“Father, who should I vote for?” The woman had just exited the church when she marched up to me and pressed her query.
“Was it something I said in my homily?” I wondered.
I tensed up ever so slightly and rotely responded, “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“I know,” she said, “but I thought I might catch you at a weak moment.”
A 1954 amendment to the tax code passed by Congress prohibits clergy from endorsing a political candidate from the pulpit. To do so could threaten the tax-exempt status enjoyed by charitable organizations such as churches.
We were trained in seminary never to state publicly who we supported politically, lest the revered separation of church and state be called into question.
As a member of the clergy, a non-partisan facade is not an easy demeanor to pull off, especially in this election. The stakes are simply too high.
That’s not to say that politics is not being preached from pulpits around the United States. A Pew survey released this month noted that nearly two-thirds of respondents (64 percent) said that their clergy had spoken about political or social issues. And 14 percent said that their pastors had even spoken about a specific political candidate.
These statistics should not surprise, because so many of the social and political issues at play in this election have religious and spiritual implications. Issues of peace, justice, equality and fairness are embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
As preachers if we are honest about the importance of scriptural and spiritual values, we cannot help but speak boldly about some of the issues making headlines across the nation.
The Protestant Swiss theologian Karl Barth famously once said, “One should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” It is a perspective which I espouse, but the preachers’ dance is, admittedly, a delicate and precarious one.
Which newspaper? Which Biblical quotes? CNN, FOX or MSNBC?
The wide diversity of relevant topics swirling in the headlines compound the complexity of the preachers’ task. Try preaching about religious liberty, abortion, immigration, the environment, terrorism, LGBT rights, and religious tolerance without betraying some partisan leaning with regards to these issues.
Poker face in the pulpit can require the dextrous skill of a seasoned actor.
Of course, partisan leaning may vary depending on the issue, which may not be a bad thing since it prevents a congregation from putting the preacher in one ideological box. One may sound like a Republican one Sunday, a Democrat the next, and a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist the next.
An equal-opportunity preacher offends no one, or everyone. It depends on the Sunday.
Jesus preached that it’s not a bad thing to make people uncomfortable. He said he had come “to set the earth on fire” and to bring division, not peace. (Luke 12) While not espousing violence, Jesus seemed to indicate that wrestling with difficult issues was part of being a good Christian.
It is certainly part of being a good preacher, but it also requires a high tolerance for folded arms and grimacing visages.
A common complaint among church-goers is that preachers’ homilies lack relevance, that they’re too pie-in-the-sky, ethereal, unrealistic. Yet when we try to inject the requested applicability, some bristle at the political overtones.
Damned if you do, damned… Okay, maybe not the best idiom for a church-centered activity.
As preachers, we’re not going to please everyone. But that’s not our task. We don’t have to be liked or agreed with. We have to be prepared, well-informed and preach Gospel values to the best of our ability; to be true evangelical independents and to let the political chips fall where they may.
It also helps to be quick on your feet in answering congregants questions at church exit doors.