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Preaching politics?

Preaching politics?

A story in the Santa Fe New Mexican explores the presence of politics in preaching through interviews with clergy in a range of (primarily liberal-leaning) denominations and faiths, including Episcopal, Catholic, Presbyterian and Jewish.

While many called to preach in the era of Trump try to steer clear of controversy, others heed Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, who once reminded the “pastor and the faithful” that they are not just a religious society. “They live in the world,” he said, and still need both “the Bible and the newspaper.”

Many local clergy said they avoid mentioning Trump’s name, but they are talking about his policies and his character, often through the lens of the Gospels and other holy texts.

The Reverend M. Catherine Volland, St. Bede’s Episcopal Church:

“It’s just so tragic at every turn, so disgusting,” she said. “We look around and wonder where this is going to end. How much of the EPA will be dismantled before [Trump] is out of office? How much of this Supreme Court will be replaced? How many members of Congress will cave to his whims?”

It’s especially important to be people of faith at this time, she said.

Talking about politics is different from being partisan, she added, which “has no place on Sunday morning.”

While she regularly addresses political issues from the pulpit, Volland doesn’t make it a weekly habit.

“Frankly, if I were in the pews, I wouldn’t want a steady diet of that,” she said. “If I were interested in just politics, I would stay home and watch Meet the Press.”

From one of the story’s Catholic voices:

The Rev. Adam Ortega y Ortiz, rector of the Catholic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, was walking to Chimayó with a group of young people and other parishioners March 24, the same day as the gun violence protest, and “lifting up our prayers for the same intentions.”

He sees such demonstrations as an “awesome sign of hope.” But instead of talking directly about guns from the pulpit, Ortega y Ortiz said he’d rather talk about issues such as respect, safety, health, poverty, mental illness and bullying.

“The minute you start talking about guns, it becomes politicized,” he said.

Getting close to politics can be risky for congregations, as some have lost tax-exempt status for violations of the Johnson Amendment, which “bars religious institutions from using their resources to endorse or oppose specific candidates”:

“We walk a fine line,” said the Rev. Dr. Tony Aja of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe…

The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., for instance, lost its tax-exempt status in 1995, a few years after publishing a full-page ad in USA Today that said casting a vote for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was a sin.

In 2016, the Rev. Larry Brito, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Santa Fe, drew criticism for tacitly urging his flock to vote against Trump’s rival, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He never named Clinton, however.

The Rev. Talitha Arnold, senior minister at the United Church of Santa Fe:

“I preach about the fact that we follow in the way of the one who reached out across all the lines of division and race and color and creed,” Arnold said. “I preach about the fact that what the Hebrew prophets railed against is that the people weren’t taking care of their neighbors.”

When she talks about immigration, she said, she puts it in the context of biblical stories, such as Mary and Joseph fleeing for their lives because of Herod’s death threats.

“This is a huge immigration story,” Arnold said. “Jesus was a refugee. I don’t have to preach what’s going on in the current administration. All I have to do is preach what’s there in the text.”

Arnold doesn’t call out political leaders by name: “If you preach the gospel and trust people’s intelligence, they will make the connections.”

Photo: Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Santa Fe, whose pastor, the Reverend Dr. Tony Aja, is interviewed in story; image from parish website


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Kenneth Knapp

Speaking as just the third person in the third pew, I find that when clergy choose to preach on politics, there is negligible risk that they will modify my opinion of whatever political topic they have chosen, but significant risk that they will modify my opinion of their critical thinking skills.

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