This great post by David French tells you a lot of what you need to know about so-called "apolitical evangelicalism." Namely, that it's just support for left-approved causes and wobbliness (at best) on left-disapproved causes dressed up in the transparent garb of "being apolitical."
I've known that for a long time. In fact, we discussed it away back in what almost seems like a different world when Barack Obama was merely a possible candidate for the presidency.
But a new variety has appeared on the scene. John Piper is a much-revered reformed evangelical leader and preacher who has always been extremely clear on the moral issue of marriage. His preaching is unequivocal on this moral and (one might think) cultural/political subject.
It has therefore come as an unpleasant surprise that Piper has explicitly refused to join other Christian (evangelical and Catholic) leaders in Minnesota in taking a definite stand supporting a proposed state amendment which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.
No matter what, Piper's absence from the list of supporters would have been a disappointment to conservatives hoping for the unequivocal support of such an influential Christian leader--a support which is not illegal to give (not yet in our country) and which other Christian leaders are giving without hesitation.
But matters are made more disturbing by the fact that this is no mere omission or oversight. Nor is it a matter of Piper's sticking to a narrowly kerygmatic niche. Piper's refusal to support the amendment openly and clearly first came to light in this sermon. For the first 7/8 the sermon reads like clear support for the amendment, walking just to one side of a legal bright line of "express advocacy." It includes statements like this:
The point here is not only that so-called same-sex marriage shouldn’t exist, but that it doesn’t and it can’t. Those who believe that God has spoken to us truthfully in the Bible should not concede that the committed, life-long partnership and sexual relations of two men or two women is marriage. It isn’t. God has created and defined marriage. And what he has joined together in that creation and that definition, cannot be separated, and still called marriage in God’s eyes.
We must not be intimidated here. The world is going to say the opposite of what is true here.
Which means that all legislation is the legislation of morality. Someone’s view of what is good — what is moral — wins the minds of the majority and carries the day. The question is: Which actions hurt the common good or enhance the common good so much that the one should be prohibited by law and the other should be required by law?
Here are a few thoughts to help you with that question.
A constitutional amendment should address a matter of very significant consequence. To give you an idea of what has been regarded as worthy inclusion in the state constitution, Section 12 of Article xiii was passed by voters in 1998. It reads as follows: “Hunting and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public good.” In deciding whether the meaning of marriage is significant enough to put in the constitution one measure would be to weigh it against hunting and fishing.
1. The recognition of so-called same-sex marriage would be a clear social statement that motherhood or fatherhood or both are negligible in the public good of raising children. Two men adopting children cannot provide motherhood. And two women adopting children cannot provide fatherhood. But God ordained from the beginning that children grow up with a mother and a father, and said, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). Tragedies in life often make that impossible. But taking actions to make that tragedy normal may be worth prohibiting by law. That's a factor to consider.
2. Marriage is the most fundamental institution among humans.
And so forth. Note even the dry joke about the importance of marriage protection in comparison to the importance of promoting hunting and fishing.
Then comes point 8:
Don’t press the organization of the church or her pastors into political activism. Pray that the church and her ministers would feed the flock of God with the word of God centered on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Expect from your shepherds not that they would rally you behind political candidates or legislative initiatives, but they would point you over and over again to God and to his word, and to the cross.
He goes on to explain what he means (emphasis in original):
Please try to understand this: When I warn against the politicizing of the church, I do so not to diminish her power but to increase it. The impact of the church for the glory of Christ and the good of the world does not increase when she shifts her priorities from the worship of God and the winning of souls and the nurturing of faith and raising up of new generations of disciples.
Huh? Well, one might think in some puzzlement, I suppose some legal eagle told him he had to put something like point 8 in there. Seems a shame for him to sound like he's making some kind of high-falutin' principle out of it, but the rest of the sermon makes it clear enough what he's urging his people to do. A wink is as good as a nod.
