Was my vote sinful? Wrong question — churches should be uniting, not dividing congregants.
America's churches are supposed to be uniting the nation, not dividing it with political rancor or elevating politicians to messianic figures.
“It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat,” the flyer said. “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell.”
The date was October 16, 2016, and the flyer was stuffed in church bulletins produced by the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in San Diego, California. The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego later denounced the flyer, but the message could not be unheard.
Four years later, the script flipped when 1,600 faith leaders wrapped their stoles around Joe Biden’s bid for the White House. “Jesus is not on the ballot, but many of the things he valued are.” explained Reverend Elizabeth Rios. "For me the choice is clear."
Conventional wisdom tells us we should never mix religion and politics. Unfortunately, that timeless advice has done little to prevent our churches from becoming fractured by partisan politics, leaving much of the country confused and alienated, both from God and from each other.
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In the wake of a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol, we can’t help but ask ourselves: What is the church’s role in our national discourse? What should it be?
Politics from the pulpit
These are questions we’ve seen many in our own faith communities struggle to answer. Between the two of us, we’ve seen congregants bicker about everything from Old Glory’s placement in the sanctuary to whether “God Bless America” is an appropriate musical selection for worship service. We’ve seen faith leaders crown politicians with nearly messianic esteem and treat campaign slogans as direct commands from God. And most recently, on Jan. 6, we witnessed a heartbreaking number of self-identifying Christians at a rally which preceded the insurrectionist attack on the very seat of our republic's government.
Indeed, much of today’s political rancor is not just the fault of our political leaders, but also of the church’s withered commitment to its simple, yet divine mission: To bring people closer not only to God, but also to each other.
Christians recall that the night before suffering an excruciating death by crucifixion, Jesus gathered his disciples to pray. With full understanding of the horrors he was about to face, Jesus prayed to God for unity among all believers. “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
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Jesus’s apostles urged the same. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”
It is unsurprising, then, that Jesus rejected political simplicity and the division it would always bring. He urged us to view the world through the teachings of faith that bind us together, not through facile and self-serving political narratives. Recall how the Pharisees, the politicians of Jesus’s day, doggedly tried to trick Jesus to do otherwise, baiting him with questions about feeding the hungry and healing the sick on the Sabbath, paying taxes, and perhaps most famously, the greatest commandment. But Jesus never took the bait — not once.
We wish we could say the same for our churches today.
Take communion seriously
When churches make spiritual salvation conditional on who wins and who loses in Washington, it tempts us to treat every disagreement as an existential contest. Doing so not only diminishes the enormity of God’s plan, but also clouds Jesus’s most important lesson.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe, above all, that we are called to be in covenant with God and with each other. We see the examples — from Samaritans to tax collectors — of how Jesus extended this covenant to all people, including those from different religions.
On this point, we find writer David Brooks’s recent take especially beautiful. Citing Jewish tradition, Brooks wrote that conflict resolution is “a shared process of trying to dig down to the underlying disagreement and then the underlying disagreement below that.” It is a never-ending process. “Conflict creates cooperative effort,” Brooks observed.
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In other words, we might even rejoice amid disagreement, for it offers an opportunity to bring us closer together.
That is, to be in covenant.
To that end, we ask a straightforward question: What if the church ceased its political polemics and instead started serving its higher purpose as a house of reconciliation?
What if churches emboldened us to put our hopes into something more transcendent and everlasting than politics or government, helped lessen the fever pitch of our national discourse, and empowered us to realize the real-world blessings of fellowship?
Specifically, what if churches on the right and the left worked together to create a space for intentional, safe, and constructive dialogues to start the difficult work of rebuilding trust?
Some organizations have already provided a road map churches can use. Organizations like Braver Angels, Living Room Conversations, and BridgeUSA, for example, offer specific and proven guidelines for leading life-giving conversations.
With willing congregants who are formally trained in leading these safe conversations, church leadership can help set the conditions for those conversations to be fruitful.
And when that happens, hope, communion and trust will emerge where there was once despair and division — a more perfect union.
Nancy Boyda, a Democrat, is a former United States Representative for Kansas’s 2nd congressional district and former pastor of the United Methodist Church. Follow her on Twitter: @BoydaNancy. Thomas Wheatley, a conservative, is a lawyer, writer, and Presbyterian. Follow him on Twitter: @TNWheatley.