Mainline Protestant pastors are more left-leaning than their parishioners.
By Libby Sternberg
July 27, 2017 6:08 p.m. ET
For the past decade I have attended a Protestant church near my home. Every Sunday I am surrounded by loving friends and acquaintances. I rejoice in the good news of the Gospel. I ponder how to live a better life. I petition God for my family and friends, asking for good health, prosperity and wisdom. I pray that the light of love will shine into dark hearts.
Yet I do all this knowing that my church is effectively a political adversary. I am a Republican. The Episcopal Church, like many mainline Protestant denominations, supports a “social justice” agenda that reads as if it were pulled straight from the Democratic National Committee platform.
I know I’m not alone. Mainline Protestants are about evenly divided politically, according to a 2014 Pew Forum poll. Forty-four percent support or lean toward Republicans, and 40% support or lean toward Democrats. Yet you wouldn’t know this by reading these churches’ statements on public policy.
The advocacy arms of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church have urged legislators to oppose any attempt to rein in ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion. “As you may know,” the Episcopal Church’s director of government relations wrote in a March letter to Congress, “our Church upholds affordable and effective health care for every American, backs Medicaid as an essential program for low-income families, and supports adequate government funding for research and medical care for women’s health.”
In states with partisan voter registration, nearly 60% of some Mainline Protestant denominations’ pastors are listed as Democrats, according to an academic study released in June. Left-of-center religious leaders are also more high-profile than ever, since Donald Trump’s victory compelled many of them to increase their focus on anti-Republican activism. After decades of evangelical conservative influence on the Republican Party, the Christian left wants to leave its mark on congregations and the Democratic Party.
Instead, I offer a plea to all religious leaders, on the left and right: If you’re considering involving your churches in political debates, please don’t. Don’t actively work against those sitting in your pews who agree with Christ’s message but disagree about using government programs to advance it. Instead, focus on the individual acts of mercy that matter most.
I realize that church leaders face a conundrum. If they truly believe they see injustice in the world, and if it happens to be sponsored by an opposing political party, they reasonably could believe they have a religious obligation to fight it. Why would they stand by while millions of people are being hurt? Moreover, the list of brave Christians who stood up to an unjust state spans centuries and continents, from Thomas Becket to Martin Luther King Jr.
Many of today’s clerical approaches to public policy seem inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor. Millions of Germans either supported Hitler or remained silent. That collective sin darkens the 20th century, a constant reminder that failing to act can be as repugnant as endorsing evil. Bonhoeffer felt driven by his Christian faith to aid the resistance. For this he was imprisoned and ultimately executed in 1945.
Bonhoeffer’s witness surely must energize today’s pastors, who believe Christ calls them not to remain silent but to fight injustice. To that impulse, I say huzzah. The faithful are indeed meant to help the poor and those who have been treated unfairly—and I’ll admit to wishing I could do more in this regard.
Yet when it comes to the confiscatory and regulatory power of the state, my answer to the what-would-Jesus-do question gets complicated. Would he want me to force my fellow citizens, on penalty of jail time, to give up more of their earnings to fund programs I personally like? Would he want me to jeopardize their security and happiness to support policies I happen to think are compassionate? Or does he call me to act without manipulating the heavy hand of government to impose my will on others?
I don’t always know the answers to these questions. Sometimes I wonder, with a smile, what might happen if Jesus appeared in the flesh and disagreed with the policy statements on many churches’ websites. If he quietly suggested that we, as individuals, should focus more on personal charity and community involvement than on political advocacy for government programs, would religious leaders think him not “Christian” enough? I’m sure he’d forgive them for the snub.
Ms. Sternberg is the author of “Fall from Grace,” forthcoming from Bancroft in September.
Appeared in the July 28, 2017, print edition.