Local spiritual leaders at the crossroads of religion and politics are in an interesting quandary that pits their personal opinions against their roles as spiritual leaders.
Like the people in their congregations, they cast ballots that reflect who they think are the best candidates. But they are reluctant to share their decisions — partly because IRS rules prohibit them from endorsing candidates and partly because they don’t want to cross anyone in their congregations.
“The church is a consumer culture. Given the economic situation, we don’t want to tick anybody off and have them leave our congregations with their finances,” said a local Protestant minister, who was among a group of religious leaders who agreed to speak on a condition of anonymity. “Ninety percent of clergy would agree with this and the other 10 percent are lying.”
“I’ve done that before, when the economy was a lot better, and lost families, but I learned my lesson,” the minister said. “I made reference to Terri Schiavo [whose case involved a legal battle over prolonged life support], saying if Heaven is such a nifty place, why are we keeping people here? I had a series of angry backlash. One family emailed me passages of the Bible, taking every reference to Pontius Pilate out and putting my name in its place. That was hurtful. Clergy are people too and we can be hurt by others.”
Local clergy overwhelmingly agree that as spiritual leaders their role is to bring a diverse group of people together and make them feel welcome and secure. Partisan politics, they say, would defeat that purpose.
But, unlike the Protestant minister, some say they do not shy away from tough social issues.
“I will talk about issues because they affect people’s lives,” said Bishop F. Josephus Johnson, founder and senior pastor of Akron’s the House of the Lord. “As Christians, we are supposed to be concerned about the welfare of others. I am concerned about children, so I endorsed the Akron school levy. The education of our children is crucial and I don’t mind sharing that with my congregation.”
Talking about issues, however, can be complicated because the line between religion and politics has become blurred, according to the Rev. Mark Ford, executive director of Love Akron Inc., a Christian organization.
“Things that were once considered moral issues have become social issues in the political arena … and religious leaders find themselves trying to figure out how to discuss what they consider scriptural truth without appearing to endorse a candidate,” Ford said.
Moreover, he said, taking a position results in labels.
“So, if you talk about abortion being wrong, you become a hater of all women. If you talk about marriage as being between a man and a woman, you become a gay hater,” Ford continued. “Religious leaders strive to bring people together but when you talk about justice issues that are considered political issues, you take a risk.”
The Rev. Paul Sartarelli, senior pastor at the Chapel, agrees that finding a balance is like “walking a tight wire.”
“Once we are transformed by God, we are called to live out justice, mercy, righteousness and love and our vote should reflect that. But it is up to each individual to wrestle with all of the issues and decide what that vote should look like,” he said.
“It is a cult leader who tells members exactly how to live and to vote,” Sartarelli said. “Unfortunately, some people want things in black and white and that’s just not how life is.”
Because things are not in black and white and because different people have different opinions, some spiritual leaders find it best to have clear rules on political talk.
The Rev. David Weyrick, at Stow Presbyterian Church, is among that group. Last year, he and his church leaders drafted a “Political Neutrality Policy” that prohibits worshippers from wearing political clothing and buttons or distributing political material.
“The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians. Therefore, Stow Presbyterian Church, in compliance with IRS Publication 1828, is neutral in matters of party politics,” the statement reads. It outlines that the church does not promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms but that it does encourage its members to become informed about issues and participate in the voting process.
The Rev. Diana Swoope, pastor at Arlington Church of God, operates similarly by not allowing the church to be used for partisan politics. She, like Weyrick, will discuss issues that have community and moral implications.
“When it comes to a presidential race, we have to remember that we are electing a president not a pastor. We are looking for the person that we believe can best execute our laws,” Swoope said. “We look to spiritual leaders to help us develop our spiritual lives. As a pastor, I think it would be wrong of me to endorse one candidate over another because the sanctuary is the place where everybody ought to be able to come and feel safe.”
Public prefers avoidance
Public opinion surveys show that clergy may be better off avoiding political talk — not only because they could jeopardize their organization’s tax-exempt status, but also because Americans want their religious leaders to be less involved in politics.
“People are less comfortable than in the past with clergy talking about politics,” said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and a senior research adviser at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“A lot of it, however, depends on what religious community you’re in,” he said. “In some traditions, clergy take a prominent role in leading the discussions and decisions on political matters. In other traditions, there is much greater resistance to that idea,”
Data released earlier this month by the Pew Research Center show that two-thirds of Americans (66 percent) believe churches shouldn't endorse candidates and slightly more than half (54 percent) think clergy should keep out of politics. Still, a large minority — 40 percent — say religious institutions should express their views on social and political issues.
Endorsing a candidate would violate the rules governing the political activity of nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation. The rules have existed since 1954, when Congress amended the Internal Revenue Service code to block religious institutions from backing a candidate.
