Religion and politics: A combination some people say should never mix. But freedom of religion is an election issue for some voters. In some cases, religion is used to attract voters and gain support for candidates or issues.
CPR’s Colorado Matters spoke with several faith leaders about the role places of worship and faith leaders have in contributing to the political divide in the country — and in healing it. Pastor Tracey Perry, who leads ministry and social justice work around Colorado, Rev. Amanda Henderson, the outgoing director of Colorado’s Interfaith Alliance, and Pastor Mark Feldmeir of Saint Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch joined Colorado Matters. They touched on abortion, immigration, racism and more.
Henderson wrote the book "Holy Chaos: Creating Connections in Divisive Times" and Feldmeir is the author of "A House Divided: Engaging the Issues Through the Politics of Compassion.”
Why is political and social divisiveness the church's problems to solve?
Pastor Tracey Perry: The role of the church and the call and mission of the church is to absolutely inform the congregants, the members because they're part of society. And the church is to be an example in this world against political division, against racial injustice and social injustice. If you just give a soft music and candlelight sermon, a feel-good sermon, and people go back out into the world and are exhibiting racism, unkindness, you've missed the mark as a pastor.
Everyone is not going to accept the truth, but you speak the truth. It's called preaching that dangerous sermon. For me as a Black woman at any given time, I'm going to always speak to the truth of racial injustice and social injustice. And if it means that I won't be in your pulpit, guess what? I'm called to preach. I'll be in another pulpit.
Rev. Amanda Henderson: I love that. I feel like the church is the people. The church is not a building. The church is the people. And for me as a Christian, the church is the people of Christ and our role is to love and to practice this love with one another and to practice this love outside the walls. So when we are talking about the divisiveness that we're experiencing in our political sphere and in our communities, it's in our churches, we can't avoid it. It is not our job to make people comfortable. It's our job to help people move through the thick, difficult, messy things of life so that we might better love one another.
In my work with folks who are Muslim and folks who are Jewish, each of us has this call to love our neighbor, to try and make our communities, places where all people are welcome, and where all people can thrive.
Pastor Mark Feldmeir: I think we make a great mistake if we assume that Hebrew and Christian scripture is politically neutral. I think what we have in scripture is a deep and eternal commitment toward certain people who are oppressed. Those who are hungry, the stranger. In Hebrew, the word is Gare. People who are marginalized and imprisoned. Throughout scripture from Genesis to the very end, we see this connection between justice and mercy and the faith that we practice. We can't separate those two without falling into this sort of dualism that a lot of churches practice.
We separate, for example, eternal life with life on this earth, we separate good from evil, body from spirit, physical needs from spiritual needs when scripture, and in particular, the new Testament, understands that care for the body is as important as care for the soul.
How do you navigate the political divides in your own congregations?
TP: In serving a rural congregation here that I had served, my situation is, I'm in Colorado, it's homogenous. It's 89 percent white and where I was serving, it was 98 percent and my husband said he and I were the other 2 percent.
I don't politicize the pulpit. But at times, comments were made about Black Lives Matter and that seems like a Democratic tool to get Trump out and to come against the Republicans. I would stand back from that because that's not for me. That's your opinion. But at the end of the day, Black lives do matter and I would tell them. We'd have these open conversations because that's what I do, too. I go to different congregations and community groups, speaking about racial and social injustice and justice, and letting them know when we'd sit down and have conversations, that to racist white officers, to white supremacists Black lives do not matter. However, we matter to God.
How is that message received?
TP: For the ones who are open-minded and want to learn more and know more culturally, it's received pretty well because they don't know the whole experience. I get to tell them what my experience is. When you talk about a racial and political divide is that if an officer pulls you over as a white person, it's completely different. You're concerned about “I'm going to get a ticket. How do I talk myself out of this?”
