According to this story, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli recently spoke to approximately 250 church leaders, outlining what they are allowed to do when it comes to political engagement. A personal endorsement of a candidate is permissible under the law, Cuccinelli said, but they cannot use their church to endorse anyone. Churches may distribute voter guides explaining the issue positions of candidates, as long as those guides do not also contain the positions of the church on those issues. Cuccinelli assured the pastors, though, that speaking out on political issues is not only legal, but appropriate.

“When you became a pastor, you didn’t leave your First Amendment rights at the door,” he said. “Continue to be good shepherds to your congregations – and don’t be afraid when your shepherding includes giving guidance on issues that fall in the political world, because those are the same issues your congregants face each day in their world. Let your voice be heard. Speak out and guide your flock toward what is right and what is true.”

Cuccinelli’s legal advice is welcome and useful. But what individual ministers have to determine is not simply what their rights are but how to wisely exercise them. It’s not as easy as it may seem.

Over the years, for example, liberal and conservative churches and their pastors have damaged their credibility by taking stands on issues to which they brought no special competence or insight. In addition, there is a strong temptation to simplistically connect the dots between moral principles and particular public policies. Most issues, however, involve prudential judgment about which honorable people can disagree. And even on matters on which pastors may believe a biblical principle is clear, it’s not self-evident what the proper course of political action might be.

Beyond all this is the fact that the vast majority of people attend church in order to be enlightened on matters of faith rather than politics. They hear quite enough about the City of Man during the week; for a short period of time on the weekend they might feel the need to reflect on the City of God. And because many congregations consist of people with a wide spectrum of political beliefs, when pastors weigh in on political matters some portion of the congregation will (understandably) take offense.

The role of the church and its leaders, at least as some of us interpret it, is to provide its members with a moral framework through which they can work out their duties as citizens and engage the world in a thoughtful way. It is one thing for a minister to speak about the inherent worth of every human life, our obligations to care for the poor and persecuted, and the importance of sexual fidelity and creation care; it is quite another to offer opinions on legislation and partisan battles.

Drawing these lines is inherently subjective and people can speak in code easily enough (making their views clear without being explicit about it). But as a general proposition ministers should resist the temptation to instruct congregants on how to do their job or which specific public policies they ought to embrace. As Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church has said, “The church as the church ought to be less concerned about speaking to politics and more concerned about service.”

And for good reason. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are not governing blueprints, ministers are not policy experts, and the church is not a place for political advocacy. It is a place to minister to souls, to heal wounds, and to dispense grace. So while ministers certainly have a First Amendment right to express their political views, they should realize that there are substantial costs when the faith to which they have declared their allegiance is seen, with some justification, as merely a tool of a specific political ideology or subordinate to a political party.