In the last few days I have had conversations along the following lines:
- A multiple e-mail exchange with a man who disagreed strongly with a point I had made in a sermon, contending that I had inappropriately crossed a line from religion to politics.*
- A phone call from a young woman who thanked me for addressing “these difficult issues.” (She was referring, in part, to the same sermon.)
- A question from a parishioner wondering if our church was going to tell people how to vote (in favor of an amendment to ban gay marriages) like the Catholic Church was doing in a DVD from the bishop which had been mailed out to all Catholics.
- A conversation with a man who was grateful to hear that our church wasn’t going to “kick anybody out” for being homosexual. (He is a straight man.)
These conversations bring to mind three conundrums (conundri?) I have pondered over the years, and increasingly these days:
1. CAN YOU AND SHOULD YOU AVOID POLITICS IN PREACHING?
The only way to avoid upsetting somebody in the pew is to stick to sweet Jesus stories and general religious pabulum. The problem with that is that you cannot, then, be a biblical preacher. Although I have never set out to preach a “political” sermon, honest biblical preaching will intersect with the world of politics – that is, the real world. (The alternative, perhaps, is to be the preacher who is “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.”) So although I am not as courageous as an old friend who sometimes claims, tongue-in cheek, that he is disappointed that no one has walked out in the middle of a sermon lately, I do try to “preach the text” and let the political chips fall where they may. (The “text” being that assigned in the Common Lectionary – an objective approach to surveying the scriptures over a three year period – and not a passage selected by me.) Ironically, I also agree with Martin Luther, who said, “After every sermon, the preacher should fall on his knees and ask God to forgive him for what he’s just done.”
2. HOW DO WE BECOME WHO AND WHAT WE ARE?
Many (not all) disagreements with a preacher’s message have to do with one’s place (preacher and hearer alike) on a liberal-conservative spectrum. Often (not always) one who is conservative theologically will also be conservative in politics (and vice-versa). But how, really, does one become liberal or conservative? To say, “It’s the way you were brought up” is too simple. My parents were moderate Republicans, my grandfather was a Republican state legislator, I am a liberal Democrat in my politics and, I suppose, open-minded and “progressive” in theology. I had a loving relationship with my parents and never consciously rebelled against them for the sake of rebelling. My confirmation pastor – a significant and positive influence in my life – was orthodox Lutheran in his theology (although he did teach us, in 1959, that “there is no conflict between Genesis and evolution,” which is about as much as he said on the subject). I don’t recall a sermon that addressed any political issues of the day. He was no firebrand.
Was I liberalized by Vietnam? By the general milieu of a college campus? (But my most influential political science professor had served in the Republican Eisenhower administration.) By a religion class that introduced me to the wide possibilities inherent in biblical criticism and theology? (If so, what made me open to such ideas?) It is not my intention to go on about “me,” but I do so with the assumption that I may be a somewhat representative example of this kind of complicated development and these kinds of spiritual-psychological-physiological questions.
I am intrigued by the current hypothesis that there may be a genetic component to all this. I emphasize “component,” because as I read the theory the idea is that, if involved at all, genetics is only a part of the mix. In any event, my understanding of myself as a liberal seems to me to be even more deep-seated (or inborn?) than my self-understanding as a Christian. Is it genetic?
3. …THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG?
Which leads to the third conundrum. I have sometimes maintained that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. I know only too well that there are millions of people who would aver that they are conservative because they are Christian. But which is it? Does my Christianity lead me into a certain understanding of politics? Or have my politics influenced me to be a certain kind of Christian?
*The specific point my friend took issue with was this statement in my sermon: “There are over 450 passages in the Bible that have to do with economic justice and care for the poor. Some-times people ask me, 'Pastor, how does the Bible apply to my daily life?' Well, here’s one way. One way that all those passages about hunger and justice can apply to your life: When you enter the voting booth, whether you are Republican, Democratic, or Independent, you can ask yourself, 'Is this vote I’m about to cast going to benefit the poor?'”
(Since writing this post, I have read "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion," by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt's research-based analysis offers a very convincing thesis regarding the issue of his title.)