Goodhue: Politicking in the pulpit can backfire

"In becoming partisan, churches distort their teaching," writes Thomas W. Goodhue. Photo Credit: Nancy Ohanian

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As the nation celebrates Thanksgiving, countless students will hear that the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts so that they could worship God in their own fashion. Few will hear that the Puritans, my father's people, who arrived a few years later, promptly set out to create a theocracy.

Americans eventually embraced the separation of church and state: Government is supposed to stay out of religion, and houses of worship are supposed to stay out of partisan politics. There have always been good reasons for clergy to avoid politicking from the pulpit: It needlessly offends those who disagree with you, it makes it harder for them to hear you on nonpartisan issues, and it is illegal.

After the 2012 presidential election, we can add another: Few listen anyway.

Congregations can and should register voters, urge people to go to the polls and speak out on issues. Archbishop Timothy Dolan was right to offer a benediction at both the Republican and Democratic National conventions. First Baptist Church of Riverhead appropriately hosted a debate between Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and his Republican opponent, Randy Altschuler.

This year, however, brought reports of Daniel Jenky, Roman Catholic bishop of Peoria, Ill., comparing President Barack Obama to Hitler and ordering priests to read a blistering anti-Obama statement at weekend Masses, one implying it was a grave sin to not vote for Mitt Romney.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization based in Arizona, went even further. It organized more than 1,500 evangelical Protestant pastors to deny nonprofit law and IRS regulations by endorsing candidates -- primarily Mitt Romney -- in sermons on Oct. 7 in something it called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." Last week, a Wisconsin-based atheist organization, Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued the IRS for failing to take action against such political action from churches.

The partisan preaching mostly fell on deaf ears. Churches that mucked around in politics likely lost influence with their parishioners more than they influenced the election. Romney, a Mormon, did surprisingly well among white evangelicals, who already tended to vote Republican, but exit polls revealed that African-American, Latino and Asian-American evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Despite open opposition by many Catholic bishops, Obama won the Catholic vote again.

In becoming partisan, churches distort their teaching. Real dialogue must be built on honest recognition that we do not all believe the same things and just might learn something from those whose beliefs are different from ours.

Churches that engaged in partisan politicking probably also lost in another way: by driving away many members, particularly young ones, which undermines their evangelism. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, last year completed a five-year study called "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church." Teens and young adults, both Catholic and evangelical, are alienated by judgmental attitudes toward sexuality, Kinnaman notes, and this is a major reason they are drifting away.

Homosexuality is a deeply divisive issue in many faith communities, including my own, but our denomination -- as well as the Long Island Council of Churches -- regularly reminds its leaders that it is improper to presume to tell parishioners that it's sinful to support any particular politician. Judging candidates solely on sexuality issues offends the loyal opposition in the pews -- and leads many to look elsewhere for spiritual guidance or community. As a Pentecostal friend who opposes gay marriage remarked, "If we come across as bigots, we will lose an entire generation."

Perhaps that is something all people of faith can learn from this past election season: However impassioned we may be about politics, we need a little humility.

The Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue is a United Methodist clergyman and the executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches.

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