The sermon at my church last Sunday opened with a pre-recorded interview between our pastor and a member of the staff of Friendship-West Baptist Church, a black church in Dallas that apparently has in the past generated controversy from guest sermons delivered by Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at Obama’s former church.

The main question was the criteria used by that church and its black congregation to determine their political stance. The pastor answered that its constituents aimed to support those who they perceived to be concerned with their quality of life, as well as those who understood the kind of people God historically sided with throughout the Scripture. Those were his two main concerns, and they were completely absent in the following sermon, which was more of a renunciation of politics.

The gist of the message was that the church should not get involved in the heated back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats because legislation is not the way to a person’s heart, which is only an equally vapid re-statement of “You can’t legislate morality.”

It was not a terrible sermon all around. He made a distinction between “making a point” and “making a difference”, and argued that the church should direct their energies toward the latter. Avoid, for example, protesting outside of abortion clinics or alienating homosexuals, focusing instead on building bridges and the like. In this aspect there were a few things I might protest, but I don’t often see such a relatively sensible positions from churches around here, so it was slightly refreshing.

But I think all together the sermon missed the mark. Of the four main bullet points, the one most relevant to politics was, “Refuse to be dragged into distracting debates.” This was premised, as I said above, on the idea that the church cannot get at a person’s heart through politics. But of course, it is nonsensical to suppose that all political debates are “distracting.” And further, that the church could in good conscience refuse to recognize the legitimacy of many political debates.  

The main objection has to be that the church cannot only focus on transforming hearts. The pastor would have done well to listen to his black colleague talk about the black church’s concern for “quality of life.” It seems that to someone who has grown up in the segregated south, the Civil Rights Act’s success in changing hearts matters less than the concrete improvement in quality of life for black people. Surely it was in keeping with God’s will to enact legislation that stopped the institutional exclusion of blacks and all its attendant evils. Our pastor’s deafness to this claim stems, I think, from our church’s infatuation with individual morality, which tends to marginalize every material and social concern which doesn’t start and end inside a person’s soul. In their zeal to create more godly persons I think they forget that there can be more godly situations. 

Even if we were to grant that the church should not advocate positive action through legislation because such action is merely palliative, I certainly don’t see how the church can avoid caring about the purely negative part they could play. Are we to assume that the debate about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is merely distracting partisanship, and that it is not the church’s place to denounce wholesale killing, especially when it is often done in the name of the God they worship? Obviously not.

I get what the pastor is saying about politics sweeping people up in its fervor and distracting them from God’s will, but that doesn’t mean that the church should simply recede. They should have their own vision of politics that seeks to refine political discussion and re-focus its ends.