The intersection of faith, the Episcopal Church, and politics

October 11, 2012


[Episcopal News Service] By some accounts, at least 1,500 preachers in a variety of denominations across the nation deliberately defied federal tax rules Oct. 7 by backing political candidates from the pulpit.

And then there was the Rev. Canon Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, who defied the defiers from his own well of experience.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is a four-year-old effort by the Alliance Defending Freedom to provoke a trial in order to challenge the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) codes prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates.

Bacon, whose church successfully fended off a 2004 Internal Revenue Service challenge to its own tax-exempt status, called Pulpit Freedom Sunday “an ill-conceived movement confusing pulpit freedom with partisan politics.”

“Preachers who tell you for whom to vote and who become instruments of partisanship have thus relinquished their freedom to evaluate prophetically all candidates and all parties using the plumb line of the house of love,” said Bacon in remarks posted on YouTube.

Others who spoke with the Episcopal News Service about the intersection of faith, God and politics agreed that the church’s role must be prophetic, not partisan.

Mary Getz said the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations and the Episcopal Public Policy Network, for which she is grassroots and online communications officer, help “Episcopalians stay active in our nation’s democratic process by providing them with current information about legislation that stands before Congress and about related General Convention resolutions.

“In an election year, we remind, encourage, and support full voter participation,” she said in an e-mail to ENS.

For example, a ballot question in Maryland calls for repeal of the state’s new DREAM Act that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. “The Episcopal Church passed a resolution this summer supporting DREAM Act legislation, so we will highlight this when we send voting reminders to EPPN members in Maryland,” said Getz.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told ENS that “Jesus was deeply concerned with political processes in his own day, challenging people around him as well as the Roman and religious governments about injustice, violence, and exploitation.”

“Our task as Christians is always to explore how the political processes and decisions before us can help or hinder the coming of the Reign of God in our midst,” she added. “Does a tax proposal seem to care for ‘the least of these’? Does a policy decision mean greater justice for the ‘little ones’? Does one candidate seem to have a greater interest than another in the primary issues of justice that Jesus spoke most about?”

And while people of good faith “may come to different conclusions about any such question” the quality of the dialogue and the way it is conducted must also be taken into account, the presiding bishop said.

The Rev. Bob Massie said faith inspired his candidacy and the way he organized political campaigns, for Massachusetts lieutenant governor in 1994, and for the U.S. Senate two years later. He decided to run for office, partly because “the public conversation was so bleak and pessimistic … [and] about welfare, taxes, not about the possibility of what people could do together in community.”

“To my surprise I won the Democratic primary” for lieutenant governor, Massie said during a recent telephone interview, but he was defeated in the general election. He dropped out of the Senate race.

Still active as a priest, he currently serves as president and chief executive officer of the New Economics Institute, a Barrington, Massachusetts think-tank whose mission is to advance a just and sustainable economy.

Faith meant, for him, no negative campaigning or personal attacks on opponents. Which is different to telling the truth, he said.

“If I pointed out that Congress, and particularly the House of Representatives controlled by the Republican Party, was trying to deny health insurance for 50 million Americans, some people might experience that as a negative comment,” he said. “But it’s a true comment. Part of my responsibility as a citizen and as a candidate was to talk about what was true, but I didn’t believe in attacking anyone else on personal basis.”

What is not appropriate, he said, is for clergy to avoid public issues.

“We live in a world that remains grotesquely unjust and controlled by powerful forces we need to expose,” he said. “Secondly, we are on the path to destroying the planet and generations that follow will wonder why people of faith didn’t rise up to object to this slow-motion self-destruction. It is a critical part of one’s faith and of any Christian community to take public issues seriously, to engage them, to discuss them in the light of the Gospel and then to act on them.”

Given the complexity of local politics in Baraboo, Wisconsin, however, Stephanie Seefeldt and her husband Scott, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, have made “a clear commitment to not getting into any political conversations that could lead people to think one thing or another about us and/or our church” because of the complexity of local politics, she said in an e-mail to ENS.

The congregation’s political opinions run the gamut from ultra conservative to ultra liberal, she added. “My favorite image is that of the Prius covered in Obama stickers parked next to the Expedition with the ‘how’s that hope and change thing workin’ out for ya?’” she said.

Still, her husband “works very hard to raise the level of discourse from the pulpit, and does a great job of it, so that what he challenges our congregation to do is to honor Christ and one another, no matter the political persuasion.”

Bishop Alan Scarfe of the Diocese of Iowa agrees that the church’s ability to have “a grace-filled conversation” can offer free and safe discussions about political issues, he said in a recent telephone interview with ENS.

