In the end, the religiously-charged presidential campaign that many expected never materialized. The economy sidelined the marquee social issues of years past, a relatively secular Republican nominee kept personal faith largely out of discussion, a fiery black church’s theology was addressed in terms of race, and a fiery pre-millennial dispensationalist church was addressed, if at all, in terms of anti-Semitism. Not that either campaign came unprepared for the religious battles we saw so recently. Obama’s rallies opened with a Christian invocation and his campaign mounted unprecedented outreach to white evangelicals. Sarah Palin motivated previously desultory white Christian conservatives. Yet according to CNN’s exit poll, Obama won a clear majority without improving on John Kerry’s share of the white evangelical/born again vote.
While the nation seemed largely to have lost interest in our intramural anathemas, they remained fascinating to many of us in the churches. The Alliance Defense Fund recruited pastors to endorse McCain from the pulpit to trigger a court case on the constitutionality of prohibiting tax-exempt religious organizations from making endorsements. The message from some of these pulpits was unambiguous: a faithful Christian can only rightly vote for McCain. Catholic legal scholars Douglas Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi met with blistering anger when they endorsed Obama, with Cafardi resigning his trusteeship at Franciscan University. While to my knowledge no Christian left groups orchestrated similar reprisals, I heard more than once that a Christian can’t be a Republican.
Assuming that the Supreme Court and Congress decline the ADF’s invitation to turn America’s churches into tax-free sluices for campaign money, the leadership of the church still has to find ways to comment on the issues of the day without being co-opted by secular politics.
I spoke to two seminarians, one a political liberal, the other a conservative, both of them prominent in the discussion at LSTC, about how they relate their Lutheran Christian faith to their political ideals and activism. I sat down with Josh Ebener, an M.Div senior, shortly before the election. Josh had helped organize an LSTC for Obama group (which I started but did relatively little to run). With a father who worked on social issues for his Roman Catholic diocese, Josh grew up with the idea that the church has “a call in the world.” In college and seminary, this understanding of the Christian vocation led him to issue-based organizing. The Iraq War spurred his involvement at the University of Northern Iowa. He spent a year and four summers in Mexico with YouthWorks, working with churches there and leading youth groups in building houses. He also worked with Youth in Mission through LSTC, helping lead high school youth in Chicago and Mexico City. At LSTC he helped start an advocacy network that introduced students to Seminarians for Worker Justice, Bread for the World, and the Lutheran Advocacy Office. He spent his internship year at a Horizon site in Argentina, where civic and political engagement is a part of daily life.
The Obama campaign prompted Josh’s first major involvement with electoral politics. He stayed informed but had “never been moved as much” by other candidates and felt that Obama “articulates the sentiments of our generation.” Josh was drawn to Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq War, but frames most of his admiration in terms of the president-elect’s biography, character, and willingness to transcend partisan politics.
I asked Josh about how he answers the objection that politics and the coercive power it entails is not the proper concern of the church, but rather than we should focus on voluntary efforts. He told me about the government-supported charity in Argentina and how in the end, it perpetuated poverty rather than addressing systemic problems. Having a voice in and for the community is very important to Josh’s conception of what church is. He understands, at the same time, that the pastoral office requires more restraint when it comes to politics. “The civic responsibility to vote is the centerpiece” of a pastor’s call to public life, he says, irrespective of how a Christian ultimately chooses to cast that vote.
Josh finds in the Lutheran tradition grounds for critique of society’s institutions. “We should be able to use that [reforming] lens in civil society,” he says. The ELCA’s social statements help pastors and congregations on this point, making a comment on issues not merely a matter of personal views but of church teaching. Justification by grace through faith moves us to a pursuit of justice, Josh insists. Activism on behalf of the poor and dispossessed “are not radical things” but consistent with Matthew 25.
David Barnes is concluding a terminal internship this year, and he is one of LSTC’s more public Republicans. His Tennessee family was politically hybrid, in a time and place where one’s political affiliation, it sounded to me, was a step short of being a full-blown ethnicity. He ultimately identified with his father’s party; quoting a John Prine song (“Grandpa Was a Carpenter”), he says that “Grandpa voted for Eisenhower ‘cause Lincoln won the war.” David’s great-grandfather was an abolitionist Methodist minister in Tennessee and went north to join Lincoln’s army. The loyalty has stuck ever since. David was a youthful debater, orator, and Reagan-era enthusiast. He followed William F. Buckley, Jr. in the days before Fox News and Redstate.com provided media homes for conservatives. His political interests turned him towards studying economics and becoming an economic development director.
While what he calls the “liturgical left” is “making its politics into a theology,” David is quite reluctant to describe his politics in theological terms. He has been outspoken on a few issues at the seminary, but doesn’t easily offer opinions on divisive subjects in the church. David weds a process approach to God’s action in the world to a “two kingdoms” theology that allows him to distinguish his politics from his religion. “One is a practical reality,” he says, and “one is the Word of God.” In the church, he finds the ELCA’s official social statements to be somewhat utopian. In politics, he says, win or lose, God is with us and things will work out one way or another.
Like Josh, David appreciates the importance of treading lightly on the subject of politics in the parish. One of his church’s youths is passionate about liberal politics, and David feels, “It’s not my role to challenge that. I should be encouraging that.” It’s an honor and a privilege to be invited into a home and into a life, and having to “leave my politics at the door” is a small price for David to pay. While some of us were out making phone calls or knocking on doors on Election Day, David was a precinct judge in Hyde Park.
Josh and David know and like each other and they share an evident passion for serving the church. They think carefully about these issues and have a healthy respect for the contrary judgments of others. Most of us absorb our political loyalties from elements of our backgrounds that are largely out of our control, if not our understanding. I am always a little suspicious of claims that a person’s faith compels this or that position on a public issue, as if there is no more plausible explanation for why one would oppose a war, define marriage in a certain way, or seek changes in our health care system. “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and prayed to the same God,” Lincoln morosely observed, and if our political differences are less severe than theirs, they seem no more amenable to a theological resolution.
Properly understood, this insight can be liberating. The plurality of our values, commitments, and experiences need not be ironed out into a Biblical unity. Attempting such a unity is not only unlikely to succeed, it is liable to issue in idolization of political figures, or else frustrated rejection of the process, not to mention purges of those in political error. None of this is necessary, and if we as a church are as good as these two seminarians at resisting colonization by the binary Red State-Blue State logic of our politics, we will live to argue amongst ourselves for generations to come.