In recent years, some have opposed the limits, saying they violate freedom of speech. But surveys of clergy members have consistently shown that most oppose publicly endorsing candidates.
Imam Nader Taha, spiritual leader at the Islamic Community Center in Cuyahoga Falls, is a part of the latter, majority, group. He said he encourages members of his faith community to participate in the election process. But as a spiritual leader, he said his primary role is to help Muslims commit their lives to God.
“I am more interested in encouraging every individual to make a sound judgment based on their conscience,” Taha said. “Each individual must study the issues and each candidate’s position and decide what is right rather than be blindly influenced by any institution. There are different schools of thought in Islam just like there are in other religious groups.”
Leader serves all
Rabbi Stephen Grundfast, of Akron's Beth El Congregation, said that a president, and other politicians, are elected to represent all people, not one set of beliefs.
“The government has no business interpreting the Bible,” Grundfast said. “When you misinterpret Scripture and begin to tell everyone else what it means, that’s when you get into trouble. The Jews wrote the Bible and we wrote it in Hebrew. If anyone should be interpreting what it says, it ought to be the Jews.”
Religious leaders should stick to issues, he said, but even that can be difficult.
“If there is a moral or ethical issue in question, that is a teaching opportunity for spiritual leaders, and not every issue is clear cut — there is room for discussion,” Grundfast said. “I get very nervous when people start saying they know what is right. People need to decide for themselves who and what they should vote for.”
While local clerics concede that the final decision lies with the voter, they disagree on how far to go with the discussion.
Disagreement on issues
The Rev. Jeff Bogue, senior pastor at Grace Church (which has campuses in Norton and Bath), said that people may have differences of opinion when it comes to issues like the economy and taxation. But moral issues — like abortion, definition of marriage and care for the poor — are the most important things to consider before voting.
“The economy should not be the number one issue for Christians,” Bogue said. “Our biggest concern should be morality issues.”
“I teach what I believe God’s word says because my accountability is to God not to the government. The idea that a certain candidate is going to turn the country back to Christ is naive,” Bogue said. “Where I struggle is when people rail against the president, whether that person is Democrat or Republican, because the Bible is very clear that we are to pray for our president and respect his authority.”
While Bogue assigns equal value to all moral issues, saying they are all intertwined, Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Bishop Richard G. Lennon uses a more weighted method.
In a letter distributed last week to parishioners in the eight-county diocese (which includes Summit, Medina and Wayne counties), Lennon emphasizes that “intrinsic evils” — like abortion, euthanasia and direct attacks on human life — carry more weight than issues that may enhance human life, like immigration.
“The [Catholic Church] teaching on abortion and euthanasia are based on ‘God’s truth’ regarding the dignity and sacredness of all human life, whereas the other issues, relying upon the acceptance of ‘God’s truth’ on human life, then strive to build it up, to enhance its quality, and further justice and peace,” Lennon wrote. “The first group of issues is essential and foundational and can never be compromised. The second group depends upon that foundation being securely in place, so that all human life which is sacred may be protected.”
The letter from Lennon’s counterpart in Youngstown, Bishop George V. Murry, focuses more on helping parishioners in the diocese, which includes Portage and Stark counties, form their consciences. He states that some issues are matters of “prudential judgments” (like how to lower the national debt) while others (like the protection of the life of the unborn and care for the poor) are issues of morality.
Defining conscience as the “voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us,” Murry outlines four sources of “moral wisdom” to be used collectively to form the conscience — experience, reason, Scripture and church tradition.
“It is not the role of the bishops to tell Catholics for whom to vote. That would be a violation of an individual’s conscience,” Murry wrote. “It is, however, the responsibility of bishops to articulate the moral issues in any election and to share with you our Catholic Tradition regarding conscience formation to help you discern how you will engage in political life.”
On Wednesday, Pew released data that revealed regular churchgoers have been encouraged to vote by their clergy (52 percent), with few reporting that their clergy are directly discussing the candidates (19 percent). The numbers show that black Protestants are more likely than white Protestants to say that they are hearing about candidates and the importance of voting.
The data also show that few voters are hearing messages that conflict with their own voting preferences.
When it comes to issues, nearly three-quarters of people who report attending religious services at least monthly say their clergy have recently spoken about poverty. Thirty-seven percent say their clergy have spoken about abortion; 33 percent about homosexuality; 21 percent about government policies that they believe restrict religious liberty and 16 percent say their clergy have addressed immigration.
Green said clergy have two broad roles in the political process. One is to help empower people to make their decision (via voter education and encouraging them to study the issues and vote). The other is to provide moral guidance.
“Most moral guidance is not about politics. It’s about how to live your life,” Green said. “When moral behavior and political choices converge, it’s up to the individual to decide how to apply those standards.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.