Feb 2, 2017

In Good Faith: Seeking a Moral Compass

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about the clergy's role during politically divisive times. It's complicated.

Seeking a Moral Compass

Like the vast majority of people with political opinions, I am not a public policy analyst. I keep up with current events, think I do a fairly good job of separating “fake news” from actual news, and try to see both sides of the issues. I am aware that rhetoric and sloganeering add nothing helpful to the public discourse and that the great issues of the day are complex, nuanced, and require thoughtful deliberation. 

Unfortunately this is rarely the approach, which is why we end up with precious little civil
dialogue between people with opposing views. It’s easier to demonize than debate. And with handy social media options like “unfollow” and “block,” we can tailor the public conversation to our own personal tastes and preferences. 

One question that’s been on my mind of late is, “what is the role of clergy during politically divisive times?” And make no mistake about it — we’re living in politically divisive times. Not surprisingly, people have differing views on the subject. Some want their clergy out marching in the streets at every opportunity; others don’t want their clergy uttering anything political at all. 

As a faith leader, I have found that few things get people more fired up than delivering what they would term a “political sermon.” Some feel politics should never be mentioned from the pulpit. There’s a desire that houses of worship be the last remaining sanctuary free from political rancor and viewpoints. That to preach politics from the pulpit is to automatically alienate a group of people in a congregation when the goal should be to unite those with disparate views rather than divide them. That worship should foremost be about “peace and harmony.”

Others feel that faith is inherently political. That to avoid what’s happening in the world is to stick our heads in the sand and cease to be relevant. That Jesus himself was political, fighting for the overthrow of an oppressive Roman regime. That he was executed for his political activism. That worship should foremost be a call to action.

While both sides have merit, my own approach tends to be somewhere in the middle. And while the middle can be a lonely place these days, I don't believe you can ignore what’s happening in the world — a majority of the populace who feels unheard, large scale protests, fear of Muslims and fear for Muslims. Not every sermon I preach incorporates current events, but when major national or global events are on people’s minds, they must be addressed in the context of Scripture or I’ve failed to do my job. So while we can’t ignore global events, I also believe that we must maintain the bonds of community even when we disagree.

As someone who served in the military and used to run political campaigns for a living, I do indeed have a lot of opinions. But what I stand up for from the pulpit is guided by my understanding of Scripture and by the words and actions of Jesus. I see the world through the lens of inclusion and dignity and compassion and love. The non-negotiable of the Christian faith is to show those things to all people, especially in caring for the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. That’s what Jesus did time and again and it is what I strive to do, as best I can, in my own life even as I seek to inspire others to do likewise. 

I believe there is a role for clergy in the political conversation. We don’t have all the answers and we’re not all policy wonks. But we do have a moral compass that can keep the excesses and shortcomings of human nature in check. This is less about choosing sides and more about pointing out sinful behavior when we see it and encouraging compassionate and loving action in response. 

This is not an easy balance to achieve and I do ask you to pray for your faith leaders. Just as we pray fervently for our elected officials, our nation, the world, and all of you. 


Unknown said...

Thank you. I, too, feel the loneliness of the pulpit. And feel the conflict of my own inclinations and my calling to care for this entire congregation - not just those who agree with me.

Ralegh said...

Well, Father Tim, I don't envy your dilemma, but it appears you are doing a pretty good job so far. Fortunately, I am not a priest and don't have to worry about avoiding conflicts among my parishioners. I have found the heat rising a bit in social media. Generally, I try not to bring up politics, but I have made a couple of posts that inspired heated responses. I found that by waiting a few hours to avoid an angry response on my part, trying to see things from the responder's perspective, and explaining my position respectfully, I've received surprisingly positive responses. Maybe there's hope that we can speak to each after all.

Snarky Anglican said...

Unfortunately,many on both sides don't want to acknowledge the reality of their sin and no matter what we preach, they will label it as "political" whenever their proverbial ox gets gored.

Unknown said...

I have always valued the latitude to think for myself within the Episcopal church. When the demands of our baptismal covenant to respect every person conflicts with the prayers of the people to pray for those leaders in government, I value the freedom to sort the conflict out for myself. I do not mind other opinions, so long as people, including clerics, do not present their view as the one and only correct response to a situation. That would drive me out of the Episcopal church. I am not looking for a dictator

Cassandra said...

As a member of the laity, I'm a bit dismayed by the frequent use of the word "side" in discussions on political sermons. Perhaps "positions" might be a little less polarizing than "sides"? There can be more than one position, but sides generally implies only 2 sides.

And, if we must speak in terms of sides, I would urge the clergy to remember that many, if not most of us laity already know and accept that our Baptismal Covenant calls us to encounter and work through issues of social justice and injustice. How we discern our personal response to evil in the world is an individual choice and journey. When a "political sermon" is preached by clergy, from the pulpit, the choice of how and when to respond, and to what we are responding, appears to be taken from us, and defined by the clergy preaching the sermon, The Gospel of Jesus calls us to love one another and to act out of that love. Jesus calls us to love one another in many different ways, and He is not specific about what cause to support or resist, or specifically how to do so. Rather, He empowers us. That message, that nvitation, that respect for my free choice on whether to respond and how to respond, is in the message I need to hear in a sermon.

Green Hills Philosopher said...

Sometimes, I feel like the time for civil dialogue has passed and I want to scream at the sky or the television screen. I want to rant from the pulpit, join a protest, do something, but I hold back. People look to me for something else. Spiritual guidance? That's it, they want me to tell them of a message from out there somewhere. However, if I preach the good news of Jesus Christ, it is more than spiritual. The words of Jesus are words of action. The refugee, the despised, the lonely cannot be ignored. A message of peace must be given because it is from out there somewhere. The message they need to hear is not from out there but from inside their own brains. Listen!