Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

Recently a person unknown to me posted his “resistance” oriented event on the Facebook wall of my church. It wasn’t clear what the event entailed and it seemed that it might cross the line into partisan territory. The poster’s profile picture advocated a specific political party, and the language was ambiguous.

I wrote him back and assured him that while I personally was supportive, the church was non-partisan, and I’d have to delete the post. I hoped he understood.

I received back this response: “We are nonpartisan, So the congregational church (sic) does not support civil rights, good to know.”

First, I’ve been given nothing that helps me determine whether the non-partisan part of that statement is true. But, second, I was stunned by the writer’s quick conclusion. This church I serve was an early moral force for abolition. A former pastor marched with Dr. King. They now have an openly gay senior pastor who they sent to Orlando last summer to provide emergency pastoral care for LGBTQ people. This is a church full of people who love their neighbors, near and far. And we are a part of a denomination that has consistently been early to every major Civil Rights challenge of our time.

But this is not a partisan church. It belongs to Jesus Christ, not any candidate or party. We follow the Gospel, and not a party platform. We get it wrong sometimes, but we really do try to get it right. Recently, though, I’ve heard a lot of folks wondering why churches aren’t doing more to confront the current political situation in our country.

I am writing this post as Emily C. Heath, private citizen. I am not writing this post as Emily C. Heath, pastor of a local congregation. I say that, but I can’t deny that the two people are one and the same. The same person writing these words on my personal blog a weekday will use this same (personal) computer to write a sermon for when I get up into the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I get how that can be confusing. And I think that sometimes that’s particularly confusing for people who know me outside of the church.

I have been interested in and involved with politics for over 20 years. The summer I graduated from high school I went off to Washington, DC to serve as a Democratic Congressional intern. I have campaigned for Democratic candidates on the ground. And I currently serve as a delegate to the state convention for my town’s Democratic committee. On my own time, I engage in partisan political activism.

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Phone banking on election day.

I’ve also been involved in the civil rights movements since that time. I came out in 1994 and started marching in Pride parades long before our safety was assured. I remember standing outside a bombed-out gay nightclub in Atlanta in 1997. And I remember traveling to Orlando last summer after the Pulse shootings.

When I wrote a blog post several years ago asking white folks to look at our privilege, I received messages calling me names I can’t print here, and one threat to burn down my church. I’ve been afraid for my personal safety because of my advocacy.

I don’t think I have to prove my progressive bona fides to anyone.

Except apparently I do. And that’s because sometimes well-meaning progressive folks don’t understand that clergy have to remain non-partisan while at church, in the pulpit, or serving in any way as a pastor.

That’s true for two very important reasons: first, the religious reason and, second, the civic reason.

pexels-photo-27633My faith teaches me that my ultimate allegiance is not to any political party, or even to any country. It’s to Christ. That means that when I’m in the pulpit, I’m talking about Christ. And, try as they might, I’ve yet to meet a politician who measures up to Christ.

My faith does shape my political beliefs. Whenever I go in the voting booth and close the curtain, I’m thinking about the Gospels. It was hearing the Gospels for the first time as a high school student that changed my own political thinking. My faith teaches me to care about the “least of these” and one way I do that is by thinking about them when I am voting.

But, I know good Christians who do not vote the way I do. Some of them are in my church, and I’m their pastor too. My sermons on Sunday should challenge them sometimes, just as they should challenge everyone. They should make them think hard about what they believe, and how they will act out their faith in the world. They should make clear that working for justice for all God’s people is not optional. 

This is political in the classic sense in that it concerns the polis, the city or community, and all of God’s people. Pastors must be concerned with their community, state, nation, and world.

But they should never, ever, tell their church for whom or for what party to vote on Election Day. That’s an abuse of power and that’s pastoral malpractice.

The second reason is the civic one. Our separation of church and state is mutually beneficial to both. The church does not get to impose a theocracy, and the state does not get to use the church for its own ends. This is healthy, especially in a society with religious diversity.

I get upset when I see conservative churches flaunting this rule. I don’t like the idea of “voter guides” stuffed in Sunday bulletins, or of pastors in the pulpits stating who they think God wants you to vote for because, as I said, it’s an abuse of power. I’ve heard some progressive pastors saying we should start bending the rules too. I disagree.

Our job as pastors is to teach the faith. It’s to present the Gospel in an honest and relevant manner. And, yes, that means sometimes the Gospel will be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require us to work for justice. It will mean that we speak out about non-discrimination, or climate change, or peace. We do not need to remain silent about those things in church. In fact, we cannot remain silent about those things in church.

But on the other hand, political does not mean partisan. As soon as we start to equate the reign of God with a particular candidate or party, we have committed idolatry, and we have crossed both a moral and civil line.

In a time of deep moral crisis, which I believe our country is now facing, it might feel like that’s not enough. I know there are people who want to hear me denounce specific politicians from the pulpit. They want their church to assure them that their voting record would match Jesus’.

