Evangelicals are conflicted about how pastors should address political issues. Even if we're convinced that working for social justice is an essential task for gospel-motivated Christians (read this piece for a good explanation), pastors still struggle to know how to go about it. Should you preach about social justice? How political is too political? Should pastors advocate for particular policies or let their congregations make up their own minds?
I'm guessing a radio host had questions like this in mind when he asked me during an interview about Demanding Liberty how Isaac Backus (who spent his entire adult life advocating for religious liberty) reconciled his work as a political activist with his calling to full-time ministry. Did he feel "called" to politics, too? It's a good question that I hadn't really thought about before but that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since.
The short answer is, Backus only ever expressed being called to pastoral ministry (and he wrote a little book about it). As far as I know, he never talked about feeling "called" to politics. It's worth mentioning, of course, that both of these terms—calling and politics—mean something different now than they did back then. But we can engage the question without worrying too much about that, because Backus did consider his writing about and lobbying for religious liberty as part of his calling to gospel ministry.
That is, Backus didn't think of his work for religious liberty as a side issue or soapbox that took his attention away from ministry. Rather, his work for liberty was an essential part of his serving his flock. There are (at least) two reasons for this.
First, Backus was a Baptist pastor and Baptists were both greatly disliked and greatly misunderstood by many Americans in Backus's generation. They were considered dangerous because they broke with tradition by refusing to baptize their children. Some of them refused to pay taxes, which added to their bad public image. So Backus started writing, first, to correct misperceptions about Baptists by spelling out what he and his fellow worshippers actually believed.
Second, Backus eventually turned his attention to writing about—and fighting for—religious liberty because his congregants were experiencing persecution. They were taxed, fined, jailed, harassed, and the few laws in place to protect them were often ignored. For Backus, writing about religious liberty, lobbying the state and, eventually, the federal governments—and even developing a plan for wide-scale civil disobedience—were all practical and logical acts of pastoral care. Failing to address the real-life experience of his congregation would have been pastoral malpractice.
By default it appears evangelical Christians have decided to make a distinction between moral issues and political issues. Abortion and same-sex marriage are moral issues, so it's appropriate for pastors to preach about these things and actively address them in the public sphere. Poverty, criminal justice, racial conflict and systemic injustice—these, we've decided, are political issues and are therefore inappropriate for pastors to discuss.
I'm no expert, but I get the sense that this distinction between moral and political issues is one only white evangelicals make. One that only white evangelicals have the luxury to make. And because we make this distinction, white evangelicals have a tendency to view nonwhite evangelicals as too political, too focused on activism, too "cultural" and not biblical enough.
Backus didn't make that distinction. He addressed the issue that was a pressing immediate and practical need for his congregation: the issue of legal protection for religious liberty. It was a political problem. But because it affected his congregation directly, it was also a pastoral problem.
My short time living in a city, in proximity to vibrant communities of faith, has me convinced that minority congregations know something that white evangelicals have forgotten. There are great examples of pastors in this great city whose congregants have pressing social needs. They've been fined, jailed, harassed, and the laws in place to protect them have often been ignored. Instead of making the faith political, pastors who address these issues are bringing the light of Scripture to bear and applying the grace of Christ to the congregation's greatest challenges. If we need a precedent within the white evangelical tradition to do the same, we have it. But precedent isn't enough. We need examples of how to do it faithfully. For that we'll have to submit to and follow the example of the minority leaders among us.