Texas churches advocate convictional participation in local, national politics

Although some churches shy away from the political arena, a slew of Texas churches are showing
how Christian congregations can legally and effectively engage their culture through politics.

“As you’re going, be a witness,” Ben Smith, retired pastor of Lakeland Baptist Church in Lewisville, said. “And that includes the political arena. It’s not exempt from that.”

Smith, who pastored Lakeland for 32 years beginning in 1974, led the congregation to adopt a Global Impact Strategy that encouraged members to vote, run for office and push for public policy advocating righteousness and justice.

Lakeland and likeminded congregations across Texas pose significant counter evidence to a 2007 New York Times article that suggested conservative evangelicals were decreasing in political influence. The article argued that easily identifiable conservative leaders like James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell were passing from the scene and leaving a generation of younger and less politically predictable evangelicals in the spotlight–personalities like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren.

(Warren, a Southern Baptist who once preached at Falwell’s church, described himself on FOX News’ “Hannity & Colmes” in August after his televised forum with presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama as “a conservative” who believes life begins at conception.)

“The result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty–problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers,” the Times wrote.

The newspaper contended that the election of Frank Page as Southern Baptist Convention president in 2006 signaled that America’s largest Protestant denomination was also moving in a more moderate direction politically.

“Page said he considered his election ‘a clear sign’ that rank-and-file Southern Baptists felt the ‘conservative ascendancy has gone far enough,'” the Times wrote, adding that Page met with leading presidential candidates in both parties during the primary season.

If indeed Page was referring to secular politics in the context in which the Times quoted him and not SBC politics, many churches took no notice of it.

Recent years have brought no decline in fending for traditional evangelical morality in the public square at Lakeland Baptist Church. The church fought the sale of liquor by the drink in Denton County and drove sexually oriented businesses out of its city. It also fought back a plan to build a concert venue that it believed would have attracted immorality and reveling to Lewisville.

In addition to its victories on specific issues, the church implemented a training strategy showing members how they could run for office. As a result, two church members have been elected mayor, and several others have been elected to various positions including city councilor, judge, school board member and county commissioner.

“It’s just amazing what God did when we made ourselves available to encourage people to be salt and to be light,” Smith said.

Speaking to specific issues in a church is valuable, Smith said, but for maximum impact in the culture Christians need to be elected to office. He cited the defeat of liquor by the drink as one example of a victory resulting from Christians being elected to political office.

“If you get key people in key places, you have fewer wars to fight,” he said.

Scripture is replete with encouragement for God’s people to involve themselves in politics, Smith said. In addition to Romans 13 and God’s decision to use ordinary men as kings and prophets in the Old Testament, all the Bible’s stories of men speaking to culture call Christians to political activism, he said.

In Scripture the call to political involvement “is just everywhere to me,” Smith said. “If you look for it, you’ll see it. If you’re hiding from it, you can’t find it.”

Lakeland’s current pastor, Ron Osborne, said the congregation will continue to stand for civic righteousness under his leadership. Abortion, homosexual marriage, casino-style gambling and Intelligent Design have all been subjects of Texas political debates in recent years, and Lakeland will inform its members on all those issues, he said.

“There are so many issues that are coming to head right now,” Osborne said.

He added that pastors have a special responsibility to make people aware of issues where Christians must speak up.

“This church can be a center of righteousness for the city, and God can use a church that is willing to make bold stands,” Osborne said, “not telling people what to believe but giving them the information they need to make informed choices and to show them the spiritual implications in all those areas.”

El Paso’s Exciting Immanuel Baptist Church is another congregation where members view political activism as an integral part of Christian faithfulness.

Pastor Rix Tillman has set up a series of discipleship classes through which all members progress. The fifth class in the series deals entirely with being a Christian citizen, using videos and live instruction to teach about Christian responsibility in the public arena.

The class includes instruction on such topics as how to lobby legislators from home, how to write a congressman, the rights of a Christian in the United States and the relationship between church and state.

Tillman estimated that between 30 and 45 percent of his congregation has completed the class and said the church cares deeply about influencing the public square for Christ.

