Should Christian Leaders Be Politically Partisan?
By: Deji Yesufu
This morning a good friend reached me and expressed concern over my open support for the presidential candidacy of Peter Obi. He is of the opinion that Christian leaders, even pastors, should not be openly partisan as far as politics is concerned. He feels that in the realm of politics, while a pastor may have a preferred candidate; because he oversees the spiritual life of many people in church, who will definitely have opposing candidates to his, he should not come out as partisan. But rather encourage God’s people to follow up on their civic duties: get their PVCs and vote for whoever their own preferred candidates are. He thinks that one of the things that have set me against some people in the church’s hierarchy that we both operate in is my openness about social issues on social media. He thinks I should focus more on the gospel and soul winning, and not allow people to label me along one political line or the other.
I thanked my friend very much for reaching out to me. The challenge that I have with many people is that rather than share such concerns with me, they form opinions about me behind my back and reach conclusions on my person that I know nothing about. I told my friend that I will think very seriously about his counsel and also pray about it. For me, essay writing is a means of thinking: if I am able to make an argument clear enough in an essay; especially having the opportunity to test my thoughts in the pool of public opinion – there is a way I am able to reach a conclusion on the point. Even though I am certain that until we leave this earth, such points of debates will never end. Hopefully they will get clearer and clearer as we grow older and we gain more experience on life issues. In my interview with Seun Akinnola, which will be broadcasted on Splash FM on Sunday, 4pm, I made the point that I think that Christian leaders should be partisan in politics. I want to elaborate on that point in this essay, while at the same time providing safe guards on how we should go about it.
The first point that I wish to make in defense of my action is to state that Christianity is the mother and architect of modern government and modern societies. Nothing emphasizes this point more than the ongoing conflict between Islam and Christianity in modern societies. If you do not realize it, understand that many Muslims, at least in the civil service, begrudge the fact that Friday is a work day. They believe that if Christians can have Sunday off, they should also have Friday to themselves. But the creators of the modern system of government made Monday to Friday as a work day – and those people had a Christian worldview at heart. They are the ones who abolished the monarchical systems of our fathers and instituted modern government. Now that we have such a government running, it appears to be incongruous with sound thinking for us Christians to leave the whole matter of governance and government to other people of different religion and worldview, while we Christians hide away in church (doing evangelism). I would think that if our forefathers bequeathed a Christian government to us, we ought to be preserving it. Today, Muslims are the leading political figures in the various political parties in the land all because Christians have sold themselves an idea that politics, governance and government should not be an environment where Christians should operate. And when they do operate there, we counsel our leaders to be quiet about their political opinions. I personally do not think this should be the case.
Another point that I raised with Seun Akinnola is that there is no Christian leader who is genuinely involved in the lives of his church members that would not get to the point of holding one political view or the other. If we are truly pastoring people, we would at one point or the other have acted as social welfare to the needy in church. When a church member is sick and unable to pay his bills, it is the pastor that rally church members around to meet the need. If there is a functioning medical insurance on ground, such a pastor will use that resources to meet other needs. It is pastors that see young men in the congregation remain unmarried, not because they do not have girlfriends or a raging hormone underneath them; but because they do not have jobs that can provide a regular income to take care of a wife and children. Is there a church in Nigeria where pastors do not encourage members to come to church and then promise to give them transportation to and from church?
True pastoral ministry, not this nonsense that feast on the poor, is one that identifies with the social needs of people and it is one that sees government as a means of meeting those needs. Of course there will be no end to the needs of people in society but at the least some basic things that should be common to all men in a modern society should be available to them. If the Nigerian government had provided education and jobs to the teaming youths in northern Nigeria, it will be impossible for Mohammed Yusuf to have sold Boko Haram ideas to those young people – destabilizing the country today. Boko Haram ideologies cannot thrive in Western Nigeria, despite the high Muslim population we have here, because the Yorubas have successfully transcended a certain threshold in education, skill and common life that will make it impossible for such ideologies to thrive here. And Western Nigeria is what she is because of a certain Christian worldview that men like Obafemi Awolowo advocated with his free and compulsory education at some point in this region of the country.
