As election draws near, preachers feel the gospel’s challenge

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Oct 17, 2016
In the final weeks before the Nov. 8 general election preachers are facing the challenge of speaking a word of truth and reconciliation into the season’s heated rhetoric. Photo illustration: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

In the final weeks before the Nov. 8 general election preachers are facing the challenge of speaking a word of truth and reconciliation into the season’s heated rhetoric. Photo illustration: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Preaching can be challenging at any time, but it is especially so during an election season and the remaining days of the 2016 U.S. presidential election are proving exceptionally fraught for some preachers.

“There’s weightiness and a kind of heaviness that everyone is bringing to this time,” Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde said in an interview with Episcopal News Service.

Many preachers want to address the election and its impact on society; many of their congregants want or expect them to do so, but others do not. Beyond navigating the thicket of regulations governing the political activities of nonprofit organizations, including churches, there is the often-asked question of whether political issues belong in the pulpit.

Internal Revenue Service regulations prevent religious organizations from supporting or opposing any candidate, political party or political action committee. Some congregants still wonder if their priests will make such endorsements.

The Very Rev. W. H. Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York, explicitly tells his parishioners “I’m not going to do that in a sermon or in the announcement period.”

But, Mebane, who recently supported San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest by preaching while wearing a replica of his jersey, is known for connecting the gospel to the events and concerns of society.

“People accuse me all the time of preaching politics,” Mebane told Episcopal News Service. “My response is always I have never preached a political sermon in my life. I have preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, which can sound awfully political.”

The Very Rev. W. H. Mebane, interim dead of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York, recently preached a sermon exploring San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Ohio friends John Lauro, left, and Scott Williams, right, came to hear him. Photo: St. Paul’s Cathedral

The Very Rev. W. H. Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, New York, recently preached a sermon exploring San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Ohio friends John Lauro, left, and Scott Williams, right, came to hear him. Photo: St. Paul’s Cathedral

Preaching the gospel can mean talking about what attributes Christians ought to look for in their potential political leaders. Mebane’s list of traits is anchored in his self-proclaimed “manifesto” found in Matthew 25:35-36 of feeding the hungry, aiding the poor, caring for the sick and visiting prisoners.

When you preach the gospel, said the Rev. Bill Brosend, professor of New Testament and preaching at the University of the South’s School of Theology, people will know where you stand on the political issues of the day.

“If you think they don’t know how you voted in the last election, you are wrong,” he said. “Don’t pretend to a neutrality that doesn’t exist. You did vote for somebody and it probably comes out not just in your sermons but throughout your ministry”

The challenge to the preacher is to find ways to articulate his or her motivations in a way that “invites conversation, allows for difference and encourages everyone to think about how their faith applies to the decisions they make about who to vote for,” he said.

Budde would agree. Well-known in her diocese and beyond for her stands on issues such as racial justice and gun violence, Budde often preaches and writes about the political issues on her mind. However, that outspokenness can make preaching even more challenging.

“Sometimes,” she said. “I just want to be counter type so that I can draw in other voices, and to not be completely dismissed as I open my mouth by the people I might be able to influence if I come at it from a different angle.

“At some level, I’m pretty sure I disappoint somebody every day.”

Budde, who in her role as bishop preaches to a different congregation nearly every Sunday, said she strives to strike a balance that is not “constantly condemning” the direction of this presidential election season, but that can also invite a conversation about “who are we as a nation” right now.

To preach in this manner requires a relationship rooted in generosity between the preacher and her congregation, said the Rev. Pamela Dolan, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country, Missouri, west of St. Louis.

Dolan said she hopes that any preacher’s listeners would practice a stance that she is working to cultivate in herself during this fraught political season. “To not assume I know another person’s motives, especially if I am tempted to ascribe negative motivations,” is how she describes it.

“To take as a baseline that either I can assume that the person preaching wants the best for me and the congregation, or at the very least is not coming at it trying to be hurtful and divisive,” she added.

