Politically Feeble Churches and the Strategic Imperative

by James A. Nash

Dr. Nash is executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 6, 1982, p. 983. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Some forebears in the faith spent an uncommon amount of time in encounters with political leaders. In our time, we have a duty to maximize our effectiveness in influencing governmental decision-making. Ultimately the coming of God’s Kingdom is in some way related to our sociopolitical achievements.

In seminary I read certain biblical stories not only for their theological significance but also for their strategic value in political action. I couldn’t resist the temptation to do strategic exegesis; for example, of Nathan’s manipulating David into condemning himself, of St. Paul’s flattering defense before King Agrippa, of Micaiah’s gutsy predictions to King Ahab, and of Jeremiah’s one-man demonstration at the Benjamin gate. Mordecai and Esther, it seemed to me, were at least the equals of Machiavelli, while Moses’ tactical excesses in his confrontations with Pharaoh clearly lacked political subtlety.

My hermeneutical quirks aside, the fact is that some forebears in the faith spent an uncommon amount of time in encounters with political leaders. These biblical figures often devised imaginative strategies to exercise political influence. Their tactics are probably too culture-bound to give much guidance to our time and place; yet, their witness to political theologies by taking strategic actions is a potent goad to this generation of churches and Christians. Today, political activity is too often mistaken for political strategy. Theological-ethical reflections on political issues are surrogates for strategic action. Pronouncements alone are presumed to be effective deeds.

The church is commissioned by Christ to be in and for the world. If we are called to build now social contributions to the ultimate reign of God’s love to come -- a claim that no longer needs much argument anywhere on the ecclesiastical spectrum -- then we are bound by a strategic imperative. That is, we have a duty to maximize our effectiveness in influencing governmental decision-making. What is the nature and character of this mandate? In what directions does it point and pull mainline Protestantism?

Despite our reputation in some circles, especially among those who oppose what they think we’re doing, “liberal” mainline churches in America are seriously deficient in understanding and practicing the arts of political influence. Despite some impressive exceptions, a prominent feature of most liberal Protestantism is its strategic quietism: that is, the lack of political strategy, of a decent respect for political effectiveness. My complaint is not against those brothers and sisters in the faith who are indifferent or hostile to the political mission of the church. Instead, my target is my “own kind,” those who advocate corporate political action as a means to the goal of social transformation.

Although strategic quietism takes many forms, there are two that have predominated in my experience -- and perhaps they are my own personal temptations. They can be described as apolitical activism and political avoidance.

Apolitical activism is a social witness seemingly without political intentions -- without much, if any, concern for political consequences. Adverse effects on politicians or the alienation of public opinion apparently are matters of indifference. Whether apolitical activists are motivated by lofty theological and ethical rationales or by little more than a feeling of rage against poverty, war and injustice, they seem to hold to the same essential features: righteous irrelevance, privatistic protest, and a sectarian or “Christ-against-culture” outlook.

Perhaps the negative effects of these people’s actions are contrary to their intentions -- the unexpected results, for instance, of romantic-utopian illusions about human beings. Nonetheless, I sense that essentially apolitical activism is therapeutic rather than strategic. Personal comfort, satisfaction or “purity” can be found in “confronting the establishment” or “imitating the prophets.”

Apolitical activism is often visible in public demonstrations and tactics of disruption. Of course, not all demonstrations and demonstrators can be judged on the basis of a few; each must be evaluated situationally. As the civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam-war rallies amply testify, such public tactics often have political intentions and profoundly positive effects -- particularly by dramatizing grievances and generating public awareness and sympathy. Demonstrative tactics can be valuable lobbying techniques, either directly on legislators or indirectly on public opinion -- especially in a time when television cameras need visible images.

The virtues of apolitical activists are the strength of their commitments to social justice and the validation of their beliefs by deeds. Their fury and fervor in an age of nuclear madness and corporate banditry are reflections of divine judgment and prods to consciences. Their dismissal of political strategy, however, rarely brings God’s liberation and reconciliation much closer.

Political avoidance, the other prominent form of strategic quietism, is, I believe, the more harmful of the two. Though equally ineffective, it is more common and less fervent. By substituting reflections and rhetoric for actions which confirm and embody the words, it replaces reality with appearances. It gives the illusion of political activity but ducks actual political involvement.

Political strategies frequently are treated like unwanted offspring of political theologies. The kinship is formally acknowledged, as it must be, since the strategic imperative for Christians is parented by and dependent on the nurture of theology and ethics. But in practice the relationship is often denied, with strategy being ignored and neglected. The pursuit of social justice through politics has numerous cheerleaders and pop liberationists in mainline Protestantism, but pathetically few who are strategically active.

