Preaching or avoiding politics, conservative churches walk a delicate line

The New York Times
WashingtonWritten By: Ruth Graham © 2020 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Nov 01, 2020, 08:44 PM IST

A changeable letter sign outside Elbridge Community Church in Elbridge, N.Y., Oct. 29, 2020. Tuning into conservative evangelical sermons across the country in the weeks leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020, reveals a complex relationship between the pulpit and politics. (Heather Ainsworth/The New York Times) Photograph:(The New York Times)

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Decades after the rise of the Christian right as a political influence, conservative evangelicals have a reputation for political activism. That reputation has only intensified in the Trump era

The second weekend in October was “citizenship weekend” at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

“Up and down the ballot, there are two very different visions for our nation, and every one of us need to vote biblical principles,” the Rev. Jack Graham, one of President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisers, told the congregation. The 45,000-member church has a committee urging members to be “actively involved in our government,” including by running for office. At one point, Graham told the congregation, 23 members of the church held some kind of elected office. Graham invited four to the stage that Sunday, all Republicans.

But Graham does not see it as his job to tell members how to fill out their ballots. “You preach on the issues; you don’t insult people by telling them how to vote,” Graham said in an interview. “People will figure out how to vote if you guide them from Scripture.” On Oct. 25, he preached on the importance of religious liberty.

Decades after the rise of the Christian right as a political influence, conservative evangelicals have a reputation for political activism. That reputation has only intensified in the Trump era. White evangelicals voted for Trump overwhelmingly in 2016 and have remained his most dependable supporters. The president himself, who is not a frequent churchgoer, has indicated that he assumes conservative evangelical pastors would be eager to speak even more directly — perhaps to endorse him — if freed by tax law to do so.

In 2017, he signed an executive order intended to loosen enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, the provision that forbids pastors at tax-exempt churches to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit. “We are giving churches their voices back,” he said at a Rose Garden signing ceremony, framing the change as a gift to religious conservatives.

But tuning into conservative evangelical sermons across the country in the weeks leading up to a hotly contested election reveals a complex relationship between the pulpit and politics. Some pastors grappled directly with the question of a Christian’s political obligations. Others edged close to an endorsement. But many barely hinted at political themes, perhaps gesturing broadly to “unity” or “justice.”

Compared with other Christian traditions, white conservative Protestant churches are notably unenthusiastic about engaging directly in some kinds of traditional political activities. If tax law changed, 45% of self-described liberal congregations would endorse specific candidates, compared with 11% of self-described conservative congregations, according to a forthcoming paper analyzing data from the National Congregations Study, an ongoing nationally representative survey of about 1,200 leaders of religious congregations. Black churches, whose members are often theologically conservative and vote Democratic, are the most politically engaged.

But surveys about voter registration or lobbying — activities that liberal churches are likelier to engage in — do not capture the full portrait of churches’ political messaging. “There’s a lot more political signaling going on than we pick up with these explicit collective actions,” said Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study and a professor at Duke University.

Surveys do not capture, for example, an American flag displayed at the front of the church, prayers offered for police officers but not protesters (or vice versa), or passing references to “life” or “freedom” in a sermon.

As a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, Keith Mannes would have said for most of his career that he did not preach about politics. He calls himself “a pretty conservative guy,” and he occasionally addressed abortion or homosexuality in his sermons, but he saw those topics as biblical, not political.

But in 2015 something changed when Mannes watched Trump slowly descend a gleaming escalator at Trump Tower to start his presidential bid. The gaudiness struck him as grotesque; the biblical term “mammon” came to mind.

After Trump became president, Mannes increasingly felt called to speak directly about what he saw as an ungodly alliance between white conservative Christians and Trump. But for several years, he tried to stay quiet. “It’s just in our bones that we don’t make trouble about politics,” Mannes said. “We don’t talk about that stuff from the pulpit.”

He delivered his last sermon at East Saugatuck Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, on Oct. 11. After years of trying to “avoid politics” in the pulpit to keep peace in the congregation, he approached church leadership to suggest it was time to part ways. “You realize you’re extending all this energy just to make sure people don’t get upset,” he said. “I wanted to be able to speak openly in the world about what I believe.”

Pastors whose own political beliefs are in line with their congregations’ tend to feel more empowered to speak. In Apex, North Carolina, another evangelical pastor had watched in a very different mood as Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower. “When he came down the escalator, I didn’t know much about him but I turned to my wife and said, ‘Honey, that guy’s going to win,’” Rodney Finch recalled. Finch, the Black pastor of a large multiracial church he founded in 1995, said he had not been strongly engaged in politics before, but the moment was electrifying.

This election cycle, Finch is all in. On Oct. 4, he preached a Sunday sermon on voting. “The Bible is a voter’s guide,” he told the congregation. Without explicitly telling members how to fill out their ballots, he ticked off God’s priorities, in his view: abortion, support for Israel, religious freedom.

Finch is not alone in his awakening. Just 1% of Protestant pastors say they have endorsed a candidate from the pulpit this year, according to a survey conducted this fall by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. That number is unchanged since 2016. But 32% of Protestant pastors said they have endorsed a political candidate away from the pulpit, ostensibly outside of their role as a pastor. That is a 10 percentage point increase since the last presidential election cycle. Pastors who say they are voting for Trump are more likely to say they have made an endorsement.

Still, in many white conservative churches, “there’s a fear of being labeled ‘political,’” said Kaitlyn Schiess, the author of “The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor,” a book urging evangelicals to engage more intentionally with politics. “As Christians, we’re supposed to be above that.”

An analysis by the Pew Research Center of 50,000 sermons streamed online last year found that 4% of Christian sermons even mentioned abortion, and those that did rarely focused entirely on the topic. Smaller congregations were more likely than larger ones to hear discussion of abortion in sermons.

At many evangelical churches, there have been almost no hints from the pulpit in recent weeks of the divisive election on the way.

“My job is to articulate to the members of our congregation a traditional, orthodox Christian worldview,” said Tim Breen, pastor of First Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, a congregation he described as “center right.” “I don’t feel a call to recommend who to vote for or even necessarily how to vote.” Most of his congregation, he said, would not be able to guess whom he is voting for.

At Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, churchgoers can participate in a class titled “The Bible, the Church and Politics” on Wednesday evenings leading up to the election. One session listed biblical priorities including a safety net for the poor, fair wages, “creation stewardship,” personal responsibility and “protection of the unborn.”

“The church is trying to balance, ‘How do we engage faithfully with social issues, but how do we not get swallowed up?’” said Trinity’s pastor, Walter Kim, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, referring to the American church in general.

Kim describes his university-town congregation as “conservative theologically but mixed politically.” “There’s a bit of a tension,” he said. “Some people come to church with a deep desire to understand their world. Some come to church to find a reprieve from the world.”

Kim tries to navigate that tension by focusing on larger moral principles rather than partisan politics from the pulpit. On Oct. 25, he preached from the New Testament book of James, a sermon that focused on humility, repentance and the ultimate folly of many disputes. He did not mention Joe Biden, Trump or the upcoming election. “From the perspective of eternity,” he told his congregation, “we’re going to regret a lot of our fights.”