David Segal: Pulpit party
The debate rages on about doing politics from the pulpit. A spate of articles this summer dissected the issue after prominent Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe declared his fatigue with politicized pulpits. “All we hear all day long is politics,” he said, urging his colleagues to use sacred time and space for “something different, something deeper.”
Opponents of pastoral politicking warn that it alienates members and damages the clergy’s standing in the community. It can cheapen the integrity of scripture by twisting sacred text toward expedient partisan ends. In a Wall Street Journal column July 28, author Libby Sternberg noted the tilted Democratic party affiliation among Mainline Protestant pastors — 60 percent, according to a recent Pew Forum survey. This imbalance means that pastors are likely to be out of sync politically with a good number of their parishioners — at least 60 percent of them who are not registered Democrats, according to the same poll. Therefore, clergy should avoid political rhetoric.
Sternberg acknowledged the role of prophetic witness in Christian tradition and the obligation to speak out against injustice. Thomas Becket, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer showed up as her heroes in this regard. It is telling that the examples she gave of proper Christian political engagement were well in the past. More controversial, perhaps, would be to identify Christian leaders who organize against injustice today. Yesterday it was heroic; today it’s too political.
Critics of politicized pulpits are partly right. Parishioners deserve more from their clergy than partisan talking points. But Sternberg falls short with her notion that the only thing churches should do is facilitate “individual acts of mercy that matter most.” That view is itself a political position, privileging free-market values over a sense of communal responsibility. She has every right to argue it, just not to pretend that it’s apolitical. And while she does call for more “community involvement,” the fact that she puts so much daylight between that idea and “politics” makes one wonder what kind of involvement she has in mind, aside from “personal charity” on a larger scale.
This is where it gets especially complicated. Churches that want to get it right must walk a very fine line. “Individual acts of mercy” do matter. A lot. If a church cannot cultivate a space where individuals care for and support each other, then it is built on a foundation of sand that will not last. But if a church also cannot lift up its members’ awareness of injustice, to what loving your neighbor looks like in public, then it is preaching gospel only as therapy and not as transformational word.
A helpful first step is to reclaim politics as a “noble profession,” as Aristotle said. Actually that’s not quite right either, since it falls to every citizen — not just a professional class — to ask the questions at the heart of politics: How do we relate to each other in organized society? What do I owe to others, and what do they owe to me?
Consider a thought experiment. Mrs. Jones is hospitalized with a broken hip. A healthy church will send visitors to comfort and assist her with meals, errands and companionship. It turns out Mrs. Jones can’t afford a hip replacement because of rising medical costs and limited insurance options. A healthy church doesn’t turn away from these “political” concerns. It listens. Sometimes, it acts.
Now, drawing a straight line from Mrs. Jones’s story to a simple yay or nay for Obamacare is a cop-out. Liberals and conservatives are guilty of such shortcutting: Churches who see only systemic injustice without offering pastoral presence turn people into talking points. However, ignoring the systemic mess within which Mrs. Jones’s personal pain sits is a failure to witness the fullness of her suffering. It’s true that scripture usually does not prescribe an obvious policy solution, but avoiding the conversation strips faith of its power to transform a broken world.
Our churches would be more robust and our politics less toxic if we could reclaim the public square as a place to relate to each other. How we interact, what we owe one another — these are sacred questions. Do unto others, love your neighbor as yourself — these are not merely good manners. They are God’s demands. They are also the basis for the proper functioning of civil society. We are losing the capacity for citizenship, the responsibility to hash out disagreements through political negotiation and compromise. When churches retreat to personal therapy mode or overreach into partisan hackery they fail both God and society.
Rabbi Wolpe warned about the creep of “politics” by paraphrasing Einstein: Either nothing is politics, or everything is. It’s a false dichotomy apparently born from his feeling fed up with politics today. Churches can reflect the toxic partisanship of the day, or they can avoid politics altogether — but those aren’t the only choices. They can listen to their parishioners’ stories and struggles and gather with their neighbors to face challenges through shared power. It may feel too political for some and not partisan enough for others, but having critics on both sides is usually a sign that you’re on the right track.
So let’s be less fragile and defensive when our pastors and neighbors push us to address systemic injustice. We can do that sacred witnessing while also holding each other accountable to a higher standard than shallow party lines. If it sounds like a difficult balancing act, that’s because it is. A life of civic or sacred virtue requires, after all, some serious work.
David Segal lives in Houston. Connect with him online at bit.ly/rdjs. His column runs the first Sunday of the month.