Too frequently, we ignore political “trivia,” such as letter-writing to Congress, and instead await opportunities for thrilling crusades to create change. We forget that it is often the accumulation of trivia which, in fact, has launched social transformations -- including regressive ones! The 1981 federal legislation slashing taxes and budget, for example, might not have passed, according to some congressional offices, without the mighty stream of letters supporting the president’s proposals and the corresponding un-Amoslike mere trickle for justice.

One indication of political avoidance is the scarcity of books and articles on political strategy for churches, in contrast to the virtual glut of theological and ethical justifications for political practice. The publishers’ focus continues to be on why rather than on how, perhaps because readers are more interested in pondering than in doing. One of the few solid books on churches and strategy is Methodism and Society: Guidelines for Strategy, by Paul K. Deats and Herbert Stotts (Abingdon) -- and it was published in 1962! On the assumption that supply responds to demand, I will believe that liberal Protestantism is serious about political activity when there are even one-tenth as many manuals on political strategy for churches as there now are on church fund-raising.

Among the various ploys for shunning while appearing to embrace political activism are press coverage and issue-oriented conferences intended as ends in themselves, rather than as means to political ends. And the prime example of political avoidance can be the church resolution.

Someone has justifiably described mainline churches as “resolutionary societies.” Resolutions on social issues are the very heartthrob of many church conferences, and they can indeed have an educational impact on church members, as can a conference debate. But effective ingredients must be included, and the statement should have something of substance to say. Some resolutions are outstanding and effective, but some appear to have been written in a half-hour or less, and produce effects that match the efforts. Resolutions, moreover, serve the critical function of authorizing and legitimizing political action -- and there’s the main rub! Regularly, the passage of a church resolution functions as a surrogate rather than a stimulus. It is mistakenly regarded as being in itself an act of political influence. Prelude becomes finale, and any follow-up is a rarity. Any political effects, therefore, are accidental, since politicians, if rational, remain unmoved. But the resolvers have “done something,” satisfying their yearning to “respond.” The process may be psychologically therapeutic, but it is not politically effective. The resolution cannot be the completion; it is only the beginning of political strategy.

Although I have written a stack of resolutions and still affirm their potential for educational and political efficacy, nonetheless I propose -- only half facetiously -- a moratorium of at least three years on church resolutions. We can then concentrate our energies, so depleted by passing resolutions, on implementing a small percentage of those we have already passed.

Ironically, among the few American religious groups to respond earnestly to liberal Protestant rhetoric about political involvement is the Moral Majority and its ilk. Such groups perceive mainline Protestantism as a politically active influence, and apparently that perception served as the pattern on which their countervailing force was structured. We can condemn the moral exclusions and the tactics practiced by those on the religious right, but we must give grudging applause to their zealous appropriation of the church’s strategic imperative. Our rhetoric helped to teach them. Now, can we, in turn, learn from them?

Should we interpret the emergence of the religious right as God’s judgment on our political flabbiness? Dare we see Jerry Falwell as God’s rod of anger, the staff of fury -- let alone the one anointed like Cyrus? Is the religious right being used as a tool of God to call the rest of us to repentance for our own parochial visions and strategic quietism?

No matter how we evaluate the religious right theologically, irony will be doubled if we are prodded to relearn from its adherents what they learned from us. After all, the most fitting response of liberal Protestantism to the fundamentalist phenomenon is to embrace the strategic imperative warmheartedly -- and give the fundamentalists, if we can, further lessons in doing politics with honesty and humility.

Now let us turn from rejections of the strategic imperative and look at this commission stated positively. If theology is faith seeking understanding, then strategy can be viewed as faith seeking realization. The derivation of the word conveys the critical nature of the task. In classical Greek, strategia denoted the command exercised by a military general in directing overall military movements and operations. The term was a combination of two Greek words meaning literally “to lead an army.”

It is impossible for me to imagine -- let alone desire -- that our incohesive churches could behave like combat units taking orders and acting with coordination. Nonetheless, the origin of the word is a forceful reminder that strategy is serious business, often a matter of life and death. In American politics, where the powers of governments of all kinds -- federal, state and local -- are crucial in determining the common good, and where countless organizations -- most of them with predatory instincts -- are trying to influence decisions, strategy remains a sobering enterprise. Life can hang in the balance. In fact, it would not hurt to read a few military manuals and histories, and then try to transvalue those classical principles of strategy for the sake of our social hopes.

From a church perspective, strategy is the rational process of making our visions visible. It is planning actions to realize goals, the discipline of using means to achieve ends. Political strategy is the effort to influence governmental decision-makers (legislators, executives, bureaucrats) to think and/or act in accord with our will.