The Rev. Emily Mellott, rector of Calvary Church in Lombard, Illinois, agreed that solid relationships allow for disagreements without divisions. With relationships based in ministry and love, political disagreements have a better chance of not bothering people because everyone trusts that the person with whom you disagree “is going to show up in the hospital with communion when you’re sick,” she said.

That said, Mellott argued that “to preach the gospel and to preach the gospel in conversation with current events and with the experience that people in the church are having is absolutely political.” In her preaching, she is “talking about how the gospel engages with the news we read and see and hear.”

For preachers, Oct. 9 was a case in point. The news that day was “completely consumed,”   Brosend said, by the pending debate that night with Hillary Clinton and the video of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s demeaning comments about women. “To pretend that that wasn’t what everybody was talking about just before the prelude and what they’re going to talk about at coffee hour is craziness,” he said.

Thus, the homiletical question, as Brosend often puts it, of “what does the holy spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?” took on many unexpected dimensions. The day’s Gospel (Luke 17:11-19) was the story about Jesus healing 10 lepers by sending them on their way to Jerusalem and telling them to show themselves to the priest there. Only one, a Samaritan, came back to thank Jesus.

Brosend said he asked the question of which response was faithful; the response of the one or the nine? Perhaps, he suggested, both responses were faithful. The Samaritan returned to thank the one who healed him. And the nine Jewish lepers continued on to do what Jesus the rabbi had instructed them to do: go and show themselves to the priest.

The biblical texts leave room for difference but not silence, Brosend said. “And to say we’re not supposed to take a stand, or I don’t want to jeopardize our nonprofit status or something like that is really avoiding the homiletical question in this season of our national life.”

Yet, such preaching does bring its perils. In one of the more high-profile examples, the Rev. George Regas, retired rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, preached a sermon at All Saints just before the 2004 presidential election that the Internal Revenue Service initially said constituted intervention in the process. Regas imagined Jesus debating George W. Bush and John Kerry, and said people of faith could vote for either person. He also imagined Jesus telling Bush that the president’s doctrine of preemptive war was wrong and said that Bush-sponsored tax cuts “would break Jesus’ heart.”

The IRS opened a two-year investigation into the parish that concluded in September 2007 without challenging the parish’s tax-exempt status and without a threatened audit ever taking place.

As the election season careens to its Nov. 8 finish, preachers have a broader task than simply deciding what and how to preach. Budde said the assignment is this: “How to find a way for every voice to be heard, allow people to speak their own truth and then to allow the community to move forward in a way that is part of the reconciliation we need” both inside the faith community and in the wider world.

Read more about it
The Episcopal Church’s Election Engagement Toolkit is here and the accompanying website is here.

The Internal Revenue Service’s guide for election engagement activities, titled “Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations,” is here.

The Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life’s resource “Preaching Politics from the Pulpit” includes this question-and-answer section that unpacks the IRS rules.

The Nonprofit Vote website includes more resources on what churches legally can and cannot do during election season.

A 30-day cycle of prayer, called for by Forward Movement, began Oct. 6. The cycle includes weekly PDFs with prayers for each day. The entire cycle is available for download in a single PDF. The final prayer is for Nov. 9. The downloads, one in English and another in Spanish, are here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (21)

  1. The Rev. D F Lindstrom says:

    In my former parish, a woman asked if she could put literature from the Christian Coalition advising people how to vote in the church and pews. I told her absolutely not! I did not allow political literature in the church. I believe that Episcopalians have enough common sense to make their own decisions. I do not believe clergy should preach partisan sermons, have political stickers on their cars nor signs in their driveways. We should encourage them to vote, not how to vote.

    1. Karen Birr says:

      Good for you. I agree!!!!

  2. Joe Parrish says:

    Some of my acquaintances may not be preaching for a candidate in the pulpit, but their Facebook pages are openly saying they are putting signs for one of the candidates in the Rectory’s yard.

