a strict two kingdom tradition who confine themselves to preaching about personal sin, forgiveness, and resurrection. But, on a Saturday night, after being bombarded with political ads, maybe the pastor should at least mention “abortion” with some emphasis and a knowing look. Another cannot help but say that Jesus too was a refugee and wants a more open border.

Two Kingdoms Revisited

What if we looked anew at the tradition of the two kingdoms in the conversation between Jesus and Pilate?  Jesus admits to being a king. That is political. But his Kingdom is not “from” this world (John 18:36). What is the difference? If his Kingdom were of this world his followers would fight. Here the difference is not between the kingdom of grace versus that of the political kingdom; rather, it is between what might be called “soft power versus hard power.” Actually, this distinction does a better job of actually representing Luther’s own actions than how the two-kingdom tradition is often understood. Luther was not silent on political issues. In an example of soft power, he addressed the mayors and aldermen of the German cities and called for the establishment of schools and the training of teachers.[1]

The absolute division between the Kingdom of grace and the Kingdom of power, guided by reason, has led to the acceptance of government atrocities. As a witness to Naziism in Germany and the acquiescence of many German Lutherans to the regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer came out against the two-kingdom tradition. He wrote, “This division of the whole of reality into the sacred and profane, Christian and worldly, sectors creates the possibility of existence in only one of these sectors: for instance, a spiritual existence that takes no part in the worldly existence, and a worldly existence that can make good its autonomy over against the sacred sector.”[2]

At the same time Luther warned about mixing the powers of church and state. He complained that “bishops, instead of governing souls with the Word, ‘rule castles, cities, lands, and people outwardly.’ And the secular authorities . . . wish to exercise a spiritual rule over souls, prescribing the papist faith and trying to root out the Lutheran heresy by force.”[3] Here Luther is separating church and state not in reference to the functions of “grace versus law” but rather the issue of coercion, hard power versus soft power.

Pilate’s Hard Power

Pilate had the power to execute; Rome had the power to wage war and occupy a country.  Hard power works fast. With coercion a state can raise taxes, go to war, aid the poor, govern trade, and close its borders. Because of its power to help or hurt in dramatic fashion, hard power has attracted the most attention. Political spending in the 2020 election totaled $14.4 billion, more than doubling the total cost of the record-breaking 2016 presidential cycle.[4]  Not only does the desire to influence hard power motivate people to contribute vast sums of money, it also has deeply polarized the nation.

Cultural divisions have always been a part of every society. However, when people seek to use the government’s coercive power to enforce their views on abortion, gun ownership, gay marriage, refugees, racial disparities, and war, disagreements poison relationships. Families argue, political parties are divided, churches split, and preachers are afraid to talk about politics.  At the same time, churches that have publicly taken stands for or against issues are usually frustrated by the fact that governments have not fully acted on their concerns. The political action committees of churches are often proud of their efforts but disappointed by the results.

Though hard power is attractive because of its dramatic decisions and quick results, it really rests upon multiple foundations of soft power.  What would a nation be without a functioning economy, education, a sense of community, respect for the law, patriotism, and commonly shared beliefs about morality? Were these to be destroyed or compromised it would be difficult to exercise coercive power. We see this in nations that have experienced revolutions or significant political change.

Jesus’ Soft Power

Why were the Jewish leaders afraid of Jesus? He had attracted thousands in the name of the “Kingdom of God.” From the very beginning of his ministry, he rejected coercive power when he rejected the Devil’s offer of the glory and authority of all the kingdoms of the world. No, his Kingdom would come through the word, scattered like the planter’s seed. At first glance, it seems as useless as last year’s forgotten sermons. But a closer look reveals the word as a fire and a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jer.23:29).

Key to Jesus’ soft power were his words of grief. With pity he tells the leper, “Be made clean” (Mark 1:41). He has compassion for the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd and asks for prayers (Matt. 9:36). Even his words of judgment are filled with grief: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.” (Matt. 23:37-38). Then with tears in his eyes, he tells of the destruction of their city, and their whole way of life (Luke 19:41).

To retain coercive power, rulers of all times need to pretend that everything is in control under their administration. Injustices are excused so that the stability of the system can be maintained. This results in a certain “numbness” in people, making change unlikely, even if it is for a good cause. But grief, especially connected with death and destruction, is the ultimate criticism of hard power. It destroys the pretense of stability.  Commenting on Jesus weeping, Brueggemann writes, ”Jesus knew what we numb ones must always learn again a) that weeping is real because endings are real; and b) that weeping permits newness. His weeping permits the kingdom to come.”[5]

Then the promises of the coming Kingdom come to be realized.  The sick are healed, sinners are forgiven, the hungry are fed, the deaf hear and the blind see. The dead are raised, and a Samaritan is praised. All the old truths are turned upside down. The first shall be last and the last first. A homeless guy is in heaven and a rich man is in torment. Open sinners get more of God’s attention than the righteous folk we admire.  And when the end comes to our present situation, and it will, we will move on seeking to bring an even greater fulfillment of the promises of the Kingdom.

