Should clergy endorse political candidates?

by Joel on March 15, 2008

Chris Tessone, of Even the Devils Believe, has authored a couple of posts “the faith of LGBT Christians” (October 30, 2007) and “In defense of Hillary Clinton, human being” (March 6, 2008) that question the appropriateness of clergy endorsing political candidates. In the first post, Tessone, a priest in the Independent Catholic Christian Church, writes, “This brings up a very serious issue — how does a clergy person who has endorsed Obama — in a primary where the candidates largely agree on critical justice issues, so there is nothing pressing for clergy to need to endorse — how does such a clergy person stand in front of the LGBT people they serve and answer the question of why he or she has endorsed a candidate at the price of their human dignity? There are serious pitfalls when clergy endorse candidates for office, and one of them is on display now as the Obama campaign maligns all religious people who don’t fit Obama’s particular kind of populist Christian conservatism.” In the comments section, Tessone claims that a lot of clergy are sacrificing their integrity by endorsing candidates.

I cautiously dissent. But first I’d like to object to Tessone’s characterization of Obama’s campaign as “maligning all religious people who don’t fit Obama’s particular kind of populist Christian conservatism.” Tessone particularly objected to Obama’s statement that “Part of the reason that we have had a faith outreach in our campaigns is precisely because I don’t think the LGBT community or the Democratic Party is served by being hermetically sealed from the faith community and not in dialogue with a substantial portion of the electorate, even though we may disagree with them.” Tessone concludes from this statement that Obama is saying that the LGBT community is entirely separate and apart from the faith community. I don’t think that is what Obama was getting at all. Instead, I think Obama was alluding to the fact that 1) in defense of separation of church and state, 2) to respect peoples of different faiths, and 3) in objection to the hate language used against the LGBT community by a great many in the faith community, that a lot of social justice advocacy groups as well as the Democratic Party have absented themselves from public use of faith language and/or the engaging in faith dialogue. No longer do we have, it might seem, a George McGovern who in his last TV campaign address before the 1972 election quoted from Deuteronomy: “I call heaven and earth to witness before you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”Now to the matter of clergy endorsements. The dangers or pitfalls that Tessone refers to are real. Our task as clergy is to embrace and enact God’s truth, but more by Word and Sacrament than by legislation or political activism. We in the holy orders are to promote intimate contact with God, who is without blemish, whereas all political candidates, to greater or lesser degrees, are possessed of human frailties. Further, churches are not allowed to endorse political candidates unless they first forfeit their tax exempt status and clergy may not endorse either from the pulpit or while on church property or at church functions. I don’t care for clergy using their sermons to make a winking “non-endorsement endorsement” of their favored candidate. Chris is right to warn of the dangers of antagonizing members of our congregations. We run the very real risk of stepping on the Biblical message of Christian unity. And yet that unity is not based on lack of disagreement, but is instead rooted in mutual respect for differing views as we work toward common spiritual purposes. And yet the real danger for me of endorsing a candidate is that it may actually cause me to “pull back” in my sermons regarding social justice issues for the very concern of seeming to advance my candidate through preaching. I haven’t been preaching about land mines or U.S.- Cuba relations. (See below.)

There is also the matter that clergy don’t give up their rights and duties as citizens, even if we must be more cautious. Chris is right to lament the harsh language that people of faith can hurl against not only opposing candidates but against each other. When I support Obama, I have to watch that I am embracing ideals first most, and not simply a personality. Many of my past choices, such as Gary Hart and Bill Clinton came to disappoint me in many ways. Almost all candidates fail to address some issues in a forthright manner. Almost all of them try to be one type of candidate in Texas and another in Ohio. For instance, NAFTA is very unpopular in Ohio where it has brought economic devastation, but very much embraced in large parts of Texas where it has produced economic growth. Political realities have led both Clinton and Obama to fudge and dodge regarding NAFTA, shifting their language to suit their audiences. While Chris didn’t say so in so many words, I think one danger of endorsements he alludes to I would characterize as the “don’t belittle my spouse” challenge. In a sense we can become so wedded to our candidates that we overlook their flaws when speaking outside “family” and become so invested in winning that we effectively “sell” (mortgage?) a part of our souls. Chris puts it in terms of “sacrificing our integrity” whereas I perhaps would be more charitable and put it in terms of “compromising our integrity.“ And yet because I see a glimmer of hope in Obama both as a candidate that I substantially agree with and as someone who might bring a more civil tone to politics, I decided that I would specifically endorse his candidacy.

