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Correcting Adam Harwood on Political Endorsement

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…Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her….” He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter… (Matthew 14, truncated)

Dr. Adam Harwood, professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (SBC), recently wrote an article for Synergism Today to caution pastors against discussing presidential candidates publicly. Harwood, who denies the historic understanding of Original Sin (immaterial to this retort, but still a bone that needs to be picked), warns pastors to “be careful when discussing presidential candidates publicly.”

Harwood makes a number of commands/assertions…

  • Avoid name-calling
  • Avoid ad-hominem attacks
  • Avoid endorsing a candidate
  • It is proper to critique policies, but not people
  • Pray for presidential candidates
  • He disagrees with questioning one candidate’s moral failures, to the exclusion of others’
  • If you want to give political commentary, you should resign your pastorate and apply for Fox News or CNN
  • Speaking on politics is an unnecessary stumbling block, the only acceptable stumbling block being the cross

Harwood gives several reasons why you want to avoid the above commands/assertions…

  • If you elevate or diminish a candidate, you will diminish your ability to speak authoritatively from the Bible
  • If you elevate or diminish a candidate, you will ‘raise an offense’ between yourself and other
  • If you criticize Clinton or Sanders, you will offend Democrats. If you criticize Trump or Carson, you will offend Republicans.
  • If you endorse a candidate from the pulpit, your church’s tax exempt status might “rightfully be challenged.”

Before I explain why Harwood’s assumptions, commands and rebukes are misguided, let me make this very clear – government cannot save you. I know that, because John MacArthur said it and so it must be true (tongue not entirely in my cheek). Our hope is not in presidents or prime ministers, but in Providence. And, frankly, I think I can agree with the semi-pelagian Harwood on at least one issue – pastors occasionally spend so much time as political commentators that I’ve grown genuinely concerned they have confused the Grand Old Party with the Great Old Commission.

And finally, I might go one step further than Harwood in the caution department…the over-simplistic “Republican = Good, Democrat = Bad” mentality I’ve seen from certain camps demonstrates more a general ignorance of the American political spectrum than the courageousness of clergy who will speak out about politics. I mean, of course Democrats are “bad” (I think we all know this), but the sheer reality that Christians have supported big-government Republicans and cultists in recent years is a clear demonstration that Republican does not necessarily equal good.

All that aside, Harwood is wrong on multiple accounts.

I am not suggesting that you should disengage from politics. Advocate for religious liberty for all people. Urge believers to be good citizens who participate in the political process and vote according to their conscience. Advocate for biblical values, regardless of which candidates or parties support those values. This includes speaking publicly against immoral policies and supporting morally justified policies.

Harwood, it seems, presupposes that advocating for “religious liberty for all people” does not necessitate everything in the article he goes on to condemn. Advocating for religious liberty may very well require your support for someone like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz – who advocated for religious accommodations for Kim Davis – over Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorna or John Kasich, who see no problem with her arrest. Advocating for religious liberty in any meaningful way often requires the support of one candidate for office and vocal dissent for others.

Likewise, the pastorate is not a public service announcement encouraging people to get out the vote. We are not merely called to encourage people to vote “according to their conscience,” but as pastors, called to apply and preach the Word of God in such a way that it informs their conscience.

While we should certainly support biblical values irrespective of the party that holds them (which is the only way any demographic minority can wield political power – by not being taken for granted in either partisan camp which requires both camps to pander for our support) as Harwood suggests, the reality is that supporting biblical values requires our support of candidates that hold those values. We are not a democracy that votes for issues on a daily referendum. We are a Republic and have to elect leaders who share those values. The only meaningful way we support values is by supporting candidates that have those values.

Christian leaders, please avoid name calling. I have seen a couple of unfortunate examples in recent days. Our speech should always be seasoned with grace (Col 4:6). Also, avoid ad hominem attacks (arguments against a person rather than a position), as well as publicly endorsing a candidate. It is proper to critique policies, not people. Also, please pray for these presidential candidates and encourage those in your churches to do the same (1 Tim 2:1-2).

Fine advice for the most part, but a few problems exist. The first problem is assumptional, in that I can only assume what Harwood means by “ad hominem.” Is saying one shouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a life-long liar, closet homosexual, habitually covered up her husbands sexcapades to the point of stalking and threatening his victims, and probably had a few people whacked in the process “ad hominem?” By definition, it is. And yet, because we are electing people in our Republic and not electing policies, that ad hominem is entirely relevant. If Donald Trump is a crass, chauvinist, waffling, blow-hard, is that pertinent information when electing a President? I think it is. If Christians are wanting to nominate another Christian,is the “ad hominem” pertinent that Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist? I think it is.

Perhaps most troubling to me is Harwood’s statement that “It is proper to critique policies, not people.” I would ask the most obvious of questions…why? Why can we not criticize people, when we are not electing policies, but people? Is there some kind of Biblical mandate that we cannot criticize people? If Trump is running on his financial management, are his company’s bankruptcies relevant? Harwood’s truth-claim seems like conventional wisdom in churchy political discussions, but I would ask why. With no proof-text or explanation from Harwood, I simply don’t know.

Consider that you might diminish your ability to speak authoritatively from the Bible when you elevate or diminish any politician. By doing so, you will raise an offense between yourself and others; the only obstacle between a Christian leader and his audience should be the scandal of the gospel (1 Cor 1:18; 1 Pet 2:6-8).