  3. Dr. Erna Lund says:

    Vote your Conscience–morally, ethically–not by anybody else’s rules, platitudes… This highly contentious time is both challenging and demanding calling for a very personal choice. To paraphrase scripture, “what one sows, one will reap…” thus our warring, divided country has produced the “King of Capitalism” vs “Queen of Corruption!” Humanity and Humanitarian efforts have gone by the wayside devolving into Millions of refugees in the Middle East and still our country is in the midst of more military tactics/strategy of bombing with civilian “collateral damage” of vulnerable children and families. And Compassionate Action and Diplomacy are no longer part of any national political and governmental priorities/agenda. God Help Us All.

  4. Richmond Parker says:

    ” Righteousness exalts a nation , but sin is a reproach to any people . ” The General Confession in the 1928 Edition of THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER pretty much sums it up . The newer edition omits ” miserable sinners ” because there are no miserable sinners left …. Too many seem to be blatant sinners , bragging about their sins ! Richmond Parker

  5. PJCABBINESS says:

    Let us not confuse the false gospel of Dean Mebane with that of Jesus.

  6. Ronald Davin says:

    To my more learned friends, is there a possibility that Colin Kaepernick is using the wrong knee in his protests, he should be on the other one ?

  7. Kenneth Knapp says:

    “Preaching the gospel can mean talking about what attributes Christians ought to look for in their potential political leaders.” As a matter of civics, they are not our leaders; they are our representatives. Calling them our leaders implies that we work for them. Our representatives should work for us. As a religious matter we should probably put our faith in God rather than political idols made by humans anyway.

  8. Henry Parsley says:

    Were the great prophets being too political when they challenged the ruler’s immoral behavior or failure to help the poor? I might imagine Elijah having a word to say about a certain tape or Amos about an unjust tax plan or Isaiah about abuse of power for personal gain. Non-partisan of course.

    I realize that not every preacher is a prophet, or is meant to be. Thankfully, or Sunday morning might be more sparse than it already is. But we always need to make room for the prophetic voice, which seeks to speak holy truth to historical moments. And we need to make sure that there is occasion for matters like the current election to be discussed somewhere in our church life, inclusive of different viewpoints.

    Our public voice matters. “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8).

  9. Dr. Erna Lund says:

    With all due respect to my Episcopal communicants I do derive much of my spiritual,moral and ethical values from my Episcopal being–firstly as First generation daughter of Norwegian immigrant thus Lutheran and early on this Viking leadership melded with the dynamic Episcopal leadership of Dean John Patterson,Grace Cathedral Madison, Wisconsin… thus through these 60+ years in my dedicated Episcopalian life any question/concern relative to spirituality I must respond on this long-time inherent base … Now to the 21st Century, lo-and-behold Evangelism w/Bible-belt evangelists are proceeding here-and-wide literally… thus if you have as I/we(Seattle/Washington) bishop & dean w/clergy from the Bible belt then you don’t need any independent thinking just go to church every week faithfully regardless, and more often if you really want to gain/be perceived as a good Christian and thus having “credibility…” Yes this is a somewhat extended reply to both Grant Bakewell referring/describing the “politics” of Jesus…Please you/one must know that this has become corrupted through the years that “politics” is defined as power, authority, influence which Jesus had none of these in the temporaral definition… yes I prefer the use/reference of the Ministry of Jesus as he had none of these formal interrelationships… and secondly to Ronald Davin, please clarify re your reference to Kapernik who kneeled on the one/wrong knee… do you mean the other knee or both knees and to whom–the country or…? Indeed this is all reflective of the Critical Thinking for Clarity and greater understanding. There is such Hypocrisy blatant and rampant and in your face (media/TV/internet/newspapers) and thus we have both presidential candidates using this to the lowest/highest extremes–Clintons in an arrogant/self-righteous display regardless of his predatory sexual behaviors prior/during his presidency & Impeachment and now targeting Trump for his verbal use/abuse of women during his extensive business ventures(10-12yrs past). To be realistic all of us women who have been in the business workplace have been subjected to these kind of sexual encounters/assaults. So now are we to come forward to be interviewed, videotaped… or only if that particular man is running for a political office … Selfrightenousness/arrogance/false pride– all these violate our basic morality,ethics, spirituality. We need to Hold Strong to our Basic Spiritual Foundation midst all this turmoil.