But as your pastor, it’s not my job to give you assurance that God loves your candidate more. (Believe me…I’d love that comfort too.) It’s my job to remind you of your own responsibility, and of the fact that our faith requires our own action in the world. On Sundays you can find encouragement, support, and comfort in the Gospel. You can find the values that will inform your own choices. And, ideally, you should find a message that compels you to go out into the world on Monday mornings bent on shaking up the status-quo.

But if a church is telling you who to vote for, left or right, your church has more than a constitutional problem on your hands. You have a faith problem and you, and the Gospel, deserve better than that. 

Besides, in this time of moral crisis, putting our ultimate faith in the radical love and grace of Christ is the most powerful political and partisan action we can ever take.

 If you resonated with this article, you might enjoy Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

 

Holy Week in New Hampshire, Ten Months Before the Primary

Last week, just after Senator Rand Paul announced his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination, a new message hit my email box:

The first email.

The first email.

I live and pastor in New Hampshire, so political emails and phone calls are not unexpected, even though I am still relatively new to the state. But the wording of this email was curious. For instance, the assumption I “supporting” Senator Paul’s efforts to “bring Constitutional values to Washington” or to “advance the conservative movement”.

I had never signed up on any Rand Paul list, or even any Republican party list. So, I came to a logical conclusion about why I was getting the emails: my college friends who delight in signing one another up for political causes we find objectionable had scored another victory. “Very funny, y’all,” I thought, as I posted a screenshot of the email up on Facebook calling them out.

In the end it turns out that my college friends had nothing to do with it. In fact, that Facebook post made it clear that I was far from the only New Hampshire pastor getting spammed by Rand Paul’s campaign. First one clergy colleague, and then others nearby reported receiving the same emails.

That was when I actually checked which email address was being used. I have a personal email, the one my friends would know, and I have a church email address, one that someone looking at church websites or lists of clergy would find. And it was the church email address, the .org of a non-profit religious organization, that was being used for the political ads.

Later that same day I received a second email from Rand Paul:

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In this email a video of Senator Paul’s faith testimony is included as well. Presumably our shared Christian faith is supposed to make me feel like I should vote for him. At the bottom of the email was also a link to a “feedback” site where I could say what was important to me as a Christian by signing a “statement of faith”.

It looked like this:

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Let me be clear. I have a personal statement of faith, and Rand Paul is in no way whatsoever a part of it.

Through the last few days I have received more emails from Rand Paul’s campaign. I have contemplated unsubscribing, but at this point I’m interested in seeing what he sends to me. I’m also curious how many other candidates will also be finding my email address, and those of my colleagues, and sending us unsolicited campaign announcements.

Why does this disturb me? It’s not because I’m not interested in politics or good governance. In college I spent my summers interning in the U.S. House of Representatives before deciding the ministry was my real calling. But, I have always kept abreast of elections, and made informed voting choices. In fact, I’m excited to watch the New Hampshire primary play out in my community over the next year. The town I live in frequently draws visits from candidates, including to the town hall right next to the church. I find this all fascinating.

But that is who I am as a private citizen.

Yes, my faith plays a role in my voting. When I enter the polls I don’t leave my faith behind. And, as a pastor I encourage people to vote, and to make their decisions about whom to vote for out of their own personal faith commitments. But, beyond that, I never encourage anyone to vote for a specific candidate or party. Because that is not the role of the pastor, or the church. In fact, it goes against everything we believe in this country about separation of church and state (a tenant that protects not only the state but also the church).

If a pastor is telling their congregation how to vote, they are overstepping both legally and morally. And yet, I know of some pastors who do exactly that. Some even openly challenge the IRS bans on promoting specific candidates. I find this deeply problematic.

I believe Rand Paul, and perhaps others, know that. And perhaps when they went looking for the email addresses of New Hampshire pastors, they hoped that we would start talking about Paul’s faith or his candidacy. Maybe we would help to being Christian voters onto his campaign, and give him a leg up in this first primary state. And perhaps somewhere in Iowa my clergy colleagues there are getting the same emails too.

But Senator Paul will have no place in the pulpit of my church. And, frankly, he will have no place on my ballot next January either. The pulpit is reserved for Jesus. The ballot for one who will respect the lines drawn between church and state.

New blog at Huffington Post: Separation of Church and Santorum

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. … To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.” –Rick Santorum

Rich Santorum’s quote about Pres. John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and state has received a tremendous amount of airplay this week. Even if you remove that last viral line, it’s a strong pronouncement of Santorum’s displeasure with the limits imposed on religious institutions in the public arena. It’s enough to make the ears of any person of faith who thinks differently than Santorum perk up.

Speaking as a pastor in a mainline Christian denomination (you know, one of the ones Santorum says is in “shambles”) I’m surprised to find myself in some agreement with one part of his quote. I also believe that it is “antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country … to say that people of faith have no role in the public square.” And yet, I would suspect Santorum and I have very different ideas of what that means.

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