“We’ve had several city councilmen, and we’ve got a current county commissioner and a current city councilman right now,” he said of the church’s membership. “In the 14 years I’ve been here, we’ve had quite a few people involved in politics.”

While political activity in the congregation did not all come as a result of the class, Tillman said the class has definitely improved the percentage of church members who vote. In an effort to increase church member voting even more, Tillman recently took staff members to a training session for registering voters.

At Exciting Immanuel, the pro-life cause is among the most emphasized political issues, and the church makes a point to take positive action in addition merely to speaking against unrighteousness.

“We put our money where our mouth is,” Tillman said. “We support our local El Paso Crisis Help Center. They do ultrasounds and provide quiet a range of services.”

Tillman said he has long felt personally concerned about a lack of righteousness in the culture, but only more recently did he become convinced that a discipleship class on Christian citizenship was necessary.

“I read several books that pointed me in that direction, to get politically active–especially as the liberal element of the politicians got more aggressive and active,” he said. “There has been a transition over the last 10 or 15 years, and I’ve decided that we really need to get active.”

Exciting Immanuel even had former U.N. Ambassador Alan Keyes speak on a weeknight “to show we are supportive of people who support Christian values,” the pastor said.

For other churches interested in starting programs of political activism, Tillman advised beginning with biblical preaching on the subject. He added that resources are available from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission to that end. The National Write Your Congressman Campaign is one of the best avenues for Christians to begin expressing their voices to elected officials, he said.

On a personal level, Tillman is a part of El Paso Pastors for Jesus, a nondenominational group of pastors working to impact politics, schools and government for Christ.

“We have been striving to make a cultural impact on the community,” Tillman said.

One resource for Texas churches wanting to practice Christian citizenship is the SBTC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Committee. The organization’s website offers study tools, lessons and sermons on Christian citizenship, a voter registration form and a “Culture Impact Manual” to show congregations how they can form cultural impact committees that keep members abreast of important political developments.

A DVD is also available through the SBTC that provides information about America’s biblical heritage as related to Christian citizenship.

Gary Ledbetter, SBTC communications director, noted that when the Texas state legislature reconvenes in January, expanded gambling, life issues and marriage issues will likely arise. He encouraged churches to be prepared to take action.

“Because of the money and political pressure from anti-family groups, we expect to see these subjects constantly addressed in bill proposals,” Ledbetter said. “Some of the proposals will be very positive, in keeping with the tradition of conservatism in our state, but an increasing number will challenge our biblical values.”

The SBC’s ERLC provides additional resources for congregations and individuals. On the ERLC website, Christians can view action alerts informing them of issues before Congress where biblical morality is at stake. By entering their zip code, visitors to the website can generate e-mails to send their senators and congressman on specific issues. The ERLC, funded by Cooperative Program dollars, regularly communicates to national legislators the SBC’s positions on key issues. In Texas, the SBTC performs a similar function on the state-government level.

At First Baptist Church in Porter, nonpartisan voter guides help attendees know during election seasons where candidates for various offices stand. Troy Cates, the church’s minister of music and senior adults and chairman of the SBTC’s ERLC, said churches cannot support specific candidates by should educate their members about key issues.

“By providing the voting guides, we educate our church members to be good voters and to make good decisions,” Cates said. “We can’t tell them who to vote for, but we can tell them what issues should be important to them as Christians. And we can show them how the candidates will be voting on those issues.”

Cates advised other churches not to fear legal repercussions for distributing fair and balanced voter guides.

“That is their legal right to distribute those voter guides,” he said. “They don’t have to be afraid of the legal or tax ramifications of that. It’s perfectly legal to distribute voter guides as long as those voter guides are fair and balanced and just present the facts.

“One of the tings they cannot do is promote one candidate over another candidate from the pulpit. But they certainly have the right to be informed, responsible voters. As a matter of fact, I believe that’s our biblical mandate.”

Donald Myers, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wills Point, also distributes voter guides to his congregation and encourages members to stand against threats in the culture to God’s standards.

