The end of last week saw some 400 pastors and other faith leaders assembled at Liberty University for a two-day "Pastors and Pews" event, a closed-door conference described as a way to "engage the clergy" to better "bring their faith to the public."
That sounds innocuous enough, or even admirable, if, like me, you share the attendees' Christian faith and conviction that it should be propagated. But the devil — or at least one of his lesser minions, skilled in making fresh offerings of the third temptation of Christ — is in the details.
Pastors and Pews is cohosted by the American Renewal Project, a political activism organization, and features speakers like Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA. Its actual goal, as a Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) report details, is building "a 2020 national ground game" to turn out American evangelicals to vote for President Trump. The pastors participating are encouraged to use their pulpits for political organizing and, ideally, to run for office themselves. The aim is to get 1,000 pastor-candidates in the field next year, and even those who don't personally campaign will be "mobilizing church-going voters and illuminating critical issues for elections," said former presidential candidate and pastor Mike Huckabee, who has spoken at Pastors and Pews events past.
In short, it's a project to turn the church into the GOP's farm team, to further co-opt evangelicalism in service to America's Caesar.
That such an event would exist, and that it would be hosted at Liberty, is hardly surprising. But, as I feel I am constantly saying about the intersection of religion and politics in America these days, what does not surprise still should shock. Pastors and Pews may be the natural evolution of the religious right, the logical next step in Republican politicians' use of church infrastructure for political ends, but that makes it no less worthy of protest.
This is not the point of church.
This is not why we gather together. This is not how we grow the kingdom of heaven. This is not how we incarnate the new reality started at the cross. This is not a way to spread the hope of Christ.
The Republican Party platform is not the Gospel. No politician of any party can, in that sense, offer good news. Seeking political power is not a pastor's job. And to thus subvert church into a partisan political resource is to make it cease to be the church, to take that third temptation — "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" — where Jesus turned it down. It makes Christianity a means to a far lower end.
I make no secret of my extreme wariness of mixing church and politics on theological and political grounds alike. But I'm not one to say it's never appropriate to discuss political issues in church. Faithfulness requires us to speak the truth, and in a damaged world like ours that may well take a public turn, compelling us, like the prophets of the Old Testament, to shout in the halls of power, "This is wrong!"
Yet there is a valley of difference between that and what Pastors and Pews proposes, which is an attempt to make those halls our own. Jesus chided his disciples for jostling for authority, insisting service and suffering would instead be their mark. Pastors and Pews does exactly the reverse, encouraging those who should be guiding their congregations in the imitation of Christ to do themselves what Jesus never did.
It also evinces a telling distrust of God's ability to accomplish his good ends. "If the Lord does it, we're going to turn America back to him and re-establish a Christian culture," American Renewal Project leader David Lane told CBN. "Somebody's values are going to reign supreme, so my guess is spirituality speaking, we need mercy. The mercy of God."
Lane's comments are superficially faithful, crediting the desired cultural shift to the work of the Lord. But functionally, his plan is thoroughly a creature of this world. Its method is politics, not mercy. Its goal is "values," a pale substitute for the freedom and glory that has been revealed to us. Its supreme reign is to be enforced by the sword which followers of Jesus must not wield.
A frequent defense of evangelical support for Trump is that the president is a new King David, flawed and sinful but nevertheless a "man after God's own heart." This is patent nonsense — David was achingly penitent; Trump has never felt the need to ask God for forgiveness. But supposing the analogy had merit, what role ought pastors play?
The obvious answer, I think, is that of the prophet Nathan. His quintessential interaction with political power was not ambition but rebuke.