I don’t agree with Chris that there aren’t any critical justice issue differences between Clinton and Obama. For me, these differences include: 1) Clinton’s support for the use of land mines; 2) Clinton’s support for the exportation of cluster bombs for use in densely populated civilian areas; 3) Clinton’s support of the barrier wall shutting off the Palestinians; 4) Clinton’s enthusiastic support for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon; 5) Clinton’s vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq; 6) Clinton’s support for the same old tired and failed policies regarding U.S. - Cuba relations, whereas Obama seeks an end to restrictions on family-related travel to and supports increasing the financial amounts that families could send to loved ones inside Cuba; 7) Clinton’s unnecessarily provocative statements toward Iran; and (8) Obama may be in a better position to resist the near-stranglehold the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) has on U.S. politics, while still defending Israel’s right to exist. And post-endorsement, I’ve been appalled at what I see as the racial divisiveness of key elements within the Clinton campaign. (In one of the latest silly moves by the Clinton campaign, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, says Obama is incapable of defeating John McCain, a point sure not to win empathy from most African-Americans. Earlier, Pennsylvania Gov. and Clinton supporter Ed Rendell said that Obama would have difficulty attracting white support.)

In conclusion, I’m reluctant to say that Chris is wrong to express reservations about clergy endorsements, but I think he goes too far in seemingly insisting that a non-endorsement stance is critical to maintaining the responsibilities of our orders. I think it has to be a matter of individual conscience and judgment after weighing the pros and cons. Chris can warn of the dangers to our integrity, but insisting on one standard for all clergy with respect to endorsements goes too far. That said, what we cannot have is a clergy war that reminds of the nasty language once used against each other by Protestant and Catholic clergy in Northern Ireland. If clergy cannot be a community, how can we preach that others can be? So how about, it? Should clergy endorse — why or why not, when or when not?

Joel Betow
Stroud, Oklahoma USA

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 03.15.08 at 10:32 am

Back in the heyday of the egregious Margaret Thatcher (like Bush, a Methodist!), I once wrote, in the issue of our church magazine preceding a General Election,”guidelines” containing crucial theological principles which Christians must (because Jesus is Lord) consider as they make their political choices. No name or party was mentioned. A couple left the church the following week. They correctly drew their own conclusions, though they incorrectly left the church.

They joined Richard’s church. I believe they almost left last year after a letter Richard and I wrote to our Swansea newspaper on a local matter of crime and punishment (it was discussed at Connexions). If they continue to stay at Sketty Methodist, either Richard has sorted out their abysmal ecclesiology, or his preaching is slipping. ;)


Fr Chris 03.15.08 at 5:02 pm

Thanks for your treatment of this, Joel. I knew I was headed out into questionable waters and can only really develop my own thoughts on this in conversation with others, especially other clergy. So I appreciate your thoughts here.

One thing I would add right off the bat is that I did not distinguish very well between those who are endorsing cautiously, as a private citizen, with integrity, and those who are rather flagrant in their abuse of office. To be honest, the reason was that I felt comfortable calling out my colleagues who have shown integrity in their endorsements (like Bob Cornwall, a Disciples pastor) and felt less so calling out the ones who have been kind of abusive. (Though I did call out one, and received an earful of harsh language.)

So really a lot of my reaction has been against a few clergy out there who are very blatantly partisan, use extremely harsh language about other candidates, and seem to endorse on the weight of their office (barely dodging IRS problems) instead of endorsing privately, in spite of their office.

I do still stand by the comment I made back in October as being true at the time, however. While you have listed a number of problematic stances on the Clinton side, at the time Obama had just come off a string of offensive moves against LGBTs and remains to this day weak in a few other policy areas. So listing problems with Clinton is not enough to show there are substantive justice issues that point to one candidate or another — one needs to be circumspect and realize that for another person, there may be other issues that make your candidate unpalatable. But this is not Germany in the 1930s or Chile in the 1970s. I don’t see a compelling reason for clergy to step out and start endorsing candidates. Far better, in my opinion, to talk about issues.

Anyhow, the “don’t belittle my spouse” challenge you mention is exactly what I’m worried about, and in the long run, I’ve never seen a clergyperson avoid that consistently. Weighing even one big gaff against the benefit of endorsing someone (and I really, really see very little benefit, except some personal feel-good stuff about participating in the process), I just don’t see any value in it. If you could speak about what value you see in endorsing, beyond “clergy rights” (which I don’t take very seriously, to be honest), that would help me see the other side a bit better.


dh 06.26.08 at 5:56 pm

As a person who supports McCain observing those who are against capital punishment, I find their arguments for support of Obama problematic in light of the link below:

What do all of you guys who are for Obama and are against capital punishment have to say? The fact remains he is for capital punishment.


dh 06.26.08 at 6:24 pm

(as one who is against abortion)…let alone Obama’s abortion stand.

For those who are pascifist’s and supported Clinton: Did you support Clinton’s was in Kosovo? If not how come you attack Bush when Clinton never apologized for that military excursion? (not that I’m against the Kosovo military action because I was for it.)

I’m pointing out some very clear double standards by those who claim they don’t in their support of Obama. It seems Obama supporters want their “cake and eat it too”.


dh 06.26.08 at 6:25 pm

…also not that Bush need to apologize because he doesn’t. Again just point out double standards.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>