Of Pews, Pulpits And Partisanship

Electioneering Threatens Unity Of Churches

A recent poll showed that Americans are becoming increasingly wary of intervention in politics by religious groups. Two-thirds told the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that religious leaders should not instruct congregants on whom to vote for or against. Most Americans think attending a house of worship should be about encountering God, not getting a list of political endorsements.

This is a healthy trend, and it is being helped along the way by another one: More and more religious leaders are speaking out, explaining why attempts to merge partisan politics and faith harm our nation’s religious communities.

One of the ways pulpit electioneering hurts churches is by driving wedges into the congregation and dividing people along partisan lines. Most houses of worship contain people of different political perspectives – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens, Libertarians and so on. When a pastor endorses one party’s candidate from the pulpit, it can’t help but generate ill will.

Is that really what a religious leader wants to do? Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a Roman Catholic nun who serves as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put it well in a recent column for the Religion News Service. Walsh pointed out that houses of worship seek to welcome everyone. But if the pulpit is partisan, some will be driven away.

“A religious house should be a refuge, where one can step away from political madness in search of peace,” Walsh opined. “Church leaders need to help people develop their consciences so they can make good decisions. They need to encourage public servants to be men and women of moral courage. They need to urge citizens to make wise decisions. They can’t do any of that if they turn half of them off.”

Walsh’s comments echoed those made by Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in his 2006 book Piety & Politics. In the book, Lynn recounted the story of a Baptist pastor in Waynesville, N.C., who actually expelled several members of his congregation after learning they had voted for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry.

“I have to wonder how partisan politics can be so important to a religious leader that it leads him to drive wedges into his congregation instead of finding ways to bring them together,” wrote Lynn, himself an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

The Rev. Rick Warren, a popular evangelical preacher and author, agrees. Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., told CNN in July, “I would never campaign for a candidate…. I think as a pastor, my role is to pastor all the flock regardless of their political persuasion.”

The Rev. Joel Osteen, another popular preacher and author with a nationwide following, echoed that comment.

“Even in the church we are very diverse,” Osteen, pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, told Newsweek’s Web site earlier this year. “There are Republicans, Democrats, independents – everything.… I don’t want somebody saying, ‘He’s for this party or that party, and that turns me off.’... I don’t mind being associated with [presidential candidates]. It’s not the association. It’s that I don’t endorse one.”

Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House, a mega-church in Houston, takes the same view.

“I have NEVER told my church who to vote for,” Jakes wrote in June on his Bishop’s Blog. “I am the proud pastor of both Democrats and Republicans…. I will make my decision and vote accordingly. My vote has been a private matter and I intend to keep it that way. This is not a good climate even for pastors who do endorse candidates, as the waters between religion and politics have grown quite toxic.”

These religious leaders realize that the introduction of partisan politics into the pulpit is counter to their goal of bringing people together and ministering to the needs of a wide variety of people.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a wealthy Religious Right legal group founded by television and radio preachers, urged pastors to defy federal tax law last month and endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit.

There are hundreds of thousands of churches in the United States, but the ADF was able to interest only a small number in this reckless stunt. Why was that? It’s likely most pastors were not interested in jeopardizing their churches’ tax-exempt status. But a lot of them also realized that the ADF was offering a recipe for dissension and division in the church. Savvy pastors want no part of that.

A house of worship is more than a physical building. It is also a community where people from all walks of life come together for worship, fellowship and support. We in America are too often divided by questions of politics and the tiresome “red vs. blue” divide. There should be at least one place free from that rancor.

For many Americans, a house of worship is that place. These people seek a refuge that transcends that which keeps us apart. They crave real unity, a welcoming community and a focus on values not wholly of the material world. Many people find this atmosphere in a house of worship, and the chance to experience it on a regular basis – the opportunity to rise above the demands, deadlines and din of daily life – is what keeps them coming back.

It is a powerful force. Only the foolish would throw it away for the sake of helping some politician.