Politics and Pulpits

During the 1960 presidential campaign, only the second time in America history when a Roman Catholic was the nominee of a major political party, the final Sunday before Election Day was known in many Protestant churches as Reformation Sunday.

Many ministers used that occasion to warn against the dangers of electing a Catholic to the White House. Such politicking represented an affront both to tax laws governing not-for-profit organizations as well as to pulpit etiquette.

When I accepted the call to become rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, the search committee and the vestry emphatically informed me that they did not want me to preach politics from the pulpit. Fair enough. As anyone who has followed my writings over the years will know, especially during the past decade or so, I have some well-developed and passionately held political views.

But I also happen to believe that the pulpit is not the appropriate venue for politics, especially partisan politics. I view the ministry as a sacred trust and the pulpit as a place to proclaim the gospel, not a forum for propagating political opinions. A preacher, moreover, must earn the trust of her congregation over time, and there is no quicker way to engender suspicion than overt politicking from the pulpit.

I recognize that this view is not universally shared by other clergy. Just this morning, between our two Sunday services, someone told me that if a preacher didn’t have at least one person walk out of every sermon, he probably wasn’t doing his job. A preacher, according to this line of thinking, should constantly be challenging her congregation to follow the demands of the gospel, even if that means offending members of the congregation.

I appreciate that argument, but it also suggests an extraordinary confidence on the part of the preacher that she or he knows the mind of God so completely that he or she can offer specific advice on political matters. I simply have never attained that level of self-assurance.

If the preacher actually does go so far as to endorse a specific candidate, he can expect to hear from the Internal Revenue Service−and properly so. One of the stipulations that Congress established for the reception of tax exemptions (which, let’s be honest, amounts to a considerable government subsidy) is that churches and other religious organizations not engage in blatantly partisan politics or endorse specific candidates. This rule has not always been observed, and even less frequently has it been enforced, especially in African-American churches or by leaders of the Religious Right.

Do these constraints mean that a preacher must remain silent on matters of current concern? Not at all. But she must tread carefully and talk about larger moral principles.

Several Sundays back, for instance, when the lectionary directed our attention to the scene of Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee and then sinking beneath the waves, I talked briefly about the physiology of drowning−the panicked sense of envelopment followed by suffocation and then asphyxiation and finally cardiac arrest−to make a point about how desperate Peter must have felt as he sank into the foamy waters. I considered at length throwing in a reference to the terrifying nature of drowning and why our government has found it such a useful tool for the interrogation of those the president has designated “enemy combatants.” That would have been a fair point, I think, especially because I believe this government’s persistent and systematic use of torture is the defining moral issue−not political issue−of our time.

In the end, however, I decided not to add that comment. It would have detracted from the point I wanted to make about how Peter is not unlike the rest of us and how we truly understand Jesus and the gospel in our moments of abandonment and suffering. Besides (and this is probably the larger reason), I’m still fairly new in this parish, and I think it’s important to build trust with the parishioners before regaling them with what might be construed as political opinions.

Another possibility: I think it’s fair to encourage congregants in an election year to interrogate a candidate’s biblical literacy, especially when she or he makes grand claims of faith. Suppose, for example, that when George W. Bush declared on the eve of the Iowa precinct caucuses in 2000 that Jesus was his favorite philosopher someone had posed a couple of follow-up questions: “Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher calls on his followers to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. How will those principles inform your foreign policy, especially in the event of, say, an attack on the United States?” Or: “Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow. Will that sentiment find any resonance in your environmental policies?”

Questions like these are appropriate, especially when candidates offer protestations of faith. They apply to both ends of the political spectrum. I ache for more specificity from Senator Obama about how his understanding of the gospel has shaped his approach to issues like health care and welfare reform. I want to know why Senator McCain reneged on his long-standing opposition to torture.

For too long, we Americans have allowed our politicians to get away with blithe, gauzy affirmations of faith. It’s time we hold them accountable−which, by the way, means that we too need to be conversant with the parameters of our own faith.