But for myself as a Black woman and my children — who my heart's in my throat if they ever get pulled over — I'm wondering, and I have to assume that every white officer that pulls me over is racist because he can go from zero to 100. Doesn't mean they are, but I have to be careful. So the same way I teach my children tactical training, I have to do it also. Keep your hands on the wheel. Keep my wallet in the middle with my license. Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. You tell me to get my wallet, get my license. I have to reiterate, “My license is in the middle. Can I get it?”
Does that drive some people away from the church when they hear it?
TP: I have found the majority did not know that it was like that for Black people because it's not their reality and they will say that. So the goal is to dispel the myths. Do some people get upset knowing that? Yes, absolutely. Will I still speak it? Yes.
Pastor Feldmeir, talk about the politics of compassion.
MF: At the heart of it, the word compassion of course means to suffer with in Latin. In Greek, it comes from this wonderful little word. It Splankna, which literally refers to the gut and the ancients believed that the source of human emotion was not in the mind. It wasn't in the heart even, but it was in the gut. So that when you see an injustice, when you see something that you would consider evil or an accident, for example, that could be preventable. We might even say today, “My stomach turned when I saw that,” or “I felt that deeply in my gut” or “I'm nervous and I have butterflies.” So compassion literally is to feel in your gut what you see before you, and then to be so moved as to act on that emotion in ways that care for the other, that see the need and the pain or the suffering of the other.
We apply that politics of compassion to a context that we're all living in, which is more like a politics of contempt. So the starting place for most conversations are adversarial rather than trying to find that common ground that says, “We all agree that this particular event or issue needs to be addressed, not from a partisan perspective, but from a shared consensus about what is good and right in the world.”
Why should political conversations come up in places like churches or mosques or synagogues? These are sacred spaces where people come together to find community or peace, not a debate.
AH: This is one of the reasons why I think that religious communities are so important. At this moment, there aren't many spaces where we are able to really truly dig into that place of compassion, to really truly hear one another's stories like Pastor Perry shared, to really hear one another's experiences. And too often, our churches have either given over these conversations to the political realm and said, “We don't talk about politics in the church.” And I feel like that is really abdicating our responsibility as people who are called to lead and to love and to care for one another and to build connections. It takes digging into those difficult spaces.
A lot of times we talk about our role as faithful leaders is to have one arm that's comforting and one arm that's pushing. I think of this like you're lighting a fire and challenging people. It's this dance of comfort and challenge and comfort and challenge. And if you're doing too much of one and not enough of the other, then you are losing that balance to move people toward those deeper connections with God and with one another. And that means diving into the most important topics of our time and our lifetime, like, racism and understanding what our role is as religious people in maintaining the institutions of racism.
TP: When it comes to politics and people, you see the warm, fuzzy Jesus. Beatitudes. But you serve a very political Jesus. You serve a Jesus who stood against the Pharisees and called them hypocrites in the synagogue because they were more so concerned with religion versus a true faith in God. About money. And I'll even say filling the pews, making sure that people would follow them to the point that our savior actually went into the temple, flipped over the tables and I love the verse: He went and made a whip because there were money changes in people disrespecting the house of God and he whipped them out of the temple.
So when people say, “If Jesus was here, he would absolutely stand beside and be peaceful.” Jesus would come here and be like, “I need to clean out just about every church here because I need you to preach and teach the truth. My people can only be informed if you tell the truth.”
What about politicians who say Jesus is on their side?
MF: I think that's the danger of conflating ultimate concerns with sort of local proximate concerns that we've suddenly assumed that if somebody doesn't agree with us on this issue, and we see this issue as being an ultimate issue rather than a political issue. So if we can sort of diffuse those conversations and understand that any solution to a political issue still has its finite limitations and the broader context of what we might call God's infinite possibilities. When we start to make ultimate or these things in our lives that are problems and then become ultimate concerns, that gives way to religious extremism. It gives way to what we might call like a functional atheism that says, unless we vote this way, or unless the election turns this way, all things are lost, right?
