Clergy Endorsements: A Response to Father Tessone

by Joel on March 16, 2008

Rather than just responding to Chris Tessone in the comments section, I’m posting a follow-up blog entry that includes two questions for Chris.

First, are there enough differences between Hillary Clinton and John McCain or Barack Obama and John McCain to warrant a clergy endorsement (as an individual and outside the pulpit or official role of the pastor, both of which are prohibited, for good reasons, by U.S. law) for the general election? I ask because I’m a little confused about Tessone’s position. On the one hand, he seems to find it problematical for clergy ever to endorse but then on the other hand backs up his argument by saying there are not enough critical social justice issue differences between Clinton and Obama to justify an endorsement. I’m realizing that I’d never be able to satisfy Tessone’s objections, if the discussion is limited to Clinton versus Obama. Yes, I could add more that I consider significant, such as the fact that Obama has raised his millions far more from “ordinary” Americans and far less from “special interest” bundled contributions than has Clinton; but instead much may come down to how I prioritize the issues of this year’s election, although not necessarily over and against Tessone’s priorities, which only he can dilineate. For one, at the risk of offending the LGBT community, I find world peace and worldwide economic justice issues to be of at least marginally greater priority than effecting shalom for and reconciliation with that oppressed community. (In Oklahoma, the latest being that Republican State Rep. Sally Kern says that homosexuality represents a greater threat to the nation than terrorists.)

Second, Tessone dismisses endorsements as a “clergy right.“ Granted that such may not be the best way to frame the issue. But didn’t many Black clergy insist on not only the right of their constituencies to vote but also push for same by exercising their own right to register and then often indicate who they planned to vote for? Would the Black community have been able to make an effective push in civil rights matters without sometimes endorsing specific candidates?

Again, I’d like to identify with Tessone’s warnings about being wedded to a candidate rather than a cause. I’m an admirer of Jimmy Carter (sorry about that John), but I have to take an objective look at his rise to power and acknowledge that he manipulated racial fears to be elected governor in 1970 even as he introduced sweeping condemnations of prejudice after he was elected. Was this Carter’s “bargain with the devil“? In 1966, Carter had lost to the openly racist Lester Maddox, who refused to serve Blacks at his Georgia restaurant. Then in 1970, Carter won the Democratic primary by appealing to conservative rural whites in his defeat of moderate candidate and former governor Carl Sanders. Carter accused Sanders of being a “Humphrey Democrat” and Carter’s campaign (or key representatives of it) circulated a photo of Sanders of joshing with a black athlete. In the primary, Georgia Blacks rendered a 90% verdict against Carter, who had refused to condemn the racist actions of George Wallace. And yet when Carter became governor, he proclaimed a “New South” and the end to racial segregation. He hung Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s portrait in the State Capitol and made a host of appointments of Blacks to public office. In the 1976 presidential campaign, a great many Black clergy made it clear they supported Carter over Ford, even if they didn’t specifically endorse him.

In 1960, John and Robert Kennedy helped secure Martin Luther King, Jr.’s early release from jail. King made no endorsement in the general election (but was willing to acknowledge that he planned to vote for Sen. Kennedy), but his father promised to deliver “ten million” votes for Kennedy. In the 1964 campaign, and just days before the election King, Jr. vehemently denounced the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. King did not officially endorse Johnson, but the general abandonment by Blacks of the Republican party was pretty much cemented with Johnson getting 94% of it, a stark difference to the 77% of Blacks who voted for Herbert Hoover in 1932. With that slide came an increasing tendency of Black clergy to make political endorsements.

Finally, it is a privilege to be in friendly and civil dialogue with Chris, a progressive so rooted in Christ that he sees no need to reflexively endorse the progressive “flavor of the day.”

UPDATE. One thing I will not do is lend my name to any “clergy for Obama” groups, be they political groups or blogs. Because the Federal Election Commission requires identification by occupation and employer, my monetary contributions link me on the web as a United Methodist clergy person supporting Obama. Further, the Huffington Post “Fundrace 2008″ more directly links contributions by occupation, so once I decided to send money to the campaign, I was bound to be publicly identified as an Obama supporter. With that being the case, blog posts acknowledging my candidate didn’t seem to be much of a further step. On the other hand, I have declined to volunteer to make phone calls and have not attended any Obama rallies or election watch parties. Because of my somewhat public support for Obama, any sermon encouraging people to vote in the general election will probably be more neutral than the sermons of many who don’t endorse. Indeed, at my seminary in 1988, one of the chapel sermons right before the general election was such a lambasting of George H. Bush that it was clear the preacher was encouraging a vote for Dukakis. I don’t intend to play such games.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }


Fr Chris 03.16.08 at 5:55 pm

To clarify, I don’t think endorsements are always inappropriate. But as I mentioned in my first post on the subject, the one from last year that you linked to, in cases where the Church’s activity can meaningfully shift the public discourse where the very safety of the Church is at stake, I’m fine with it. (Hence the reference to Chile in my original post, and my references to Chile and Germany in my comments to yours.)

However, the situation of Chile in the 1970s and the situation of the United States now are as different as night and day to me. I don’t see the safety of the Church at stake, and furthermore, even on the important justice issues that divide one party from the other, I don’t think the Church’s best avenue for advocating for civil rights, an end to war, meaningful work for all who want it, care for the poor, etc., is in endorsing a candidate. I’ve yet to say any good come from it, on Right or Left.

As for clergy rights, the situation of black clergy under Jim Crow is quite different from the one now. I’m not for exercising a right just to fight an attempt to take it away, but in this case no one is trying to take away our rights to endorse as private citizens. I just think this is one case where our ordination limits our ministry — because our “constituency” is the whole people of God, not supporters of one candidate or another.


Joel 03.21.08 at 9:15 am


You make some excellent points. That’s why I can’t say that you are wrong, even as I go a different way. I might add that this is the first time since I’ve been ordained that I have so openly backed a candidate.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. came very close to an endorsement or two and I think some good did come of it. The difference of course, is that he had huge influence and I very little.

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