04 July 2013

A Political Pastor on the 4th of July

The fourth of July (2013) marks the traditional birth date of the United States of America.  To date this makes our country 237 years young.  The actual birth of the country is a remarkable story.  It's a story of treason and courage; one of rebellion and a desire for independence.  It was an event that was embedded with political ideals and religious zeal.  It was fueled by the secular and the sacred.  It's primary movers were a mixture of those of strong, orthodox Christian faith and those of non-Christian worldviews. 

Fifty-six men signed the initial document of declared independence (or rebellion) and became the country's birth certificate.  These men assembled as representatives of the English colonies and affixed their names to a document penned by Thomas Jefferson that would either forge a radical new existence for all the colonies or be the cause of each of their deaths.  It was a huge risk, but one they had come to consider necessary.     

The Declaration of Independence is a short, straightforward document.  It basically states that once a government has become so oppressive and unresponsive to the needs of the people, then those people have a right to go their own way.  Furthermore, the document enumerates many grievances that the signers believed legitimized declaring their independence.  They obviously believed in the validity of their actions, and they hoped that others across the Atlantic might see it that way too.  If you haven't closely read it lately or ever, you should take a few minutes and explore it for yourself.

One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was the clergyman John Witherspoon (1723-94).  He moved from Scotland to New Jersey just a few short years before the move toward independence began.  He had been a pastor in Scotland and had been recruited to come to New Jersey to become the new president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton).  At that time the school was still in the business of training pastors as part of its primary purpose.   

It wasn't long before the preacher/educator also donned the hat of politician.  He was elected as a representative from New Jersey and assembled with the rest of the delegation on that hot July summer in Philadelphia.  As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he felt no conflict with also giving himself to a political cause that he deemed just. Check out his 1776 sermon "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men." 
Witherspoon has always caused me to reflect on the relationship a pastor has to politics.  Should a pastor make comment and involve himself in the pressing political questions of his day, or should he remain a silent bystander and let others tend to the politics?  Should he get down in the mud, or should he stand above it?  Certainly, a minister of the gospel has a God-given calling and duty to speak biblically to moral issues, and sometimes moral issues are political issues.  But is it appropriate for a pastor to be a political activist?
When I think of Witherspoon and the 4th of July, I'm reminded that we are indebted to such men of God who helped lead a political revolution.  They possessed a faith that wasn't dominated by an other-worldliness.  They also understood the practical realities of human affairs and understood that momentous times called for decisiveness and leadership.  Witherspoon never compromised his faith (at least not in his own mind) and he never seemed to tuck and run from the important issues.  It appears he saw it as his calling to lead as a Christian man, either as a preacher or statesman, depending on the stage offered to him.  At such a time as was his, I believe he rose courageously to engage his religious and political issues with conviction of heart and sound mind.
Some would view Witherspoon as a horrible example of a minister.  He should have left politics to the statesmen and simply tended to his college and pulpit, some may contend.  However, I interpret his involvement in the birth of our country as acceptable and even heroic.  He didn't limit his parish to those who just might attend his sermons.  He saw his whole community as a flock to which he had obligation to defend and protect.  So, as a matter of conviction he literally put his name on the line. 
I believe times do arise in which men of God cannot be content to sit on the sidelines.  There are times to roll up the sleeves and put biblical convictions to practical and even political use.  I suppose those times must be saturated with prayers for wisdom as well as boldness.  Witherspoon may not be one of the household names around the 4th of July (like Jefferson or Franklin), but I know that I'm thankful for this one preacher from Scotland, who made America his home, and helped make it a home for me too.  I'm glad he decided to get involved and cast his whole self into the public arena for what he considered a noble cause.

So much has changed and evolved in 237 years.  The United States of America, through it's ups and downs, continues to be a grand experiment.  The Founders, including pastor Witherspoon, chartered a course for a country founded on personal liberty, state sovereignty, and limited federal power contained within a commitment to public virtue (assumed Christian values for the vast majority).  But the road of national development has been bumpy, contentious, and even deadly at times.  And who knows what the future will hold for us.  I hope that when the crisis comes, whatever it may be, that men of God will stand firm in the pulpit and in the public space to do what is right.

Thank you John Witherspoon!  Happy 4th of July everyone! 


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