Note: At this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the following statement was passed.
“No congregation, session, presbytery, synod, or national office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), nor any individual acting on behalf of or in an official capacity for the above institutions, shall publicly endorse or oppose, or otherwise encourage or discourage others to vote for or against an individual running for public office.”
This will go to our regional bodies, and if passed by a majority of them, would become part of our constitution.
One of the hardest things about becoming an ordained minister was giving up politics.
I worked on my first political campaign when I was 18, and then majored in political science in college. After graduating I kept up with local campaigns and was considered a “super voter,” which meant that I voted in almost every election, including local primaries. I attended city council and county commission meetings and was on a first name basis with many elected officials. Come election time I would get a phone calls from friends asking me for advice on how to vote in local elections. “I don’t know who any of these people are,” my friends would say. “Who should I vote for?”
And then I entered seminary, was ordained, and I put my political activity behind me. I did that for a variety of reasons. There was the Johnson Amendment, which states that a church (or any non-profit) that gets involved in partisan political activities will lose their tax-exempt status. But that was only the background reason. Most of the congregations I serve reflected a very diverse political spectrum, and if I jumped in on any side I could have destroyed the equilibrium they had carefully created. There is no reason to create a problem with people who don’t have one. The most important, however, is that I did not see the pulpit as a place to push a partisan political agenda. Preaching is an awesome task, and should represent what I thought was God’s will for the people, not my opinions.
In 2005 I left parish ministry to become a hospital chaplain, which gave me the freedom to jump back in the partisan fray. I changed my voter registration from independent to Democratic, attended the 2008 presidential caucuses in Alaska, and became a delegate to the state convention. In 2010 I was offered a job working for an Alaska senator, and became an aide to the Alaska Senate Education Committee. For three years I wrote and managed bills, and did constituent work for Senator Joe Thomas. I met and married a woman who worked on several statewide campaigns, and our wedding was one of the political event of the season. We even got a letter from President Barack Obama congratulating us on our marriage.
I was considering a run for local office when it became clear to me that I was being called back into ministry. So, when I stepped back into ordained ministry in 2013, I once again put all political activity on the back shelf.
These last two years have been very hard.
If ever I have been tempted to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, it has been this year, although to be honest, I would not have endorsed a candidate, I would have spoken against one. And therein lies the problem of endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Having worked in and around politics I can say with authority that I have yet to meet God’s man or woman for office. I have met dedicated Christians (on both sides of the aisle) who have been great politicians, and dedicated Christians, (on both sides of the aisle) who were lousy politicians. To put a finer point on it, most of the Christians I worked with were both great and lousy, depending on the issues at hand. And I have worked with politicians who had little or no faith commitment, who were sharp on the political front.
In other words, a person’s commitment to Christ is no reason for me to endorse or even vote for a person, as many evangelical Christians discovered in the last presidential election. A person’s religion or lack thereof should not be the deciding factor in how we vote. That our current president seems to have a total lack of Christian values is irrelevant to me.
When I stand up in the pulpit and say things, I hope and pray I am representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not my own political or social opinions. At no point in my career as a minister or a political aide have I felt that the pulpit was the place for partisan politics.
So you might think I would support the recent overture voted on by our General Assembly to limit political speech by pastors, or anyone else who represents the Presbyterian Church. I do not. What a pastor says from the pulpit is between them and God (and in the case of political endorsements, the IRS.) At no point should we do anything to limit what is said from the pulpits of our churches. That is as a political as making endorsements.
There have been times in our history when it was right and appropriate to speak out on political issues. When good people do nothing, evil can triumph. The problem is we can only see those times clearly in retrospect. When we are in the thick of political turmoil, it is often hard to navigate right and wrong. Remember, a majority of Americans opposed the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his lifetime.
While I do not ever see myself making an endorsement, I can see the possibility of speaking against a candidate. While no candidate, I believe can ever wear the mantle of God’s favorite, some come really close to wearing the garments of disfavor–close enough that I would feel compelled to speak out. Were I to do so, I would be crossing a line I set for myself years ago, a line that has been reinforced through 22 years of ordained ministry. I would never cross that line lightly. But if I did, I would hope that I had, if at least not the favor of my denomination, at least not their condemnation.