Iowa’s system of caucusing means “you go to a local school and you’re all pushed together in a big crowd, Republicans and Democrats all together,” he said. “You’re pushing down the corridor to go to the Democratic caucus and you’re pushing past your neighbor who’s going to the Republican caucus and you’re saying, ‘Hey Joe. How are you?’ There’s no hiding.”

A priest he knows called this “the most divisive election she’s ever experienced in her congregation among her own people,” Scarfe said. “I wonder if she’s attempted to say, ‘let’s sit down and have a conversation and set some rules and be civil and do it under the shadow of the cross and in the spirit of the reconciling God.’”

He envisions a gathering where “you’d have people who are Romney supporters and Obama supporters within a given congregation talking together about what is a fair and just budget, with perhaps some leadership from pastors and priests that can lead into some biblical searches. You can do the same for one’s nation’s place regarding security and interdependence globally, all these things.

“We can use the church as the place where people live a reconciled life and through the safety of that reconciled life they can talk to each other about these things that are most important. We can put some human face on issues, because it is your neighbor, and hopefully there is some way you can humanly appreciate the other person just beyond their politics.”

For Nancy Frausto, 29, a “DREAMer” in the Diocese of Los Angeles faith is absolutely the jumping off place for politics.

DREAMers qualify for benefits under the Development, Relief and Education for Minors or DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth who meet certain criteria.

For Frausto, faith means siding with the candidate who is “talking to the real people down here in the streets, the working class, all of us who are struggling.

“We are here on earth to look after one another, to take care of the poor, to be there for the orphan and the widow … the voiceless,” she said.

“I have been so frustrated because I’ve never been able to vote and I have friends who are citizens who’ve never voted at all. You may think your vote doesn’t count but you are willingly letting people take your voice away, take away your rights. As people of faith, we need to stand up and make our voices heard.”

U.S. Democratic Representative Bradley Miller of North Carolina told ENS that throughout his political career he has tried to behave ethically and faithfully, but acknowledged that what Jesus would do isn’t always all that clear.

“It is hard to take from our faith a sense of confidence that we really do know exactly what the Lord would command on really detailed issues,” the former Episcopalian turned Roman Catholic said during a recent telephone interview from his Washington, D.C. office.

“Faith teaches humility that we should recognize and understand the limitations of human knowledge and, guided by charity or Christian love, try to apply that as best we can. Then, we are acting as best we can on our faith,” said Miller. His district was divided up through reapportionment; he is not seeking re-election.

The Rev. John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and Missouri Republican, who retired in 1994 after serving three terms in the U.S. Senate, agreed. “One of the dangers is when people who are in politics purport to speak for God, or to say that their political positions are God’s positions, because they’re not,” Danforth told ENS.

“We have a candidate in Missouri for the U.S. Senate, Todd Akin, who has become very famous nationally for his comments about abortion,” Danforth added. “He would say yes, that it’s God’s will that he’s the candidate. I think his reading of God’s will would not be mine. I think that’s a claim that’s dangerous to make.”

Rather, politics is “a balancing of interests, meaning there are all kinds of peoples and groups asking the question ‘what’s in it for me?’,” he said.

“Religion does offer into this political world of self-interest a second question which is, is there something beyond yourself, something that you want to serve beyond your own interests? That’s an important message in politics and it’s not heard today.”

He added that “the prophetic message of the church should be precisely against the claim that one position or set of positions is the religious position. Because in reality, everything is debatable in politics, and everything is up for compromise or else it’s just going to be gridlock, which is the current situation we now have and have had for the last decade or so.”

Politics is a business of struggle, Danforth said. “It’s ambiguity and it’s different people with different positions and how do you hold them together. By the way, that’s a very religious undertaking, isn’t it, simply to hold things together?”

The Rev. John Forney, an Episcopal priest since 1985, and a chapter organizer for Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles, said that faith informs everything we do, from budgets that serve as moral documents to “how we treat other people and being a community that is life-giving.

“Essentially, our national life is our national community, a community that invests in people, is safe for people, those kinds of communities reflect our religious values,” he said.

He cited the criminal justice system as an example. “We are bound to do better than locking up 60 percent of minority youth for crimes white kids would never get locked up for,” said Forney, who is white. “When you do this it diminishes their ability for the rest of their life to be productive citizens. Our faith values say that we mustn’t throw away people. There are no throwaways, no 47 percent here. God loves everyone here and we must love everyone and do by them what God does by them.”

Mixing partisan politics and religion only makes religion the loser, he added. “Sure, the church needs to say something about politics. But we don’t need to be backing candidates.”

An explanation from the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics of the 2012 IRS rules on political activity by religious organizations is here.

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.   

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