Saturday, October 25, 2008

Politics in the pulpit: My view

With the election fast approaching, I am more than ready for the political campaigns to end and the basketball season to begin. But we are not quite there yet.

Last Sunday Associate Rector David McIlhiney preached at St. Paul’s about the tension of living as a citizen in a democracy and as a faithful follower of Jesus. As I read his sermon, David was admonishing all of us to not confuse the candidate we favor with the Messiah. The crux his sermon is here: “We’re very much in the same position as the Pharisee in today’s story. Whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, then, we need to be careful that we don’t become as self-righteous as he was.”

Yet some have raised with me the question about whether political topics are fit for Sunday morning sermons. The question is fair, and percolates in every election. I bring a unique perspective to this question, having been a political writer for nearly a quarter of a century before entering the priesthood, and then later as a staff member of the California State Senate. I have many friends in politics, both Republicans and Democrats, liberals, conservatives, and moderates. Those I have gotten to know best entered politics out of a deep sense of public service, and they have brought enormous creativity – even genius at times – to their work even when forging public policy has become more complex, and the public has become more scornful and ideologically polarized.

So, I begin first by sharing the concern of many about mixing politics in the pulpit. I do not think it appropriate to be endorsing presidential candidates from the pulpit, and I fully understand that most people come to church for something other than campaign politics. If we want a campaign speech there are better places to get it than in church on Sunday morning.

Second, I have no intention of endorsing anyone for president in this election, and I have a deep concern about those pastors who are endorsing presidential candidates in their churches and who are unleashing their resources in support of those candidates. It should be pointed out that the pastors who have done so have been overwhelmingly in favor of John McCain. Most of the politics-in-the-pulpit that I am aware of is coming from the McCain camp; and, in fact, the St. Paul’s office in recent days has been inundated with “robocalls” soliciting our church’s support for McCain. You should also see the Associated Press story today entitled Christian Right intensifies attack on Obama, about the political work of Focus on the Family among other religious-right groups. The Mormon Church, meanwhile, is one of the leading backers of Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage in California, and is making phone calls to California voters from Utah. 

On the other side, it is long the practice of Democratic candidates to visit African American churches on the Sunday before election day. As a reporter I accompanied many of those candidates, including Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis and a host of lesser candidates on whirlwind tours of black churches (and seeing the stiff-necked, buttoned-up Alan Cranston in a black church was worth giving up a Sunday). I expect we will see Democratic candidates touring African American churches next Sunday.

The larger question is whether political subjects are fit subjects for sermons on Sunday. I generally agree that public policy topics do not easily lend themselves to sermon topics, and certainly not short sermons. But the difficulty with never discussing politics in any form in the pulpit is to detach the Church from the world in which we live, and to never raise any moral issues other than individual moral issues.

To retreat into a religious corner that ignores politics, I would suggest, is to ignore the Old Testament prophets, most of Jesus’ teachings, and the heart of the Lord’s Prayer.  I think David McIlhiney put it well in the closing paragraph of his sermon:

“But we pray ‘thy kingdom come’ every time we recite the prayer Jesus taught us. These are dangerous words—they suggest that our faith isn’t just a private affair, but has implications for our national life. We should be careful in our dealings with Caesar, Jesus says, because we mustn’t give Caesar what we owe to God.” 

We do well to remember that the greatest strides toward human rights in our modern world began with religious people who, at great risk to themselves, called upon the political system for that express purpose. The English slave trade was outlawed in the nineteenth century largely through the efforts of Anglican churchman William Wilberforce (1759-1833), and the abolition of slavery became the central cause of the “Great Awakening” in America in the 1830-1850s. 

In later times, many German Christians paid with their lives for opposing the Nazis, most famously Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who denounced Hitler from his pulpit, and was arrested and executed in a concentration camp. No other example is more tragic, or more political, than his.