Preaching Soft Power

Christians know beginnings and endings; they live death and resurrection. Personal death is no stranger, so they ought to be open to the death of a culture, even the death of a political regime. In the 2024 election the U.S. is facing the possibility of two societal deaths.  One is the death of the vision that America is a Christian, moral, upright society, relatively homogenous, with the values that have made America great. The other is that America is a democracy of diverse people that guarantees personal freedom, rewards the meritorious, and follows the rule of law. Ultimately, over time, both of these will die, and pastors can help their congregations grieve.

In the face of such devastation pulpits need to preach patience. (The Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years). People also need resilience for the trials ahead, be they from climate, war, or an authoritarian government. When Jesus warned people to flee Jerusalem, he was also advocating adaptability not only that they might survive but also that they might be hospitable to others in trouble. Much of this sounds unbelievable now but in preaching from “crisis texts” the preacher can ask the questions of whether this might happen now.  Many will bow their heads in agreement.

Joseph Nye writes, “Soft power is getting others to want the outcomes that you want.”[6]  Businesspeople find one way to do this is through attraction. An attractive possibility is presented that others naturally want to copy in their behavior. Would we like an administration to do a better job with the homeless? Perhaps a group of churches might show the way inspired by a sermon. In a community with racial tensions might a church invite a speaker from that other race accompanied by praiseworthy advertising?

Soft power is also achieved through co-optive activities. These create the ability to shape the things that other people want.[7] Should the leaders in government be honest, tell the truth, and treat everyone with justice and impartiality? If the majority of the citizens act that way to each other and teach it to their children, they will come to expect and demand that of their leaders. This means for homiletics that the preacher might well speak to the way we treat each other and tie it to the way our leaders should govern.

Nye relates how the religious convictions of the populace can even affect foreign policy.  He writes, “For the past two decades Norway has taken the lead in peace talks in the Philippines, the Balkans, Columbia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East. Norwegians say this grows out of their Norwegian Lutheran Missionary heritage.”[8] This soft power has not only elevated Norwegian influence around the world but has also provided models for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Another aspect of soft power is building consensus. Perhaps nothing is more necessary in a deeply polarized electorate. This becomes even more difficult coming from churches and congregations that must deal with their own divisions. Yet, once again Jesus shows the way. Throughout his ministry Jesus praises the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, and the enemy.  He holds up for admiration the Syrophoenician woman, the harlot, the thankful leper, and the Roman centurion. Might the preacher affirm the attitudes and good deeds of those people his congregation disdains? This calls into question thoughtless prejudice and elevates actions we might all copy. Then it might be followed by the challenge of asking our political leaders to do the same.

Preaching to Hard Power

In the model of Jesus, preaching to soft power comes naturally. It is effective but takes time before we see the beneficial results. More pressing and more controversial is how to preach to hard power. Should a sermon address a war, a climate initiative or a candidate for office? On the legal front should a sermon condemn all abortion, advocate gay marriage, press for gun reform, or deport immigrants? Constant advocacy of a position in sermons or church periodicals can chase away people of the opposing party, some of whom will never return to any church. Yet, there may be times when a crucial issue needs to be addressed because it is truly an emergency that must be resolved.

Perhaps the “triage model” might be appropriate. There are some issues that are very complicated and show signs of being partially resolved. The abortion issue, for example, began with two extreme positions. Yet, as it has worked its way through the courts and state legislatures, some moderation in the positions is being tolerated. Though still a crucial election issue, it may be working itself out. Maybe that issue is on a path for resolving itself and may not require a major pulpit effort.

Then there are causes which, for the time being, seem hopeless. Medically we would say, “the patient will pass away regardless of what we do.” One such issue is the subject of “fair voting.”  Constitutionally, people in small states with two senators have more power than people in large states that also only have two senators. The electoral college has made it possible for candidates with fewer popular votes to become president. This is simply not fair, but it will be almost impossible to change. Like the end of all war, like the destruction of all nuclear weapons, addressing these issues in a sermon is not worth the effort.

However, at some times, often a political point of crisis, things might go either way. If the pastor has often been preaching to hard power, anything one says will simply be dismissed.  However, if with wisdom, the preacher has remained silent regarding many issues about which strong opinions have been expressed, this time the message will be heard, loud and clearly. Will the election of one who has threatened democracy be such an issue? Will support of a grisly war be another? Will rules about curbing a pandemic, perhaps saving thousands of lives, call forth a strong warning in a sermon?

Preaching about some issues or remaining silent about others will always be controversial. Not everyone will be pleased. Some will openly disagree; others will keep it to themselves. Much will depend on the relationship with the preacher built up over time.  Members also are conflicted and are not sure of their political convictions. Most are also very forgiving. Should the preacher say something?  Maybe it is time to ask again, “What would Jesus do?”

[1] E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950), 608-609.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 57.

[3] Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 6.

[4] https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/02/2020-cycle-cost-14p4-billion-doubling-16/  (accessed Jan. 4, 2024).

[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2001), 57.

[6] Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Succeed in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), .

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid., 9-10.

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One thought on “Pulpits and Politics

  1. Thanks. What seems to be lacking in our country, and our religious community (to me), is the ability to accept cognitive dissonance and the fact that many issues are “complicated” and the answers for the state, might lie in the gray areas between God’s Grace, and the world we broken sinners in need of God’s redemption have crafted. Also, if we could admit that as Christians, we fuck it up more than we get it right. That might help as a starting place. In any case, God’s Best Peace!

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