“I talk about from the pulpit the responsibility to vote and stewardship of your vote and voting your values,” Meyers said.

On moral issues like homosexual marriage and gambling, First Baptist speaks boldly and specifically, with its pastor taking the lead. Myers worked recently with a local pastors’ group to keep bars out of their county. The effort, which included prayer and vocal opposition, was so successful that a law enforcement official in a neighboring community asked Myers to call the pastors’ group to action again to oppose a biker bar planning to move into the area.

“The impact for us has been local,” Myers said of the church’s political efforts.

Gambling is another issue against which the ministerial alliance fought vocally and successfully. When eight-liners (a form of video gambling) moved into the community, local pastors fought to get them removed.

Eight-liners are illegal in Texas, but county attorneys must decide whether they will enforce the ban on such gambling, Myers said. He noted that eight-liners have started to appear in the community once again and Christians may have to fight again to have them removed.

Myers said e-mail has proved to be a valuable resource for getting word to church members when a political issue arises that has moral ramifications. Along with the congregation’s regular prayer request e-mail, the pastor inserts issue alerts at appropriate times.

At Teri Road Baptist Church in Austin, voter registration is the main avenue for promoting Christian citizenship.

Pastor Gerald Dickerson said that by using a packet of resources produced by Focus on the Family, he registers members to vote, explains why voting is important and teaches what issues are most relevant for Christians.

The Focus on the Family packet, titled the “Voter Impact Tool Kit,” includes DVDs Teri Road will show in worship services and handouts that will be distributed to members. Dickerson recommended the packet to any congregation seeking to be biblical, legal and active in the civic realm.

“We don’t get involved in a particular party,” Dickerson said. “But we do voter registration and things of that nature. In fact, I’m meeting this Sunday with the group that’s going to be ramrodding it for the November election.”

Voter registration requires an organized effort and advanced planning, the pastor noted.

“We send someone—usually myself but sometimes somebody else—down to the county clerk’s office to be certified,” he said. “You have to have someone on the premises who’s certified to enroll voters.

“So we set up a little desk in the foyer and have someone work that desk to try to sign people up. The county give you posters to put up to encourage voter registration.”

Though Teri Road is not a large congregation, Dickerson said several people register to vote each year. Sharing the congregation’s building are a Hispanic church and a Japanese church, and members of both ethnic congregations typically register as well.

When election season arrives, the church distributes voter guides produced by separate organizations in order to educate members before they step into the voting booth, Dickerson said.

“We do a little bit of everything, but we try to stay legal in the sense that we don’t promote any candidate,” he said. “We do promote morality. I do preach on what’s right and wrong. I do write articles in the newsletter encouraging people to use Christian standards and a Christian worldview when they vote. I do not encourage any candidate.”

Charles Lee, pastor of Acts Fellowship Church in Austin, said his church does not have any organized political action plan beyond encouraging members to vote. But even a small encouragement to vote can make a difference, he noted.

“We encourage people to vote by word of mouth, and periodically from behind the pulpit we encourage them to vote,” Lee said.

Smith, the former Lewisville pastor, stressed that involvement in politics is essential as part of a well-rounded program of evangelism. He cited Christians in office as some of the most visible witnesses for Christ.

“I totally believe in the separation of church and state,” he said. “But I totally believe in the involvement of citizens in the process.”

A great temptation exists for Christians to avoid political activism because of the character assassination faced by people in politics, he said, but solid Christian people must avoid that temptation and serve God when he calls them to run for office or speak to a hot-button issue.

“Now the good, Christian, upright gentleman doesn’t want to get out there in politics because they are going to ruin him, they are going to malign him, they are going to destroy him,” Smith said. “So you have got to have a strong faith in Christ and be a person without blame in order to live in that arena.”

In the end, the kingdom impact of a Christ-centered politician can change lives and reform society, he said.

“If you have people who have profile in the community, leadership flows down and not up. And people look to these people and they say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘How are you being successful?’ Just by virtue of their position they are a silent witness,” Smith said.

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