Let us also recall that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist preacher and led the civil rights movement from his pulpit and the streets; and Desmond Tutu of South Africa, an Anglican bishop, played a crucial role in ending apartheid in his country without civil war. More recently, the Episcopal Church has endorsed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end global poverty and the One Campaign to devote 1 percent of the world’s GNP to eradicating poverty. We need to be mindful that those goals can only be achieved by the active involvement of governments in the industrialized nations. Individual efforts, though laudatory, will never be enough. Those goals lead inevitably into the political arena.

Yet, we do well to enter the political arena cautiously, deliberately and in the humble knowledge that none of us have a corner on truth. Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address (March 4, 1865), was mindful that neither side in the Civil War had a corner on God:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

How and when do we enter the political arena? I would suggest that we do so when it clearly advances the values of the Kingdom of God “to respect the dignity of every human being” (as our baptismal covenant puts it) and the health of our planet, resting upon the foundation of the Hebrew Shema to “love God” and “love our neighbors as ourselves.” 

Let me give one personal example: In the weeks before the Iraq war, I was among a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy who signed a full-page advertisement calling upon the Bush administration to respect the United Nations weapons inspection program rather than act unilaterally by going to war. I believe events have proven our position both moral and pragmatically correct. Yet I am also aware that good, faithful people – many of them friends – were much disturbed by our taking the position we took and believed we got it woefully wrong. They deserve to be respected and their faith not questioned. As Christians, all of us must find a way to come to the same Holy Communion Table, most especially when we disagree, and disagree deeply.

I close this lengthy blog entry by giving you, in full, the statement made last week by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to our church on the eve of this election:

“As Election Day approaches, I want to remind you that our democracy gives us the opportunity to speak urgently about the many issues and challenges confronting our nation and the world. I would encourage every eligible voter to prayerfully consider the choices before us and commit to using the political process to seek solutions to our society’s most intractable problems. As part of our baptismal vows we commit “to strive for justice and peace among all people” and “respect the dignity of every human being.” As you prepare to vote, I urge you to consider how the Reign of God – a just society – particularly as explicated by the Hebrew prophets and by Jesus, can be made real in our own day.

Our baptismal ministry calls us to transform our communities into something that looks more like that Reign of God. That is our part in God’s mission. We are sent and commissioned to build a society where all have adequate access to health care, where the weakest are protected and God’s creation safeguarded, and where each person has access to the blessings of life. That work requires committed engagement in the civic life of our nation if we seek to make God’s dream more effectively real and complete in this world.

As caretakers and stewards of all of God’s creation, each one of us is responsible for the flourishing of the rest of the human family. As in all elections, on 4 November we have the opportunity to continue working to reconcile and heal the world. I urge every citizen to use this opportunity to motivate our government to respond to, and participate in, building the Reign of God. We prepare the ground for the possibility of more abundant life through our part in the ministry of governance.

Voting and political participation are acts of Christian stewardship, in which citizens can engage in a common conversation about the future of our nation and the world. I urge you to exercise your right to vote, and to encourage and help others to do so as well.”

As we approach this Election Day, let us pray for our nation and the world, and cast our votes mindful of all those whose lives are touched by our votes but who have no vote. May we remember with deep gratitude those who have paid the last full measure of devotion to our country, and may we never take for granted our right to vote as a free people living in liberty, under God, ever striving for equal justice for all.

Blessings to all and to the United States of America,



David said...

Well said, brother!

Robert Christian said...

"cast our votes mindful of all those whose lives are touched by our votes but who have no vote."

I found this one of the most provoking statements I've read in ages. If only someone would've said this to our diocesan convention, Oct 4th. I guess tells everyone where I live :) When we voted so many people were talking about what the vote meant for them. This "cast our votes etc..." make me wonder what they'd have said if they were asked how their vote affected others? Often we approach voting like everything else, "what's it do for me."

It's nice to see also that stewardship is more than how much money you give. So often we hear that word and everyone says, "oh, it's time to pull out the wallet." So many aspects to stewardship.

Keep up the good work.