While it is true that the gospel is scandalous and the cross a true stumbling stone of offense, it is not true that the death, burial and resurrection is the only offense that serves as a occupational hazard for the preacher. We are called to preach the full counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:27) – and it’s plenty offensive, even in the portions without an explicit Gospel. Herod chopped off John the Baptist’s head not because his Gospel was offensive, but because he broke half the commands of Adam Harwood in this article. He criticized Herod personally, made the truth offensive (even aside from the Gospel), and ended up losing about 10.5 lbs the hard way. While heeding the exhortations of Dr. Harwood may allow you to avoid a similar fate as John the Baptist, it will not certainly not make your more faithful in your ministry than the greatest man ever born of woman (Matthew 11:11).

What if we really followed this command of Dr. Harwood? What if we applied that principle to other matters? “The only obstacle between a Christian leader and his audience should be the scandal of the Gospel” – in reference to abortion. “The only obstacle between a Christian leader and his audience should be the scandal of the Gospel” – in reference to homosexuality. Do you see the problem? Do we avoid sticky topics because our “audience” will be offended? God forbid.

If you publicly criticize Clinton or Sanders, then you will offend Democrats in your audience; if you publicly criticize Trump or Carson, then you will offend Republicans in your audience. If you elevate Cruz, then you will offend Democrats and those who support the other Republican candidates. Christian leaders, you have been commissioned to proclaim God’s Word and apply it in light of our culture, not to criticize or endorse political candidates.

…And? I offend three people before breakfast most mornings. Ironically, as Harwood challenges pastors to avoid politics, he’s actually encouraging pastors to act like politicians. We do not censor what we say on the grounds of offense. If Democrats are offended by our elevation of Ted Cruz, they’re really going to be offended when we tell them there’s no possible way an actually regenerate person can hold to the Democratic platform. Politicians live in fear of offense – pastors do not.

Perhaps the strangest statement from Harwood thus far is, “…you have been commissioned to proclaim God’s Word and apply it in light of culture, not to criticize or endorse political candidates.” Sometimes, criticizing or endorsing political candidates is precisely how God’s Word is applied in light of culture. The criticism or endorsement of a political candidate, on account of what God’s Word says, is its actual, literal application of it in our culture.

If a pastor publicly endorses one candidate over another from his pulpit, then the tax-exempt status of that church could rightfully be challenged. If you desire to inform church members about the views of the candidates, then you might distribute a guide which addresses the views of all the candidates on a variety of matters. In this way, you are neither endorsing nor criticizing a particular candidate.

Yeah, ’bout that. The key words from Harwood, I presume, are “...from his pulpit.” Two things here. First, there is certainly a gray area involved. For many years, it was assumed accepted under IRS tax law that a clergy person could make an endorsement on behalf of his own person, even from the pulpit, without violating the tax code. Since the Obama administration has made it pretty clear they’re an enemy of everything good and pure, consensus has been giving the advice that such personal endorsements not be made at a regular service or meeting of the church or in official church mailers (source link). Technically, I can stand behind the pulpit all I want unless it’s during our regular Lord’s Day gathering and endorse away (not that I ever have). Secondly, “tax law” dealing with 501(c)3 status does not make such endorsements “illegal” (not that Harwood said they did). It means, simply, the church may have to trade in their tax exemption for their First Amendment rights. And if so, so be it.

Some Christian leaders recently and publicly criticized the moral life of a certain presidential candidate. To be clear: I agree with the negative assessments I have read about that candidate’s character. But I disagree with the practice of Christian leaders publishing a negative assessment of only one candidate’s moral character publicly…Although I do not think the candidate who is currently being criticized as immoral will be elected the next president, it is possible. He currently leads in the polls for his party’s nomination. 

Well golly gee, Beaver, who on Earth do you think Dr. Harwood is speaking of? Could it be [insert dramatic music here] Donald Trump? Let’s get this right…Dr. Harwood writes this entire diatribe to tell us not to publicly criticize political candidates, then says he agrees with the “negative assessments about [a certain] candidate’s character” – thereby also publicly criticizing him – but passive aggressively doesn’t say the candidates name so that’s suddenly kosher? This is silly. Dr. Harwood has done in this very article what he has told us not to do, but merely removed Donald Trump’s name. What good is that? It’s bizarre.

If this man who is now being criticized by some Christian leaders as immoral becomes the next president, then will these same men call us to stop criticizing him and to pray for him (1 Tim 2:1-2)? If so, then why not follow that counsel now while these candidates run for office? Is the goal to influence the outcome of the election? If so, is that your role?

Why would Christian leaders suddenly tell us to stop criticizing Donald Trump if he became President? Is Dr. Harwood under the assumption it’s unbiblical to criticize our leaders? Does he presume that Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 submission forbids criticism? Furthermore, to be candid – yes – it might be the goal of Christian leaders to influence the outcome of an election. Dr. Harwood asks that question rhetorically, as somehow that’s a bad goal.

Christian leaders, wisdom might require you to hold your tongue in order to avoid placing unnecessary barriers between you and those you are trying to reach with the gospel. If you want to be a political commentator, then consider resigning your position and applying for a job with CNN or Fox News. But if you want to be a minister of the gospel, then avoid placing any stumbling block between you and your audience—except the message of the crucified Christ.

Essentially, what Dr. Harwood is arguing is that Pastors quiet both the full counsel of God’s Word and its application to our political process in order to have less people offended at us and more people willing to hear the Gospel. Sadly, that’s not a position that is supported by Scripture.

Dr. Harwood, a burgeoning figure in the evangelical intelligentsia, again demonstrates why good theology is pastoral theology. Seminary professors certainly have their place in God’s economy, but telling pastors how to conduct ourselves in the preaching of the Word and leading of God’s people is not one of them.