  10. Ronald Davin says:

    Dear Mr K. Knapp
    This as a test of my memory, well over 60 years. I believe you kneel on your right knee to God and your left to a person or man made object. If this is so, shouldn’t the quislings be using their left knee. A moot point to be sure, but just curious.

  11. Kenneth Knapp says:

    I think you meant that comment for Mr R. Davin. I kneel on whichever knee seems to be working best on any given day.

  12. Richmond Parker says:

    As I understand it and was taught , genuflection
    is always on the right knee …. symbolizing ” I pledge Thee my liege Lord , etc. ” from the age of feudalism , GOD BEING THE ULTIMATE LORD . ….. I DO NOT THINK IT MAKES MUCH DIFFERENCE TO GOD WHICH KNEE . Richmond Parker

  13. Richmond Parker says:

    Regarding our election , I think altogether too many people forfeited their right to vote in the primaries because they did not enroll in either party … If all eligible voters had enrolled to vote in both the primaries and the general election , we probably would have better candidates ….. Richmond Parker

  14. Doug Desper says:

    I would have an easier time believing my Church leadership and media’s claim to nonpartisanship, but alas, I have working eyes. Featured on the sidebar of this very website is an advertisement for a book – approved for sale in our official publishing organ even – entitled The Podium, the Pulpit, and the Republicans, by Frederick Stecker. This is the description:
    “The author examined political debates and speeches of both parties for their nuanced language and discovered to a statistically significant degree that Republicans employ authoritarian language (and stealth religious language) to convey judgment. Democrats, however, employ collaborative language (and nurturant language of forgiveness and love) …”

    Not only is that unscholarly, but it is willfully blind. That it gets any traction as a recommended book speaks volumes. Now, what was that about being nonpartisan?

    1. Kenneth Knapp says:

      I think our claims to nonpartisanship are taken for tax reasons. In reality there isn’t much doubt that we believe all thing necessary to salvation are contained in the Democratic Party Platform.

  15. Stewart David Wigdor says:

    To secure the Blessings of Liberty is expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution. So we in America know our Law seeks to know God. Liberty I believe is first used by Jesus in Luke 4″ give liberty to the captives and liberty to the bruised. Thus Liberty means the meeting of the Son of God. I know this can be debated but isn’t it a Miracle our Nation of Liberty and Freedom gives us the joy to seek the Lord? We must tell people God loves us and that Love as Paul expresses in Corinthians is not to be confused with any definition of love ever. Jesus’ Love for us.

  16. F William Thewalt says:

    I categorically reject any political message from the pulpit, no matter how subtle. There are ample themes from the Gospel or Bible on which to base a sermon. I expect relief from political dialogue when I hear a sermon or homily. The ordained are entitled to their beliefs and I to mine but we ought not to influence the other especially from the pulpit.

  17. Adair M. Saviola says:

    The politically charged sermons of the temporary rector at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo have driven scores of people from the parish. The Anglican legacy was always one of scripture, tradition and reason and welcomed diverse points of view. Sadly. that is no longer the case in Buffalo’s Cathedral.
    The once proud cardinal parish of the Diocese is a shadow of its former self and I fear there will be little left to entice members of the clergy to even consider the post of dean. Please keep St. Paul’s Buffalo in your prayers.

    1. Martha Neri says:

      Well said Adair. I just can’t understand how this interim Dean can reconcile himself with the Ordination vows of the Episcopal Church. The Bishop has not responded to this question that I asked him.

      This one of the greatest tragedies of the City of Buffalo.

  18. Martha Neri says:

    The fact is this Interim Dean wore a pinback button When the first “Black Lives Matter” phrase was coined in 2014. He wore it on his vestments during services and Celebration of the Eucharist.

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