Partisanship in the Pulpit Can Be Election-Year Issue

Mingling political and religious messages can have a polarizing effect. Some members of the clergy find they are walking a fine line.

By Larry B. Stammer

Los Angeles Times

October 16, 2004

When Father Paul Raferty began a recent sermon on the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to abortion, parishioners at his Eagle Rock parish thought his explanation and delivery were lucid and effective.

Then the priest digressed into what some saw as thinly veiled partisanship. First he spoke of denying Holy Communion to politicians who supported abortion rights. But he said taking a stand on the war in Iraq was not as clear-cut.

A number of parishioners complained to Father Raymond Finerty, pastor of St. Dominic's, that Raferty's "tone" seemed overly critical of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights. But Finerty, who was on vacation at the time of the sermon, said he had not spoken with Raferty about his talk. Raferty declined to discuss the issue with a reporter.

In a highly polarized nation in a presidential election year, the incident at St. Dominic's might be an instructive tale for those in the pulpits of America. Clergy of seve ral faiths said their congregants were paying close attention to what they had to say.

"People have been calling me on the carpet for several months," said the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr., rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, a generally liberal parish. He said some parishioners objected to his negative critiques of certain Bush administration policies, not realizing that he had done the same thing during the Clinton administration.

"I think I am more sensitive these days. I am making sure I am naming the values that are at issue. I'm being careful about naming names, lest people not be able to hear the call to values," he said.

A nationwide poll in August by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 65% of adults were opposed to congregations endorsing political candidates. Only 25% approved and 10% had no opinion.

Compared to the 2000 presidential election, unverified complaints of partisanship in the pulpit are up by one-thi rd, according to Washington-based Americans for Separation of Church and State.

"I think there are more churches that are getting close to or crossing the forbidden line of candidate endorsement," said Barry Lynn, the group's executive director. He noted that the Republican Party had raised eyebrows in July when it sought church membership directories for campaign purposes.

Even clergy and church groups that generally support President Bush denounced the party's effort. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he was "appalled."

Though most congregants want to keep partisan politics out of houses of worship, clerics might also feel more pressure than usual to either take a stand or keep quiet.

"I think there is really a strong apocalyptic sense about this election," said the Rev. Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest who writes a column for Religion News Service. "Some people think it's the most important election fro m a moral and ethical standpoint in a long time."

So where is the line drawn?

The challenge, Bacon and others said, is to impart religious values and leave it up to congregants to connect the dots.

The problem, Bacon said, is that a misunderstanding of the separation of church and state might lead some clerics to remain silent. "Unfortunately, too many preachers let that scare them from preaching about the importance of religious values, which is always a political stance" but not a partisan one, Bacon said.

Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills said that to remain entirely silent is to consent to business as usual. "Some say that religion is above politics and that the sanctuary is too sacred a place for religious battle," Jacobs said.

"But if religion is supposed to be above politics, then I say you're actually for the status quo — which is a very political position," he said. "I don't believe in downsizing the demands of biblical justice ," Jacobs said. But he does not endorse candidates.

But in some cases, presenting "values" can point unambiguously to one candidate.

Last week, for example, Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo., issued a news release saying that 71 ministry leaders, pastors and Christian professors had taken positions that Bush shared on various issues. Among them were the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, terrorism and opposition to abortion, homosexual marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But they did not explicitly endorse him.

Meanwhile, Kerry could benefit from a "National Day of Action" campaign set for today by "progressive" religious groups. "Some vocal religious groups are trying to convince us that our faith calls us to vote only on a narrow set of issues and values," they warned in a statement. Candidates also should be measured, they said, by commitment to "truth at all times, justice for all people and community among all nation s and faiths."

Though many on both sides have refrained from outright endorsements, some, such as the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, said they wanted no secret about where they stood.

But with tax-exempt status possibly on the line, he could understand hesitancy. Recently, Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, spoke to a large church in Lancaster, Pa., about the moral issues in the election. It seemed obvious, the Presbyterian minister said, that the congregation wanted to pray for Bush's reelection, but it stopped short of that.

Since then, Mahoney said he had served notice to the Internal Revenue Service that he intended to pray for Bush's reelection at churches where he is a guest preacher.

Tax laws aside, there are practical as well as pastoral reasons for remaining nonpartisan, clerics said. Offended congregants may leave. Partisan preaching also may drive a wedge in the congregation that lingers long after the election.

Jacobs, known as a passionate advo cate for liberal social causes, said he learned the hard way how not to talk politics in the pulpit. In 1979, when he led another congregation, he endorsed busing to promote integration in public schools. An influential member of his congregation was former U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler, who opposed busing.

"I came out on High Holy Days saying there are racists in our community," Jacobs recalled.

"I was not sophisticated enough to deal with that. The issues were right, but the way I presented it … became a tear in the congregation." He said Fiedler eventually left the synagogue.

Tom Roberts, editor of the independent National Catholic Reporter, said some Catholic bishops who have all but endorsed President Bush because of his stands on abortion and embryonic stem cell research may come to regret their tactics.

"The church has invested so much of its political capital and energy and reputation now on defeating Kerry that if he wins, then, of course, they're in a very awkward posi tion," he said.

"If Bush wins, they're left with deep divisions within the church that are not just over the teachings and how to apply the teachings, but they've become political. Now you have Democrat Catholics and Republican Catholics for whom those labels become extremely important. They become issues of faith."