Pastors reflect on unifying congregations after divisive election
BY PETER SMITH
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
PITTSBURGH – The Sunday after the presidential election, Pastor Rock Dillaman kept his ears tuned the conversations among members at the church he leads.
He knew both from his own observations and general trends that in a racially diverse congregation, there would be plenty of both Donald Trump supporters and Hillary Clinton backers, and he could only wonder at the fallout after the bitterest campaign in recent memory.
“What I found that first Sunday was people loving one another, laughing with one another,” said Dillaman, pastor of Allegheny Center Alliance Church, a North Side congregation with large numbers of both White and Black worshipers.
A divided ‘us’
Many religious congregations may be almost entirely red or blue in their politics, depending on their racial, theological, geographic and economic makeup.
But in houses of worship have flocks made up of a fairly even mix of donkeys and elephants.
Preachers there find themselves “struggling to say something that’s both unifying and prophetic,” wrote Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, in a recent edition of the journal Christian Century.
“It’s easy to gloss over the divisive issues of a congregation with a declaration about spiritual unity, and it’s easy to make a congregation afraid of the ‘them’ who are to blame for our problems,” he wrote. “But it’s very difficult to preach to a divided ‘us.’” Yet at times pastors can’t keep silent, he said, calling on them to oppose such things as Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward immigrants, Muslims and others.
What polls showed
Exit polls found that large majorities of White Protestants and Catholics supported Trump, many of them citing hopes for a Supreme Court that would restrict abortion and protect religious liberty.
Many racial and religious minorities supported Clinton, citing such things as her support for immigrant and civil rights.
While the 2016 election was especially fierce, previous presidential campaigns were also deeply divisive, and Pastor Dillaman said he used to breathe a sigh of relief when Election Day came and went.
This time, however, the acrimony is continuing right through Inauguration Day, particularly on social media, where he said he’s seen where some people “in the course of three paragraphs violated seven of the Ten Commandments.”
“The teams have left the field and the fans up in the stands are still fighting,” he said. Any church that wasn’t prepared to deal with its division before Nov. 8, he said, was unequipped to do so afterward.
At Allegheny Alliance, he said: “We’ve learned too much from one another about one another and spent too much time together to let something as temporary and hollow as American politics divide us. We know elections have profound implications, but they are temporary in the grand scheme of things.”
Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, leader of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, noted that her denomination has an extensive set of official social principles, and she encourages pastors to preach on those themes rather than on candidates or parties.
Those principles, for example, include a call for humane policies on immigration and health care.
But pastors can’t just make the correct points; they also have to care about their people, she said.
What to emphasize
If folks aren’t able to hear us, it doesn’t matter if we’re speaking prophetically,” she said.
“Oftentimes people will let you push them harder if they know you have been there for them in those moments of crisis, of death in the family. They’ll take up the challenge more.”
The Rev. Eric Park, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Butler, said that while he assumes most congregants voted Republican, they had diverse views and many wished for options that weren’t on the ballot.
He said it’s important to emphasize the “core conviction that God’s vision of justice and mercy is grounded in something more beautiful and grander than a particular party’s rhetoric.”
Issues of note
He said he does speak to particular issues — that “if women are objectified or mistreated, … the church has an obligation of speaking to the truth that Jesus has given men and women a different way of relating to one another.”
Or that immigrants can’t be discussed without losing “sight of the fact that we’re speaking of people in whom the face of Jesus can be observed and not simply statistics.” And that any discussion of health-care policy must recognize that “God has a vision of the health and wholeness of the people.”
He’s heard many Clinton and Trump supporters say they’ve felt demonized by each other, but he’s been encouraged by their efforts to move “to a more comprehensive, reasoned and respectful way of talking to one another.”
The Rev. Jim Gilchrist, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair, said that even though there are obvious reasons to avoid preaching on partisan politics — it divides congregants and would violate the conditions for religious organizations’ tax-exempt status — it’s impossible to avoid matters of “public well-being and justice.”
“We live in the polis, we live in the community,” he said. “Christianity absolutely is concerned not only with individuals’ spirituality but life together.”
He preaches “middle axioms” — between things like “love thy neighbor, which is true but not very specific,” and tactical instructions, such as “vote this way on Bill 2436.”
A middle axiom, he said, would say that “if you would want to have access to health care, we should make sure others have access to health care,” or “if you would not like to be discriminated against, we have a Christian responsibility to remove discrimination.”
He cited an old preacher’s expression that one must stay “hitched to the wagon you’re pulling” — staying connected with the congregants one is trying to influence.
“If you run out ahead out of righteous conviction but leave the wagon behind, then you haven’t really moved the wagon,” he said. “On the other hand, if you don’t pull the wagon, it also doesn’t move.”