The Episcopal Church in the United States was once commonly referred to as the Republican Party at prayer. I dare say that no one familiar with the contemporary Episcopal Church would continue to affirm such a uniform political identification. In our current cultural context, our denomination is frequently classified by outside observers and many members alike as a “liberal church.” While there is certainly some truth to such affiliations at any given time in our denominational history, we should be very careful to avoid a wholesale acceptance of such generalizations.
It is true now, as it was decades ago, that such monolithic descriptions are far too simplistic to capture the reality of the political affiliations associated with the members of the Episcopal Church. According to the Religious Landscape Survey conducted through the Pew Research Forum, Episcopalians are fairly evenly distributed based on political ideology (31% Conservative, 37% Moderate, 29% Liberal) and political party affiliation (Republican/lean Republican 39%, Democrat/lean Democrat 49%, and No lean 12%).
We are, as we have always been, a diverse lot. This has traditionally been true of us both theologically and politically. Since the establishment of a more unique Anglican identity in the 16th century with the Elizabethan Settlement, we have attempted not only to navigate a via media between Protestant and Catholic forms of Christian practice but also to allow for flexibility in opinion formed in community by common worship. The Anglican ethos of finding unity in diversity shaped by the Book of Common Prayer is, I would argue, one of the great strengths of our Episcopal tradition.
My goal here is not to map and analyze the political ideologies and affiliations of the members of the Episcopal Church. Instead, I began where I did as a prelude to explore what the points of political engagement are for us as contemporary Episcopalians. Particularly, what role do we as the diverse Episcopal members of the body of Christ have in addressing our current political landscape that is fraught with partisanship driven significantly by coordinated sources of misinformation and the unprecedented development of politicians at the highest levels of elected office questioning the results of a free and fair Presidential election based exclusively on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud?
To begin, the imprint of politics is all over our denomination. The uniqueness of our Anglican Christian identity emerged from the religio-political conflicts of Reformation era Europe. Our own Episcopal Church in the United States was born of the conflict of the American Revolution. With the post-Revolution American church in crisis due to the inability to secure a bishop because of the required Parliamentary Oath of Allegiance to the English monarch, Samuel Seabury was able to obtain ordination through non-juring bishops in the Scottish Episcopal Church. It was an act that marked the beginning of the worldwide Anglican Communion and is still commemorated on our Episcopal shield with the red Saint George’s cross representing England running the length and width of the shield with the blue background of St. Andrew’s cross representing Scotland nestled into the upper left corner. Even the governing structure of the Episcopal Church closely mirrors that of the American Constitutional system as a result of their both taking a more definitive shape in the decade of the 1780s.[i]
While our current numbers may be comparatively small, the Episcopal Church still has a noticeable presence in the American political-cultural landscape. The National Cathedral, lest we forget an Episcopal Church, serves as a symbolic sacred center where our nation has come together to pray, mourn, discern, and celebrate. Only last summer, St. John’s Church, known as the church of the Presidents due to its proximity to the White House and the distinction of having been visited by every President since James Madison, became the center of a national debate on the relationship between religion and politics when the sitting President of the United States had peaceful protesters forcefully cleared so that he could use the church as a publicity stunt.
Many of us, me included, enjoy reflecting on how the Anglican identity of so many of the founders influenced the formation of our early republic.[ii] We like to mention historical tidbits such as the fact that four of our first five Presidents were, at least by formal affiliation, Episcopalian. We also, hopefully, recognize and respect that two of them, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were instrumental in enshrining the vitally important Constitutional separation of religion and state that has been the foundation of the ideal of religious freedom for all. In practical application in our current context, this recognition can translate into a respect for the importance of avoiding established religion in a democratic republic while still taking pride in being a part of a politically engaged church. As Christians, we are, in a sense, set apart from the prevailing culture, yet we should always recognize that we also have a responsibility to stand within, shaping society for the good of all who live within it.