Without drawing any ethical lines at this point, we can list certain means of influence: deceptions, bribes (or “honoraria”), seductions, favors, threats, promises, rational persuasion. Influence can be effected by direct action (“buttonholing” a member of Congress) or indirect action (“grass-roots lobbying”). Exercising political influence is by no means synonymous with applying political “pressure,” a mechanical analogy which describes only some forms of influence. On the other hand, political influence usually results from far more than persuasion alone -- even when practiced by church representatives. Thus, political strategy involves not merely speaking truth to power, but also -- and more so -- speaking power to power.

Despite the complexities, political strategies for churches must not become esoterica for elites, practiced only by those duly trained and ordained to its mysteries. Of equal importance, political strategy cannot exist as a casual, undisciplined expression of mere common sense. While very few who have mastered the practical arts of political strategy have ever heard of “games theories,” we can be sure that none has failed to do his or her homework in understanding the governmental process, the provisions and problems of any particular policy or piece of legislation, or the dynamics of human behavior. Strategy is a multidisciplinary phenomenon which depends for its effectiveness on the wisdom from a host of fields: psychology, sociology, political science, ethics.

Like the whole of the moral life, strategy requires reflection and discipline. But these prerequisites are not so intellectually or morally formidable that the formation of political strategy cannot be broadly inclusive. On practical as well as theological grounds, strategic planning for political action by the people of God must be a task both participatory and disciplined.

The motivating power behind political strategy is the desire to be effective, to bring our ethical hopes to fruition. If the church has a duty to influence the decisions of governments, then the church has a concomitant duty to act relevantly by willing the means necessary to achieve its political ends. In this sense, political strategy is the incarnation of liberation. Since Christian ethics is a matter of thinking and doing, of action as much as reflection, then strategy as the implementation of vision is no less important than theology as the clarification of vision.

Political strategies, of course, must operate within the bounds of ethical restraints, especially since reliance on the pragmatic criterion of effectiveness can be so appealing and yet so morally dangerous. Some political, tactics are simply wrong -- if, for example, the means are disproportionate to the ends or otherwise prohibitively costly.

However, my problem with most political strategies by churches is not that the means are morally harmful, but rather that they are politically innocuous. Our tactics are not morally excessive; they are politically -- and morally -- insufficient.

The strategic imperative is not simply a generalized commission. It consists also of particular directions and guidelines, like “middle axioms” in ethics. Four of these guidelines for political strategy are especially relevant for mainline churches. They highlight both our roles and our dilemmas.

First, the strategic imperative on the American scene calls for “prudent prophecy” -- social witness through political adaptation. American-style lobbying is a comparatively conservative process. Radical challenges are not conducive to effective action. To influence political decision-makers, who in general hold their positions because they are not doubters or challengers of the system’s fundamentals, political activists usually must accommodate to the basic practices and premises of the institutions.

Adaptive behavior is evident in both means and goals. In terms of means, most of the basic techniques of influence -- personal visits, letter-writing campaigns, testimonies at public hearings -- are shared by all practitioners of the art. Moral restraints and available resources limit some more than others from using unsavory methods.

In terms of goals, major departures from the value assumptions of the culture are not often rewarded. For example, one can argue for reductions in the military budget or even for disarmament, so long as one does not argue the case on pacifist principles.

Some will claim that “prudent prophecy” is a contradiction in terms. My assumption is that prudence -- as the calculation of consequences -- and prophecy as political witness -- are compatible and essential to one another (at least in the United States and other democratic nations, where procedures of popular election and rights of petition generally provide structured opportunities for political change). Ethical injunctions to seek the best possible, to extend the present bounds of the possible, and to use means relevant to the situation point to the value of prudent prophecy.

A most grievous error, however, is to assume that prudent prophecy is relevant in all circumstances. I doubt its remotest possibility of effectiveness in some parts of Latin America, and there are plenty of situations in the United States where a more confrontational approach to cultural values is essential. The strategic imperative usually implies prudent prophecy in our political context. Other situations demand other prophetic roles.

Second, the strategic imperative requires sustained concentration on a few social concerns, but the nature of sociological church-type institutions places premiums on diffusion and faddism. The advantage of a single-issue organization, such as the National Rifle Association, is that its members join because of their commitment to the specific cause. The organization, therefore, has an inherent mandate to focus its political attention doggedly on its reason for being.

Mainline churches, by contrast, have an inherent dilemma. They have heterogeneous memberships, and their bases of unity are “spiritual” and not political. Thus, at least as denominational bodies, American churches contain multiple cleavages of social opinion and priorities.

