Talking about Politics in Church

Leaders in many congregations are understandably resistant, sometimes immunized, from talking about political matters in church. Who needs more polarization, anger, and bitterness? However, since politics runs on the same rails as social ethics and public morality, not talking about politics means the moral, ethical, and religious dimensions of politics are hidden, undebatable, or dominated by the religious leaders with different scruples.

Is there an alternative path and strategy to talking about politics in church that enables conversations about social ethics and public morality? Maybe. I’m taking a clue from an organization in whose mission I participated in nine times over the span of 20 years and which I still support financially. The alternative is simply asking, “What is the material condition of our neighbors and, for those who need help, what can I do that is genuinely helpful?”

The Appalachia Service Project is a ministry dedicated to making homes warmer, safer, drier. ASP staff recruit adult-and-youth teams from across the country to spend a week living in and working from an Appalachian service center. From Monday through Friday, teams of eight-or-so teens and adults drive into the hollows to work for a family on whatever is necessary to improve their home.

That said, the mission is hyper-clear: while the volunteers are there to do work, they are there first to build relationships. Teams don’t arrive at the work sites on Monday, throw on their work belts, and start demolishing a dwelling or jacking the house from rotted foundations. We were taught to mosey up to the house, greet each family member, confirm with them the work the staff had arranged with the family for the team to do. Doing good work accompanies building relationships.

The orientation for making the trip and being good guests on someone else’s turf started months before the trip. While engaging with the family onsite, we did not talk politics. Now, this was the 1980s, mostly. Polarization and anger were less pronounced. And while there were numerous Confederate flags, big and small, to be seen, they had not risen into public controversy nationally as they are today.

While the guidelines for engaging with families discouraged political talk, we were taught the history of Appalachia, including the political decisions which influenced the present. The Indigenous cultures, territorial expansion West, the Scotch-Irish, the Civil War, the discovery of coal, whole counties run for the sake of coal interests and profits, mine disasters, timbering, isolation, electrification, black lung disease, boom and bust cycles, exodus to cities and boomeranging back, the War on Poverty, jobs, violent union strikes and union-busting.

When driving to and from the work sites, we often passed huge coal trucks that took up a bit more than their lane on roads with one lane in either direction. Guess which of us needed to move in order to avoid a collision? It was said that we should treat coal trucks like they owned the road. That was a prudent strategy—and at least somewhat a true statement. Coal interests controlled the local politics.

On the one hand, with the family, we were dealing simply with their material conditions. We did work to render their home warmer, safer, and drier for all the residents. On the other hand, in debriefing sessions in the vans on the way back to the center after a day’s work, and during the evening programs at the center, we all were making connections between the personal and the political, the circumstances of the families for whom we worked and what was within and beyond their control, the ways the political moral order worked for them or against them. In other words, we engaged in a lot of political-moral-religious discussion prompted by attending to one family’s material circumstances.

What is the life expectancy, and how many years is the gap, in the ZIP codes in our city or town? Where have lead water pipes been replaced and not? Where are the food deserts? How far do our neighbors travel for health care, and do they have insurance? Who is dealing with chronic diseases, physical and mental? How good are the neighborhood schools? Are there any discrepancies between neighborhoods regarding safety, policing, air and water pollution levels, shopping, job opportunities?

Unless one believes their religion is simply about eternal salvation, with this life being no more than a gymnasium to train for the next, each of the questions in the above paragraph is a valid, important question for a religious community to ask. Each question is about the material conditions of our neighbors. And each of those questions implicates political decisions regarding the distribution of goods and services. None of these questions can be addressed only at the level of “personal responsibility.”

In the New Testament book of James, chapter 2 verses 14-17, we read:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Offering clothing and food is one level of response. Asking why someone is unclothed, unsheltered, hungry, or sick very often leads into a discussion of politics, social ethics, and public morality. That is an essential discussion for religious congregations.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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