What then does it mean to be a politically engaged church while accepting the Constitutional separation of religion and state? We must begin, as always, with the Gospel truth that loving God is inseparable from love of neighbor. Of course, despite what some may argue on his behalf, Jesus was neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and we should resist attempts to make him over in our political images particularly if this implies that we are equating our faith as Episcopalians with a particular political platform. Furthermore, Jesus would have had no understanding of the type of representative democracy that we are privileged to inherit in the United States, and for this, we should reflect on how lucky we are to live in these times, strange as they may be with the ongoing public health risk of a global pandemic and political volatility.
While the Gospel is not a political platform, it is a radical message of inclusion with political implications. For example, women’s equality, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, protections for the poor and marginalized are all important political issues, but they are also at the heart of the Gospel. The Good News of Jesus that has been passed down to us through our tradition is thoroughly progressive, not in terms of lining up perfectly with a political platform but in seeking to ever expand the circle of community and equality. In the United States, a move toward greater equality in all of these vital issues has been achieved either directly through the voting process or through legislative and judicial decisions built upon a foundational commitment to democratic elections.
This means that voter disenfranchisement and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of free and fair elections through objectively false claims of voter fraud are threats not only to democracy but also attacks on the Gospel. Unfortunately, we are currently witnessing such attempts from those holding the highest offices in the land.
In the days leading up to the November Presidential election, Presiding Bishop Curry wrote the following: “It is a Christian obligation to vote, and more than that, it is the church’s responsibility to help get souls to the polls.” This implies not only a call for protecting and encouraging the right to vote but also for defending the legitimacy of the electoral system that stands as the bedrock of our democratic process. Our Constitution begins with the words, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” There is, in these words, an acceptance that our system of government will not be perfect. Our Constitutional democracy is flawed as are we. However, the Constitution planted the seeds for a tradition that would eventually broaden rights that had previously been limited by factors such as economic status, gender, race, and sexual orientation. That promise is still with us waiting for further fulfillment.
Following the guidance of Bishop Curry, we should therefore view participation in and protection of our electoral system as a part of our Christian obligation. We should recognize efforts to groundlessly question the legitimacy of election results in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as a threat to the Constitutional and Gospel promise of inclusion. It is also important to further recognize that these efforts were focused predominantly in urban areas including Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee and, if successful, would have disenfranchised thousands of African American voters.
And, even as these attempts to question the legitimacy of election results in battleground states have been summarily dismissed due to lack of evidence of any semblance of significant voting irregularities and a last, long shot effort to disenfranchise millions of voters in several swing states has been negated on similar grounds, the risk to a healthy community remains. We are made vulnerable when doubt is cast on the legitimacy of the representation that serves as the foundation of our democratic freedoms, and there is unfortunate evidence that election misinformation, no matter how clearly unfounded, has eroded confidence in our election process among some American voters. What is all the more concerning is that similar and related misinformation campaigns have limited our ability as a nation to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic and, potentially, to accept vaccines that can help us get out of it. In brief, ongoing misinformation is not only a threat to the health of our democracy but, increasingly, to our immediate public health as well.
In concluding, I want to return to again to our Episcopal shield that serves as the symbol of our denomination. Surrounding the shield on the sign appearing in front of many if not most Episcopal churches are the words, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” As Episcopal members of the body of Christ, we are a patchwork of political identities, and the Episcopal Church is, as it has always been, capable of accommodating political shades of red, blue, and purple alike. We are Republicans and Democrats and those who consider themselves as somewhere beyond or in between. Regardless of our political differences, at our best, we come together as a community of prayer and live into the words surrounding the shield on our church signs by working to constantly expand the borders of our neighborly communities by embodying God’s grace through our love of neighbor.
Our political process is one way that this can be achieved. In this sense, our democracy, as imperfect as it may be, is a means to achieve Gospel ends. Consequently, if we allow confidence in the core principles of our governmental system to be callously compromised, we fail in our Christian responsibility to love God through love of neighbor. As a result, it is not only a civic but also a religious responsibility to defend these principles and to strive to maintain a government that functions justly if we are sincere in speaking of working for the Kingdom of God on Earth.
David C. McDuffie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and a member of the Environment and Sustainability Program Advisory Council in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also a Fellow at The Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South and Chair of the Diocesan Committee on Environmental Ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. He is a member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, North Carolina.