A VOICE IN THE PULPIT: Or, Why This Preacher is Happy to Advise People on How to Vote their Faith

A VOICE IN THE PULPIT: Or, Why This Preacher is Happy to Advise People on How to Vote their Faith November 3, 2014

freedom of speech

(Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Politics in the Pulpit. Read other perspectives here.)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”

The point here is not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the many churches from the state, to prevent co-option of one religion into the state. This is often missed in the contemporary dialogue, particularly I think by those of us on the left side of the political spectrum. Until the middle of the last century as elections rolled around preachers climbed into their pulpits and railed against whomever they felt they should rail against, and in favor of those who they saw as the right person for the times.

Then, in 1954 Senator Lyndon Johnson was outraged at how some ultra right groups with non-profit status went after him in the run up for his first re-election campaign. While still nominally a junior senator, history has shown one should think twice before messing with Lyndon Johnson. In response to the attacks he rammed through amendments to the IRS codes restricting non-profits, including churches from endorsing or opposing candidates for office.

This is not the time to ask how an IRS code can contradict the plain language of the First Amendment, other than to note some churches mostly representing theological stances I find at best confusing, and at worst horrific, whatever, are taking principled stands against this code and endorsing candidates from their pulpits. That said, as things are today the single restriction on our freedom of religion and of speech as it touches on politics, is the endorsement or opposition to the election of a political candidate.

Pretty much since our Republic was formed, actually for some from well before, I serve a congregation that old, on the Sunday ahead of national elections, our ministers serving at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, Rhode Island, have climbed into the high pulpit and have recalled us to our deeper principles, to remind us of our ideals, our hopes and our aspirations – and to ask that we take those principles, hopes and aspirations with us in our hearts as we walk into our voting booths. I have no doubt for much of that time names were named, and endorsements were made or withheld.

So, what are the principles that inform us today, in our various Unitarian Universalist churches? What are our expression, our moment of this ongoing living liberal religious community? Many think it is whatever anyone of us thinks it is. And there is a small but important truth there. We all have an escape clause within our repeated assertion there is no creedal test to be a member of this church. That said, reducing our theology to merely believing whatever we want, is failing our faith. Our way is one of full on engagement and we are all of us challenged, and I strongly suggest, when we sign our membership book, we have promised to take up that challenge to bring what we believe into this place and then to test it, challenge it, engage it, within our hearts and with our minds and among our community. Believing what you want is not our way, believing what you have tested and found overwhelmingly compelling, is.

Now, we’re given some tools to apply in this radically free and deeply responsible search for meaning, in particular, two. First, is our radical call to notice the preciousness of each and every one of us. So, if this is confusing, yes, it means Adolf Hitler, it means Saddam Hussein, it means Osama bin Laden. Name your villain. It also means every one of us.

And, there is that second point, that second tool, that second lens, if you will that second truth, which informs both the why and how of our commitment to the individual. Our precious individuality takes its shape from, is sustained by, and is resolved within a web of relationships that is more intimate than words can ever convey. We, in one attempt at putting words to this, knowing from the beginning it will fall short of the reality, are one family. We are, all of us, one family. And within this reality of deep intimacy, we are accountable to each other for what we do.

From that responsibility, what do I see flowing from these principles into civic life? Well, I think we are called to care for the planet as our mother. At the same time I think being able to set up and do business with a minimum of interference is in fact deeply important. But, along the way not to abuse others, or to poison the planet is a central part of the deal. I think in order to have a place in the world of commerce or art or religion or the governance of our lives, to make healthful decisions, means having access to the best possible education as far up the line as your interests and abilities can take you.

Similarly, I think access to some basic level of health care for everyone, no matter who they are or how much money they have, is foundational. And, when we grow old, or are too ill, or infirm, for whatever reasons, we have access to a pension, not to live the life of Riley, but to have dignity in our lives. That’s my short list of critical conclusions drawn from my understanding of the play of the individual and the communal, of the mystery of interaction within interdependence.

And I hope directly or indirectly you hear this call every single Sunday.

We have our values, we explore them in our church.

And we manifest those values in the world, and most definitely at the polling place.

If the call doesn’t come from our pulpits, where should it?

If names can’t be named, where should they be?


In an earlier version of this post, I went on to say as I serve a church in Rhode Island and the majority of its members are there, my call is for them to vote Democratic. At least for the statewide offices and the congressional delegation.

But, it was pointed out it looked like I had preached this. And, I had not.

I’ve reworked it a couple of times, as I often do…


I think I’ll leave it at this…

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