Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. John C. Hagee, and Father Michael Pfleger share at least one assumption: that politics has a place in the pulpit. Presbyterian pastor, educator, and theologian James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) had something to say about that error.
A South Carolinian, Thornwell was instrumental in founding the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Southern Presbyterians set up their own denomination only after their Northern brethren, in the 1861 General Assembly, voted to make loyalty to the United States a religious obligation.
The Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina met in Abbeville in November of that year. While these ministers and elders were assembled, they unanimously declared their personal loyalty to their country. The Confederacy was struggling for its survival in an “ unjust, cruel, and tyrannical” war, its success “ the only hope of constitutional liberty, on this continent.” They went on to endorse President Davis’ call for a day of fasting and prayer. But the Abbeville resolution was passed by men acting, they were careful to emphasize, “ not in their ecclesiastical capacity as a court of Jesus Christ, but in their private capacity.” Despite the passions of war, they understood that the church must be above politics or even patriotism. Thornwell had taught them well.
The following quotations (taken from The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, published in 4 volumes) speak to the sorry situation that exists in America today, as churchmen of the right and left, black and white, confuse their own opinions with the Gospel.
During the twenty-five years in which I have fulfilled my course as a preacher– all of which have been spent in my native State, and nearly all in this city [Columbia, South Carolina]– I have never introduced secular politics into the instructions of the pulpit. It has been a point of conscience with me to know no party in the State. Questions of law and public administration I have left to the tribunals appointed to settle them, and have confined my exhortations to those great matters that pertain immediately to the kingdom of God. I have left it to Cæ sar to take care of his own rights, and have insisted only upon the supreme rights of the Almighty. The angry disputes of the forum I have excluded from the house of the Lord. And while all classes have been exhorted to the discharge of their common duties, as men, as citizens, as members of the family, while the sanctions of religion have, without scruple, been applied to all the relations of life, whether public or private, civil or domestic, the grounds of dissension which divide the community into parties, and range its members under different banners, have not been permitted to intrude into the sanctuary. The business of a preacher, as such, is to expound the Word of God. He has no commission to go beyond the teaching of the Scriptures. He has no authority to expound to senators the Constitution of the State, nor to interpret for judges the law of the land. In the civil and political sphere the dead must bury their dead. [“ Sermon on National Sins,” CW4, 511]
The Church, it is true, is to declare and enforce revealed Truth, and, among other duties, she is to enjoin obedience to the powers that be. But when the question arises, who and what those powers are, and how far obedience must be carried, the Church must remit the answer to the civil tribunals of the land, and to the dictates of the individual conscience. She has no commission from her Lord to declare what form of government any people shall adopt, how long they shall continue to maintain it, or under what circumstances they shall change it. Her members, as citizens, may and should take an active part in all discussions of the kind, but her courts, as authoritative tribunals of Christ, must be as silent as their Master. General principles she may and must announce— the eternal principles of the moral law; but their concrete application to political constitutions and political changes does not fall within the limits of her power. [“ Reasons for Separate Organization,” CW4, 440]
If she [the church] undertakes to meddle with the things of Cæ sar, she must expect to be crushed by the sword of Cæ sar. If she condescends to put herself upon the level with the countless institutes which philanthropy or folly has contrived for the earthly good of the race, she must expect to share the fate of human devices and expedients. She is of God, and if she forgets that it is her Divine prerogative to speak in the name and by the authority of God– if she relinquishes the dialect of Canaan, and stoops to babble in the dialects of earth– she must expect to be treated as a babbler .... We have seen the experiment tried in certain quarters of reducing the Church to the condition of a voluntary society, aiming at the promotion of universal good. We have seen her treated as a contrivance for every species of reform— individual, social, political. We have seen her foremost, under the plea of philanthropy, in every species of moral knight-errantry, from the harmless project of a pin-cushion club, to the formation of conspiracies for convulsing governments to their very centre. The result has been precisely what might have been expected. Christ has been expelled from these pulpits, and almost the only Gospel which is left them is the gospel of the Age of Reason. [“ Theology as a Life in Individuals and in the Church,” CW2, 45– 47]
Jesus Christ is the only king in Zion— the Bible, the only statute-book He has given to His people, and whatever is beside, or contrary to it, is no part of the faith or duty of the Church. [“ The Revised Book of Discipline,” CW4, 312]
[T]he Church is not at liberty to speculate. She has a creed, but no opinions. When she speaks, it must be in the name of the Lord, and her only argument is Thus it is written. [“ The Relation of the Church to Slavery,” CW4, 384]