Rev. Wiley Drake is at it again. The pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, CA has often been outspoken and claiming influence (if any) afforded him as a former 2nd Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently he endorsed former Governor Mike Huckabee for President of the United States. Drake called on all Southern Baptists to get behind Huckabee saying “I believe God has chosen Mike for such an hour, and I believe all those running Mike Huckabee will listen to God.”

It’s not so much his endorsement that generated attention. It was his method, as he utilized church letterhead to get his message of support out. His efforts caught the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which is not the sort of institution you want to disturb if you can help it. Under federal tax law, clergy can discuss politics and issues but must stop short of endorsing a political candidate. I’m sure Drake knew this but felt this technicality should be overlooked. It’s not the first time he has done something to gain media attention, and I won’t go into all those efforts.

While appreciating his right to an opinion, I don’t believe pastors ought to be in the business of endorsing politicians for office. I had a friend run for judge once and I got out and held a sign for him, but didn’t mention it from the pulpit or newsletter. This is not what I mean. I’ve seen and heard of churches being used for political platforms rather than places of worship. It is appropriate to discuss issues, like poverty, justice, racism, and the environment. I can see healthy discussions on these matters as well as others. But, there are too many folks in our churches with differing opinions who need to be respected without hearing who they should vote for in an election. I would be hard pressed to call someone an unbeliever simply because he or she doesn’t vote the way I do. Unfortunately, this approach has not always been the case among some Baptist bretheren who equate political conformity to doctrinal accuracy.

Pastors ought to be spiritual leaders first and foremost without compromising their position as shepherd of the flock. Anytime a pastor throws his support for a candidate, he runs the risk of alienating some of his own members. I understand how important someone’s viewpoint can be, and of course religion and politics are two of those subjects that we are told to avoid. At least Huckabee got out of the pastorate in order to pursue his interests in politics. He has been a governor longer than a pastor, from what I understand. Drake’s backing won’t have any serious impact on the election but should serve as an object lesson for the rest of us.

I still believe in that precious Baptist distinctive of church/state separation, and hope that Baptist preachers maintain a prophetic voice in challenging the people to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. We don’t need to get distracted and fight spiritual forces with physical means. This has been the track record of the SBC, and hopefully the New Baptist Covenant celebration avoided this politicization of gathering Baptists from around the continent. Time will tell. Preaching during an election year can be a delicate balancing act, but focusing on issues rather than identities can go a long way toward informing the people without alienating them. It can be a delicate balancing act, but at least I won’t be using the church letterhead to tell our people who to vote for in November.