But point 8 won't be ignored. The Minneapolis Star Tribune published this piece noting that Piper and Leith Anderson, another evangelical leader, were conspicuous by their absence from the ranks in support of the marriage amendment. And here is what Piper's representative, David Mathis, said:
Piper had been under pressure from conservative groups to weigh in on the amendment, according to his spokesman David Mathis, adding that Piper did not hold back over concerns the church could lose its tax-exempt status.
"Basically our position is, we're not taking one as a church," Mathis said. "And by addressing this in June rather than October or early November, there's no effort here for political expediency, trying to get certain votes out of people."
"He [Piper] wants to avoid the political realm as much as possible. The Christian Gospel is not left, it's not right. It is what it is."
Let's parse what Mathis is saying. He's emphasizing that Piper wants to avoid the political realm as much as possible. He's implying quite clearly that Piper knows that it would have been quite legal for him to take a definite stand from the pulpit in support of the marriage amendment and that that was not Piper's worry. He's saying that Piper's preaching on this issue at all was deliberately timed for June rather than in the fall precisely so that people would not be able to say that Piper was attempting to get people to vote a certain way on the amendment. Presumably this means that we can expect Piper not even to give a sermon as clear as points 1-7 in October or early November! How interesting. Mathis is saying that the church does not have a position on the amendment. And he's saying that for Piper to take such a position from the pulpit would be to distract attention from the true mission of the church which is to preach a gospel that is neither "left nor right."
If that doesn't counteract the impression one might otherwise have gotten from the first seven points of Piper's sermon, I don't know what would.
Piper, as if to be sure his supporters are thoroughly confused, then published this response to the Star Tribune's piece. Piper implies that he has been misrepresented. (Maybe he should talk to his own official representative, David Mathis, about that.) According to Piper's response to the article, he did not opt out of the marriage fight but spoke quite clearly to the issue. However, Piper then continues his exceedingly strange practice of treating express advocacy, which was never more than a legally convenient bright line, as some sort of previously undiscovered theological and pastoral principle. Piper also continues to apply this principle equally to endorsing candidates and to taking a position on a narrowly focused constitutional referendum: (Emphasis added)
The aim of point 8 was that over the long haul Christians will take clearer, stronger, more effective stands for justice and righteousness and the common good if pastors and preachers speak powerfully and faithfully and biblically to the moral and spiritual and ethical and theological issues surrounding political issues, rather than advocating particular candidates and laws.
So in other words Christian leaders should not do what other Christian leaders in Minnesota have done by unequivocally supporting the amendment. After all, what's not to love about strengthening the church (see the explication of point 8, above)? Piper is being pretty emphatic about the warnings he has given against "politicizing" the church, and he quite evidently thinks that for him to have unequivocally supported the marriage protection amendment as he was urged to do would have been a paradigm case of this "politicization" which he has warned about. Nor does he in any way contradict what his official spokesman said about his motivations and positions, including his reason for preaching on the subject now rather than in the fall.
Piper is being, to put it mildly, extremely confusing and illogical. The first part of his sermon which kicked all this off makes it quite clear to the dullest of wits that Piper realizes that there is only one way that Christian conviction could lead someone on this amendment. Nor do points 1-7 even leave open the possibility that this is not an important enough matter to be codified in the state Constitution.
Were Piper merely making a prudential decision that he does not want to risk his church's tax-exempt status, and were that concern a plausible one, we might be disappointed but would at least understand where he is coming from. We might want to point him to this web site or this one to allay his concerns, but we might consider that his support was clear enough anyway without crossing the express advocacy bright line.
But that's not what he's doing. Instead, he's taking and even emphasizing a meta-position that amounts to political quietism. It is, in fact, a position that is hard not to read as a criticism of the other Christian leaders in his state for having "politicized" the church. This is very confused and confusing indeed. One can scarcely shake the impression that Piper's better moral and even political instincts are in tension with a political quietist anti-principle that he has imbibed from who-knows-where.
Piper ought to be a smart enough guy to realize that the "church should be apolitical" meme is being used to great effect by people well to the left of himself who wish to silence the church's cultural witness. His disappointing and confused response to a clear call to arms in the culture wars in his own state, so far from making the church stronger, will only help the cause of the church's enemies.