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Updated: Jan 29, 2021

The Most Irresponsible Talkers

Jan 29 2021

If George Eliot was correct that “The clergy are, practically, the most irresponsible of all talkers,” how can anyone take with more than a grain of salt the endorsement of any political candidate from the pulpit?

Then again if spokespeople for faith have nothing to say about the weightiest choice a person is offered as a citizen, the opportunity to vote for the political leaders of the land; can faith hope to remain relevant to anything but the most quietistic otherworldly pursuits?

Should members of the clergy endorse and support seekers of public office? Of course not! On the other hand, they must! How to embrace this tension?

Legally and practically: houses of worship must maintain their political neutrality in order to maintain tax-exempt status according to the (Lyndon Baines) Johnson amendment of 1954 to the federal tax code. From the parishoner’s point of view as it extends to the priest’s or minister’s: a religious leader endorsing one or the other candidates for office will inevitably side with some members of the community against others. That will alienate and isolate those on the opposing side; which is hardly the purpose of a religious congregation or its leadership. So to make one or another aspirant to any elected office into a golden calf which some may choose to venerate is in a sense to banish the undecided and the opposed to the margins. That does not make for a healthy community. Clergy ought to aspire to accessibility, relevance, and empathy with all their flock; not just these or those of a particular political persuasion.

What about candidates who are adamantly opposed to, or offer full-throated support of, a hot-button line-in-the-sand issue that is abhorrent to the faithful such as abortion or the death penalty? To support or condemn a candidate or an elected official on the basis of one policy stand, no matter how resonant it might be with one’s own beliefs, is more than to miss the point: it is to bite that hand that feeds us our very religious liberty.

No single governor or chief executive, judge, or legislator can unilaterally institute or abolish any particular practice or law. At best they can use their own bully pulpit to influence the public conversation and ultimately the law of the land; but no one can do it alone. And any government official has dozens if not hundreds of issues on their radar screen, so it is a misleading oversimplificaiton to allow one stance to determine a candidate’s desirability overall.

More than that: most of these contentious issues are solidly in the religious sphere, e.g. the view on when “life” as such commences and is thus worthy of protection. (The reductio ad absurdum of this issue’s politicization is sketched deftly in Philip Roth’s ancient classic Our Gang wherein President Trick E. Dixon advocates for a constitutional amendment extending the vote to the unborn.) The strength of a free society is not in its power to compel, but in its constraining its power and instinct to compel behavior. How wise is the government that allows and even supports its citizens to choose according to the dictates of their conscience. To advocate for government policies that limit these choices, however just may be that crusade, ultimately limits the moral force of that government.

And yet when great moral and social issues are at stake, how can a person of the cloth hold silence, when the ethics and values of faith speak directly to the behavior and norms of society? They can’t, and they shouldn’t. The clergyperson’s needle to thread is to speak about the issues and how they reflect the catechism or doctrine of the faith, rather than whether one or another candidate is an ally. It seems as though politicians’ views occasionally tend toward the rather malleable, so far wiser to center the conversation on values and morals rather than how one person embodies them. Especially so because the very candidate one vilified as a foe may by the next election have recanted their views and remade themselves as allies.

Let responsible and politically engaged clergy preach about the issues and challenges of the day and the era in the language of faith but avoid the seductive lure of putting all the eggs in the basket of one candidate. Our lives are more complex and our future too dependent on resilience and flexibility to make ourselves beholden to one candidate or one party. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—from whence cometh my help?” asks the psalmist. The question is still a good question, perhaps better than the answer any one politician can provide.


Jan 20 2021 Watch this space for intriguing discussion on the state of religion in the public square, the interplay of religion and politics, and other insights for people of faith, of little faith, or of even less faith.

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