A third point that I wish to raise, before I even attempt to look at the Bible, is that the system of government that we practice in Nigeria is one that was copied from the British and the Americans – two countries that were once steeped in Christian worldviews. In these countries, Christian clergies have always been foremost commentators on political issues. In America the Republicans and Democrats are the two leading political parties. The Republicans are conservative and Christian; while the Democrats are liberals. The mere fact that the Democrats hold to the ideology of being open to abortion and gay marriage has made the party ignominious to Christians in America. I know of one pastor who said that he will get the church he leads to institute church discipline on any member of his church that votes for the Democratic Party. While I think that this is a rather extreme measure, I see that the congregation that he leads are not political neophytes. It is clear what parties the leaders support and there are certain minimums that cannot be overlooked while voting among Christians in America. While I understand that the Christian pulpit should not be used as an avenue for canvassing support for political leaders; I also know that the pastor or Christian leader has other platforms where he airs he views and such platforms ought to be used to express his political views if he has them.
Finally, let us come to the Bible. Does the Bible have an opinion regarding whether or not Christian leaders should be openly partisan or not? It is at this point that there should be liberty and charity while expressing our views. I am positive that there is no clear cut command in the Bible regarding this. However, we have examples that we can allude to so as to reach conclusions that are Christian and biblical. We have the Old Testament where God ruled Israel via a theocracy. First he ruled his people via prophets, and then subsequently via judges and then finally via kings. One thing was constant in all of these: God was actively involved in the appointing of the political rulers of Israel. Today, the Israel of God is the Christian Church. The Church’s primary assignment in the world is not that of civil governance but I think it is safe to say that the Church ought to be able to influence government and governance positively. These are the New Testament’s exclusive counsel on government and how Christians ought to relate with them:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Will thou then not be afraid of the power? Do what is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he (government) is the minister of God to thee for good…” (Romans 13:1-4).
Paul in this passage does not answer the question of whether or not Christian leaders should be partisan. But he makes it clear that government regulates the standard of good and evil in society. Government rewards the good and punishes evil. Ultimately government creates the standard of good and evil in society through laws. But how does government know what is good and evil? The church instructs government and society at large as regarding what is right and wrong. And the way the church does this is by getting her leaders to point to government what is the standard of right and wrong. Thus in a democratic society, where people are given options to choose those who will rule them; I suppose that the church should be the one pointing out the moral fabrics of proposed leaders and helping people to understand why one person should trump another as far as their moral worldview is concerned. So while we have a political figure buying his way into political relevance, it is the duty of the church to point to another political figure who has a reputation for not playing money politics. If the church cannot influence the moral compass of society, the church ceases to be the salt and light that Christ has called her to be. And those who will lead this campaign for the church are obviously the church leaders. Thus, church leaders cannot but be partisan when it comes to politics.
The world today is far from what it was in biblical times. Yet, the commands of God stand constant, sure and applicable to all men until the end of the age. God is good. God has called his people to uphold moral standards in our world today. Whether or not our preferred candidate is morally perfect or not, Christians enter into the political arena and they must choose the best among evils. We must make informed decisions; we must not make decisions based on whether or not our candidate will win; we cannot hide behind some perceived reputation as pastors and say we do not wish to soil ourselves with the dirty waters of politics; whether we like it or not, the future of our country will still be based on the political decisions we take today.
It is possible that the person we support and elect to power, fails to meet the high standards we expected of him. At such a time, it is the Christian minister that should be the first to come out and condemn such a political figure. If all Christian ministers in this country are politically conscious and genuinely concerned about the social wellbeing of their people; if they all instruct their members to vote along partisan lines; the political elites in this country will have no choice but to kowtow to what Christians demand. And since Christians demand righteousness, justice and equity, society will only get better. But as long as we hide behind some perceived notion that Christian leaders should not be partisan, we should not be surprised that the political arena is left to dogs to play in while princes bemoan the situation in the country. It is the perfect depiction of the scripture that says “I have seen servants on horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth” (Ecclesiastes 10:7).
I have not seen a vision that shows me that Peter Obi is going to be the messiah that will save Nigeria. What I am however sure of is that the little that I have seen of his credential trumps whatever else all the other political gladiators bring to the table in our political life as a country. I have long delivered myself from the mentality of voting for someone because he has a higher possibility of winning an election. This time I will vote my conscience and urge others to vote along those lines too. After I have done my part, I will entrust the end result to the wonderful sovereignty of God that is able to use all things – good and bad – to bring about his good purposes. Amen.