AH: When someone is claiming religious authority, especially a politician claiming religious authority, we need to ask ourselves, how are they using that authority? Are they using that to oppress or hold power over another person, or move into a greater position of power, or are they using that to move us closer to God, to one another, to assure thriving for all people to build systems of justice that allow people to thrive? This is one of the things that's most troubling to me. When people claim religious authority that has been gifted them to harm other people and to oppress people, that is the number one flag that we need to be challenging this.
TP: When we look at our times right now, the Bible is not a prop and it has been used as that. I think that when you look at religion and muddying it at times with politics, and that's what happens is it becomes muddied. Anything will be said, people running for president, vice president, whatever, will sometimes pander to the Evangelicals or the Christian group to try to get those people to be part of their constituency and will say just about anything. God tells us, “You'll know them by the fruits. Test and try the spirit.” So if you're not living into it, when there's division in the land, racism in the land, social injustice in the land, but then you purport to be a person of peace, something's wrong.
Are issues like immigration, climate change or health care all or nothing?
MF: These are issues that are profoundly important to God that God has profoundly concerned about, but they are not ultimate concerns. America was founded on this concept of the rigorous debate of ideas. And yet the Christian faith also understands that we have to apply a prophetic spirit to the world, and this creates this awkward, but absolutely necessary dance. And the role that we play in that as faith leaders, and as churches is to model what it looks like to dance in civilized, in humble, and in generative ways.
How do you broach the issue of immigration in your congregation and how was it received?
MF: When I preached that sermon on immigration, it was the very week that the borders were blowing up in our country and over the current administration's immigration policy. So we had an increase of 24 percent attendance on that particular Sunday. I had some people who said, “I'm not coming.” I had others who showed up specifically because they heard about this sermon series and wanted to hear what we had to say.
I had lunch with one of my members just a few weeks ago, who specifically mentioned that sermon on immigration and said that she had come to church mostly in agreement with Trump's policies. And she left the church feeling like she had a better biblical grasp of the concept of how to treat the immigrant or the stranger in our midst. And she is a decided Republican in every way. But that for me was affirmation that we spoke fairly and theologically and not based on partisan soundbites.
Coloradans are voting on Proposition 115, which would ban abortion after 22 weeks with very few exceptions. This issue is also front and center in the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett. How would you start that conversation at family dinner?
MF: In the book, I use axioms to build out some common ground where people can start having conversations. So with respect to the topic of abortion, I might approach that with a very simple and non-theological axiom, but more of a legal and practical axiom that would say something like, could we agree that to be truly free human beings implies that we have the right to exercise freedom over our own bodies? That applies not only to the issue of abortion but as Pastor Perry mentioned earlier, the right for a person with a Black body to move through this world safely. It would also apply to the issue of medical aid and dying, which Colorado addressed a few years ago in an election that the patient, under the right conditions, has the right to end their life if they so choose.
Doesn’t the notion that you can choose to do with your body ignore the fact that there might be another body growing inside you?
MF: What I'm suggesting is that in our national debate, we throw the issue of abortion back on women as though it's their problem. When in fact, we might claim greater responsibility as a culture for creating the conditions by which a woman may only have one choice rather than forming the bonds of care and community that would give her multiple choices. This would open up doors, I think, to saying, we hear those who believe in the right to life, and this is one way to address that concern.
To say that I am pro-choice doesn't mean that I am not pro-life and vice versa. My argument might be that to have a genuinely pro-life commitment really requires or demands us to develop more comprehensive advocacy for life, both within the womb and outside the womb. What about the life that is at the borders of the immigrant life? What about the Black lives that are moving through this world in fear and violence against them? What about the people who right now are on respirators in ICU due to COVID? Those that are incarcerated? So a pro-life position needs to be more widely understood.
AH: There is a whole movement around that called the reproductive justice movement that was started by Black women who spoke and named choice. What choice? There's a long history specifically of Black women not having control over their bodies and their bodies being used as a tool of society. Women of color specifically have called out topics such as abortion are far more complicated than our current political arguments would have us think. We do have a deep responsibility to assure that everyone has the ability to have reproductive freedom, to be able to have a child and support that child and have a living wage and childcare and healthcare so that they can raise that child and safety for their children. And that reproductive rights, health and justice is far bigger than one argument that it's about our societies and how we care for one another.
