What's Tony Thinking

Divided Congregations in a Politically Polarized Nation


Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles refuses to preach political sermons. He has had people leave his synagogue because of it.

Of these challenges Wolpe said something I find compelling. “A great failing of modern American society is that people get to know each other’s politics before they get to know their humanity.”

There seem to be two directions that congregations and clergy are taking in our polarized times, which are getting even hotter with the coming mid-terms.

One is Rabbi Wolpe’s. Avoid politics. Sinai Temple’s congregation is made up of some very liberal people but also a large number of Iranian Americans who are quite conservative. Said Wolpe, “It is not easy to keep people comfortable with each other and as part of one community.”

Some would accuse Wolpe and other clergy who try to hold diverse congregations together of avoiding hard issues, even of cowardice. But, he and other clergy and churches who have taken this path, have a point. Religion that embraces partisan politics may be missing a more important calling, namely, seeing the humanity of and being in relationship with those with whom we disagree politically.

Another pastor who tries to keep partisan politics out of the pulpit is Sarah Wilson of St. Barnabas Lutheran Church in Cary, Illinois. Wilson’s congregation “includes Republican business leaders and liberal nurses and teachers. There are partisan differences, as well as conflicting views on abortion, but she aspires to keep political debate out of the church and avoid partisan rhetoric of her own.”

“’Politics are very important to me — I vote in every election,’ she said. ‘But I’m not here to tell a person how to vote or who to vote for. If people ask me, even for city council, I don’t do that.'”

The other direction I find churches and clergy going is to become political mono-cultures where everyone is pretty much on the same page politically. No, there isn’t an officially stated policy to this effect, but the message gets through all the same. At the church I attended in 2016 the worship service on the Sunday after that the election was funereal, a kind of wake. Part of me understood. I too was shocked and shaken that Donald Trump was our new president. But the assumption that everyone there thought and felt the same seemed somehow wrong. Moreover, there is a gospel message that transcends partisan politics, and that may have been what we most needed that Sunday.

I also felt this doubt when the President of my own denomination, the United Church of Christ, tweeted and Facebooked his rejoicing at the selection of Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mater. Even if I had shared his enthusiasm, it somehow seemed wrong for the head of Christian denomination to take such a position. I wondered how members of our denomination who weren’t Democrats felt about it? Perhaps there aren’t any of those left?

To me it seems unfortunate when a church becomes a political mono-culture, whether of a Democrat or Republican variety. “God,” as the progressive leader Jim Wallis said, “is not a Republican or a Democrat.” Churches need to be places, i.m.h.o., where we are reminded of our common humanity and of that which transcends politics. Besides that, we know from biology that mono-cultures are unhealthy.

That said, there are times to speak out, times when silence is betrayal. When I was in the pulpit regularly I decried both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump’s bald-faced lies. I also spoke from the pulpit against the second Iraq War, but I sought to do so from a biblical and theological perspective. I acknowledged, when addressing that war and other issues, that faithful people could disagree. I don’t think all tough or divisive issues should be avoided in an effort to create a false sense of unity. But neither do I think it the job of religious communities to be so partisan as to convey that anyone who sees things differently is godless and unwelcome.

All that said, today I am finding more congregations and clergy taking the first path, that of trying to avoid our hyper-partisan political and culture wars. Why? It could be they are conflict avoidant. But it might also be for a better reason: they recognize that politics has become a kind of idol, that is, a false god. Politics matters, but it won’t save you.

Another aspect of all this is the toll it is taking on clergy. For some ministers, priests and rabbis this has created an impossible bind and contributed to their decision to leave the calling.

There’s not only the larger polarized environment. There is a new level of vitriol. People go on the attack very quickly these days. The attacks are often personal and bitter. Some ridicule and scheme to undermine their clergy. Again that is not totally new. Human sin persists in every time and place. But somehow it all seems to have gotten more mean-spirited, even abusive, in the present moment. Churches need to help us become more patient, rather than less so, with one another.

Writer, and Christian, Anne Lamott provides a good last word: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”






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