Why Do the Clergy Mix in Politics?
SINCE you are affected, you have good reason to ask, “Why?”
Understandably, no single motive applies to all the priests, ministers, and other religious leaders who have mixed in politics. Some have motivations that most people would condemn. Others may have admirable reasons, such as concern for the poor.
Your having insight into their motives will put you in a better position to consider God’s view of the matter and to appreciate what he says the future holds.
Position, Profit, and Politics
To understand one reason why clergymen mix in politics, let us consider some first-century religious leaders. These men, the high priest and members of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, made up the Jewish high court. Being upset over Jesus’ having resurrected Lazarus, they reasoned: “If we let [Jesus] alone this way, they will all put faith in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”—John 11:48.
“Our place and our nation.” Yes, they worried about their position, influence, and authority, with any nationalistic interests being secondary. (Matthew 23:2-8) By currying favor with politicians, some clergymen have gained a standing of importance. For many, this also has been the road to a life of luxury. In fact, the last book of the Bible depicts “a woman” called “Babylon the Great,” who was noted for “the power of her shameless luxury.” The Bible and history show that she symbolizes false religion earth wide.—Revelation 17:1-5; 18:3.
Consider now evidence that this is why some clergymen mix in politics. The book Religion and Revolution tells us: “Between 1774 and 1790, 173 of the 192 French bishops belonged to the nobility. About one-half of the episcopate lived in Paris and enjoyed the splendor of the French capital. Cardinal Polignac died in 1741 without ever having visited the archdiocese to which he had been nominated fifteen years earlier. A growing spirit of laxness also afflicted the monasteries many of which were very rich.” The upper clergy lived in luxury, while many parish priests were in poverty.
Mexico provides another example. In 1810 village priest Miguel Hidalgo led a fight for independence from Spain. Professor Guenter Lewy explains: “The pope in Rome and practically the entire episcopate condemned [those Mexican] patriots. The hypocritical ease with which the upper clergy [later] turned into ardent supporters of independence . . . was all too apparent and helped create the image of the church as a special interest group that could not be trusted. . . . The church was rich in lands and buildings, estimated by some to include more than one-half the real property of the nation.”
Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or of any other faith—would not all of us agree that clergymen should not mix in politics to secure an exalted place? Yet, that is exactly what often happens.
From Nazi Germany to Today
The Nazi period offers more insight into religion’s mixing in politics. Many thinking people have wondered, ‘How did Catholic and Lutheran clergymen deal with Hitler and his brutal Nazis?’
Basically, it was by support or at least coexistence. Few religious voices rose in protest. Professor T. A. Gill writes about one exception. “[The theologian Dietrich] Bonhoeffer found out at last what his father and brothers had been telling him since he was fifteen: the church was not important enough anymore in the things that matter most to justify giving his life to it.” Wearied by the church’s support of Hitler or its passivity, Bonhoeffer joined a plot to kill Hitler. But Bonhoeffer was an exception.
Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity describes the norm: “Both churches, in the main, gave massive support to the regime. . . . Of 17,000 Evangelical pastors, there were never more than fifty serving long terms [for not supporting the Nazi regime] at any one time. Of the Catholics, one bishop was expelled from his diocese, and another got a short term for currency offences.” As to those who stuck to their principles, Johnson continues: “The bravest were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who proclaimed their outright doctrinal opposition from the beginning and suffered accordingly. They refused any cooperation with the Nazi state.”
Since then, other clergymen have cooperated with brutal regimes so as to maintain their place of prominence, power, and wealth. An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter said: “The story of the Catholic church’s failings in Argentina is one of silence and complicity with a ruthless military regime, one of the worst in recent history. . . . Church prelates were thus in positions to speak out and make a difference, perhaps even strip the regime of its religious justification. Yet, almost to the last man, they said nothing. Some, including clerics in military uniform, endorsed the torture and killings.”—April 12, 1985.
Civil Rights, Social Justice
As mentioned earlier, however, some religious leaders are highly admired for their active role in politics for other reasons.
An example from the United States is the Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil-rights leader in a long crusade against racial discrimination. Other clergymen have been in the forefront of struggles for the rights of women and certain minorities. Priests and ministers have turned politically active in support of causes such as voting rights, equal pay for equal work, and fair employment opportunities. Most recently, a “theology of liberation” has been promoted to ease the suffering of the poor, such as by distributing land to the impoverished.
How do you feel about religious leaders’ involving themselves in politics in order to promote social action or “secular humanism,” as such issues are sometimes labeled? Even some clerics are uncomfortable with what they see happening. Keith Gephart, a fundamentalist clergyman, commented: “When I was growing up, I always heard that churches should stay out of politics. Now it seems almost a sin not to get involved.” A newspaper writer on religious issues noted: “Beginning in the early 1970s, fundamentalist Christians have gradually come to believe that political activism is a duty.”
Even if the causes seem meritorious, consider how far such steps are taking the clergy, and see if you approve.
What Is Liberation Theology Doing?
Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Catholic priest in Peru, is widely credited with developing “liberation theology” in response to the plight of the poor. This trend is widespread among the clergy in Latin America and elsewhere. England’s Manchester Guardian Weekly reported that the Bishop of Durham attacked the government’s political philosophy and thus urged “advancing the cause of a ‘liberation theology.’”
Is such a theology just an emphasis on concern for the poor, as urged in the Bible? Hardly. According to the Guardian, the bishop admits that “British liberation theology will take some of the diagnoses of Marxism very seriously.” This involves interpreting the class struggle of the poor by using Marxist reasoning. With what consequences?
The National Catholic Reporter (July 4, 1986) carried the headline “Brazil’s Land Fight Pits Church Against State.” A fact underlying this conflict is that just a small number of “large landowners control 83 percent of the land.” Clergy-led rallies and marches are part of the “land fight.” And “fight” is a fitting word. The article said that “218 people were killed in more than 700 land conflicts last year, including Father Josimo Tavares, a Brazilian priest and land-reform leader, who was assassinated June 11.”
Liberation theology is gaining popularity. A New York Times editorial acknowledged that the official Vatican position is that clerics should not be involved in partisan politics, but it further said that the Vatican “also embraces liberation theology’s fundamental principle: that the Christian Gospel justifies the struggles of the poor for political freedom and control over their lives.”
In a similar vein is the charge that Maryknoll, a Catholic missionary order, has been “spreading the gospel of liberation theology and socialist politics.” A 1985 study, The Revolution Lobby, charged: “Maryknoll has successfully brought the Marxist-Leninist message of violent revolution into public acceptance precisely because it has been allowed to operate as an arm of the Catholic Church. Its message has reached not only the average churchgoer, but leading American policymakers, as well.”
Does God Approve?
Clearly, all around the globe today religion is mixing in politics, and there are various reasons for this. How, though, does God feel about it? The Bible shows that soon he is going to manifest his position plainly. How will you and your loved ones be affected? And what bearing should that have on your present attitude and actions?
[Box on page 6]
“The Catholic church in Germany was German to the core, and like the Protestant church upheld the state and its authority.”—The German Churches Under Hitler.
“The Russian Orthodox Church yesterday threw its weight fully behind Mr Gorbachev’s disarmament proposals . . . It described [them] as ‘perfectly consistent with the Christian approach.’”—The Guardian (London), April 9, 1986.
[Picture on page 7]
Martin Luther King, Jr., was prominent among religious leaders crusading against racial discrimination
[Picture on page 8]
Poverty and injustice have given rise to liberation theology