TP: There is no black and white in this instance. I think that for me, I'm pro-life for me because I've had my children. I wasn't put in a position where I had to battle with that question. However, for other women, it's not that simple. It's not that easy. And when people are very radical like that about pro-life, my answer is always, well, there's a lot of babies being born and there might be seven or eight women on your block who are going to have abortion and since you're so against them having an abortion, are you going to raise their children?
Black women — over 400 years of oppression. Black babies’ lives don't matter because in lower socioeconomic (places), it's pushed to have abortions. You don't need more Black babies. So when it comes to our bodies, I know of women who went in and wanted to get like a tubal ligation or something and were given hysterectomies or their tubes burned so that they couldn't have babies. So see, it's a different story.
What about President Trump? He’s a man who's reportedly engaged in what would traditionally be seen as sinful acts — accusations of adultery, sexual misconduct, financial impropriety, the demonization of those who disagree with him. Yet we know he has solid support in some religious circles. Reflect on that.
AH: I think that there's a lot more pushback than we often hear about or see. It's caused a great divide and a lot of reflection on what does it mean for a religious group to give itself over to a political party without pushing back, without challenging and that is dangerous. We've seen that throughout history.
Part of our role as faith leaders is to be prophets and to speak out and speak clearly when leaders are harming their people. I don't want to minimize the religious leaders who are in my circles, who I see and hear speaking loudly and building movements.
MF: In Douglas County, as we know, is a relatively conservative county in the state so we have people on both sides of the isles. My work as a pastor and as a faith leader and a preacher, in particular, is to honor that space in the pulpit and speak truth to the values that we see as being compromised without necessarily even naming the political leaders or parties themselves. My point here is it's easy for those conversations to bleed into this tribalism in which you're either right or wrong. And what I see in my congregation is a desire to speak about our shared differences and how we can address those in creative, collaborative and life-giving ways.
Critics say churches shouldn't be tax-exempt if they act in political ways. So if they become places of advocacy, shouldn’t they lose that status?
AH: I think that churches should be part of the fabric of the community and should be contributing to that financially. Our tax dollars support our streets and our teachers and our firefighters and our services. The amount of tax dollars, especially property taxes for religious communities, I don't think it's right. I understand where it came from originally. People will say that churches are muzzled because they can't speak their political views. I think that's not right. I think that churches speak their political views all the time, whether they're speaking them outwardly or not speaking them, which is another way of speaking them, staying silent and they're holding to their values.
It's a struggle because churches can pick and choose who they want to serve. So if we're leaving it to the churches to provide charitable resources, then that church can decide I'm not going to support a gay family or adopt a child to gay parents. We run into all of these very real issues.
The reality is that religious communities across the country hold a lot of wealth and property. Those are predominantly white communities that have longstanding wealth in those properties. So I feel like it's another system of maintaining white supremacy and economic disparity to keep power in the hands of predominantly white churches who have those resources.
A lot of churches are very much struggling and so there's no reason to place further hardship on those churches, but we also need to recognize that our religious communities are also part of our power structures that are maintaining systems that are benefiting some and harming others.
MF: I'm fully in support of the current laws. We have this historic separation of church and state, and that gives us a safe place in which to speak about issues. It lives in that space, which is a gray space. It's a space that we have to speak into that it can't be black and white for sure.
TP: I think absolutely churches should be tax-exempt. I also think people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds should be tax-exempt and the working poor. But for the church, it should be in the sense of our churches right now in a state of really dwindling. People are leaving church and right now church is being done in an entirely different way. And there's a lot of churches that are doing the best they can to do outreach with limited resources. So if they only have a certain pool of money and then that is taxed, that diminishes what they can do in the community and for the church.
This interview has been edited for content, context and clarity.