The result is great difficulty in concentrating on a limited number of issues for common action. To satisfy the clamor of competing interests -- not to mention the agonizing problem of making choices among the multitude of real injustices -- mainline churches tend to focus on too many issues and for too little time to be effective. Even when a priority is selected, it is often neglected in response to an accumulation of little necessities; for example, emergencies which “just can’t be ignored and won’t take much time.” Or, it may soon be forgotten as a new and more glamorous fad seduces the attention of a mercurial church public and its leadership.

Concentration and persistence -- the will to deploy our energies and resources for whatever time is necessary to achieve an objective -- are keys to political power. Mainline Protestant churches have shown these qualities on occasion, but too often for reasons of self-interest or status; examples are opposition to postal-rate increases and the waging of antibingo campaigns. The civil rights legislation of the ‘60s, however, indicates what can be done.

If we are to meet the demands of the strategic imperative with tolerable consistency, a critical factor will be our success in resolving the dilemma between incohesion and tenacity.

Third, the strategic imperative depends on the disciplined asking and answering of a host of logistical and pragmatic questions. Political strategy floats or sinks with realistic calculations of what can be done and how. Here is a sampling of the numerous questions:

What resources of time, money, leadership and skill are actually or potentially available?

Is the political climate favorable or unfavorable? Is the inevitable opposition strong or weak?

What arguments, pressures or tactics will sway targeted legislators and administrators? Is the intent to convert, coerce, ignore or simply commend particular decision-makers? How can we be opportunistic, acting at the best time in each strategic stage?

Can we really generate action among a politically significant segment of the church constituency? How can a complex and technical issue be translated without distortion into the brief, understandable and “arousing” message necessary for popular involvement?

What process will be used to evaluate successes and failures, in order to avoid errors the next time?

As unexciting and traumatizing as these questions may be, they are the essential “stuff” of strategy. The most serious flaws in political strategies by church bodies are logistical miscalculations; for example, sending a third-class mailing of legislative “alerts” to constituents three days prior to a legislative decision, or assuming that everyone knows the names and telephone numbers of his or her legislators. The errors are often simple -- and costly. Strategic questions, whether simple or complex, are all essential. Our attention to both the details and the general plan will determine whether or not we are “wise as serpents.”

Fourth, the strategic imperative in politics generally demands coalescence, but not necessarily coalitions, with allies. Cooperation with other organizations, either in coalitions or through parallel actions, is usually essential for political success. Multilateral action provides opportunities for joint planning, shared information, mutual counsel and correction, a division of labor, and the potential for greater power.

For churches, cooperation in the political arena generally involves ecumenical structures, either ad hoc or permanent. When a consensus exists on both an issue and the priority status of that issue, ecumenical organizations become an essential means for coordinating and implementing strategic action. No church body today has the power to act in splendid isolation; what strength we have lies in cooperation.

Political cooperation with secular organizations (and perhaps some religious bodies) poses special problems. A coalition between churches and other organizations can symbolize the unity of humanity for which the church is to be a sign. Yet such a coalition might not enhance the churches’ capacities to gain support from their own members or from politicians; for example, some of the coalition partners might have a negative image or might be likely to use unacceptable tactics. My experiences with such “solidarity committees” have more often than not been unfavorable. Conflicting values among the partners can sometimes distort or dilute Christian perspectives. Some secular partners also try to use the churches for the sake of their own political ends. However, whether or not churches should participate in religious/secular coalitions depends on the potential allies and the variables in each case.

Even when formal coalitions are rejected, coalescence through parallel actions -- perhaps by pooling information -- is vital. To be politically effective, churches need plenty of anonymous allies. In the cacophony of American politics, churches can achieve their political goals not when they are soloists, but only when they are part of a total chorus of demands for a particular change. If a conjunction of circumstances is favorable, churches can be a decisive factor in politics, adding that extra margin of influence which tips the balance of power.

Granted, winning isn’t everything. The church is bound by ethical restraints on means and ends which prevent winning at any cost. Yet winning is infinitely better than losing! While such “liberal” causes as arms control, economic justice and civil liberties are taking a battering in this time and place, we cannot blame it on our ethical inhibitions. Rather, one (though only one) of the key reasons is our strategic quietism and political feebleness. If the church’s intention is to go beyond the functions of social education and cultural influence, valuable though these are, and to exercise a direct, corporate witness in the political sphere, then we cannot avoid the demands of the strategic imperative and its emphasis on “playing to win.” Contrary to the popular claim that we are called to be faithful but not successful, fidelity for churches in politics is the strategic effort to succeed.

I know that, penultimately, our social hopes depend on our moral designs and on our will and skill to build on those designs. I am confident that ultimately the coming of God’s Kingdom is in some way related to our sociopolitical achievements. In either case, and especially if Matthew 25 is right that we will be judged with special severity for our sins of omission, we would do well to take a few more lessons in strategic realism from the children of this world, who “are wiser in their own generation than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).