Like the vast majority of people with political opinions, I am not a public policy analyst. I keep up with current events, think I do a fairly good job of separating "fake news" from actual news, and try to see both sides of the issues. I am aware that rhetoric and sloganeering add nothing helpful to the public discourse and that the great issues of the day are complex, nuanced, and require thoughtful deliberation.
Unfortunately this is rarely the approach, which is why we end up with precious little civil dialogue between people with opposing views. It's easier to demonize than debate. And with handy social media options like "unfollow" and "block," we can tailor the public conversation to our own personal tastes and preferences.
One question that's been on my mind of late is, "what is the role of clergy during politically divisive times?" And make no mistake about it -- we're living in politically divisive times. Not surprisingly, people have differing views on the subject. Some want their clergy out marching in the streets at every opportunity; others don't want their clergy uttering anything political at all.
As a faith leader, I have found that few things get people more fired up than delivering what they would term a "political sermon." Some feel politics should never be mentioned from the pulpit. There's a desire that houses of worship be the last remaining sanctuary free from political rancor and viewpoints. That to preach politics from the pulpit is to automatically alienate a group of people in a congregation when the goal should be to unite those with disparate views rather than divide them. That worship should foremost be about "peace and harmony."
Others feel that faith is inherently political. That to avoid what's happening in the world is to stick our heads in the sand and cease to be relevant. That Jesus himself was political, fighting for the overthrow of an oppressive Roman regime. That he was executed for his political activism. That worship should foremost be a call to action.
While both sides have merit, my own approach tends to be somewhere in the middle. And while the middle can be a lonely place these days, I don't believe you can ignore what's happening in the world -- a majority of the populace who feels unheard, large scale protests, fear of Muslims and fear for Muslims. Not every sermon I preach incorporates current events, but when major national or global events are on people's minds, they must be addressed in the context of Scripture or I've failed to do my job. So while we can't ignore global events, I also believe that we must maintain the bonds of community even when we disagree.
As someone who served in the military and used to run political campaigns for a living, I do indeed have a lot of opinions. But what I stand up for from the pulpit is guided by my understanding of Scripture and by the words and actions of Jesus. I see the world through the lens of inclusion and dignity and compassion and love. The non-negotiable of the Christian faith is to show those things to all people, especially in caring for the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. That's what Jesus did time and again and it is what I strive to do, as best I can, in my own life even as I seek to inspire others to do likewise.
I believe there is a role for clergy in the political conversation. We don't have all the answers and we're not all policy wonks. But we do have a moral compass that can keep the excesses and shortcomings of human nature in check. This is less about choosing sides and more about pointing out sinful behavior when we see it and encouraging compassionate and loving action in response.
This is not an easy balance to achieve and I do ask you to pray for your faith leaders. Just as we pray fervently for our elected officials, our nation, the world, and all of you.
-- The Rev. Tim Schenck serves as Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, MA. Visit his blog "Clergy Confidential" at clergyconfidential.com or follow him on Twitter @FatherTim.