Preaching Amidst Polarization

Preaching as the pressure builds towards the November elections will be like running through a field of thistles.  Sharp burrs scratch and scrape whatever direction you take.  There is no happy medium of Aristotle’s golden mean to save our sermons.  Completely avoiding political issues weakens the power of the pulpit, and unless a congregation is already fully to the Left or the Right, taking a strong stand means one side is happy, while the other clings like angry burrs under your preaching robe.  How do we preach in a time like this?

On one side we have a President urging pastors to get their congregations to support him (which is steal illegal under the Johnson Amendment), using fear tactics as motivation:

In a closed-door meeting with evangelical leaders, President Trump on Monday warned of “violence” from the left if Democrats retake control of Congress in November, according to multiple reports….“They will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they’ll do it quickly and violently, and violently.”  Washington Post, September 28

If liberals are not violent now, why would we turn violent if we won?  Of course, it is not about logic, or ethics, but about using fear to gain power and dominance.  The tactic is as old as Eli and his sons in the Temple, the purges of Moses, or the alliances among Pharisees and Herodians to destroy Jesus.  It should not surprise us as Christians.

Colbert King recently urged clergy to denounce Trump for the pulpits in wake of the Paul Manafort guilty verdict and guilty plea by Michael Cohen, which also implicated Trump as a co-conspiritor in committing a felony.  Surely this is a time to speak truth to power:

Yet some preachers remain silent or gutlessly pivot their sermons to other less soul-stirring subjects.  How long can this Trump travesty go on?  In the name of all that is ethical and moral, call him out, and from the pulpits.  Colbert King, Can Pulpits Across the Nation Stand for Trump?

While it is incomprehensible to me that many clergy support Trump, I think this article fundamentally misunderstands the power of the pulpit. Direct frontal assaults on political issues are not necessarily the most effective means to persuasion. In this polarized environment, people are not going to change heart just because their pastor criticizes Trump in a sermon. It often just shuts people down.

I preach in a progressive congregation, and have the freedom to speak without fear of losing my job. I don’t need say a lot about Trump, because my congregation is already there. I could blast away at Trump for 20 minutes and they would tell me it was a good sermon. But they wouldn’t learn anything different than what they hear on MSNBC. I think what they need is a sense of hope that helps them through anxiety and despair, encouragement that their acts towards kindness and justice matter, and the assurance that creating an inclusive and welcoming community is an important witness against the racism and xenophobia Trump spews. I keep focusing on who God is, how God acts in scripture, and how this is relevant to us. This grounds people in their faith and for their action.

Some of the most courageous pastors I know preach to more middle of the road and divided congregations. Their patient work to create dialog, preach on themes like welcoming the stranger, and encouraging compassion for people on the margins of society is heroic.
No pastor finds it easy to preach in these times, to be equal to the moment. Even Rachel Maddow can’t keep up with the news cycle, and she has staff and works on this 60 hours or more a week. Meanwhile, churches are picking up the slack as the need grows for food, shelter and life essentials; the opiate crisis hammers families, and many people have their past histories of trauma activated by the constant barrage of a President who acts and speaks like an abuser. Some congregations have taken people into sanctuary, which is an enormous task. And people still get sick, need visits, get married, raise their children and all the things we normally do as church.
I appreciate Colbert King’s frustration, but he could do more good by persuading the Washington Post to do a better job of covering what more progressive congregations are doing. We get little play in the national media compared to conservative evangelicals. Where are the stories about the scope of the Sanctuary movement, or interviews with progressive church leaders? Why give such a high profile to what Franklin Graham says, compared to liberal Protestant denominational leaders? If you want progressive pulpits amplified, come talk to us.
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