How Should Clergy Engage Politics? It’s a Question as Old as Our Republic.
Christianity's enduring power is not as an organized political force but as an ongoing moral and spiritual influence.
Recently hundreds of religious conservatives, mostly Evangelicals, met with Donald Trump in a highly publicized New York summit. Most who spoke publicly afterwards were supportive. Two dozen prominent Evangelicals were announced as Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory board.
One board member, longtime broadcaster James Dobson, commented that Trump had been led to Christ by another board member who’s a controversial female prosperity Gospel exponent. The claim that Trump was now a newly converted “baby Christian” whose malapropisms should be minimized provoked widespread derision until Dobson sort of backtracked on the story, which the Trump campaign declined to confirm.
Jerry Falwell Jr. attracted similar derisive attention for a photo of himself and his wife with Trump in Trump’s office, with an old Playboy framed magazine cover bearing an image of a much younger Trump appearing on the wall behind Mrs. Falwell. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. was a Religious Right founder and anti-pornographer crusader.
Pro-Trump Evangelicals have been criticized by Never Trump conservative Evangelicals who see support for him as a betrayal of traditional Christian moral and political concerns. Of course, liberal religionists and secularists have joined in the fray. The New York convo between Christian conservatives and the often colorfully bohemian casino and real estate magnate more famous for sexual conquests than for piety has already become politically iconic.
Trump is an entirely unique presidential candidate, but iconic meetings meshing clergy and candidates have precedence in American politics. Democrat Grover Cleveland likely won the close 1884 election after his GOP opponent James Blaine hosted a New York clergy gathering where the opening prayer, led by a last-minute unknown pastor, slammed Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” A Democratic operative in the room dutifully publicized the anti-Catholic barb, which Blaine, whose sister was a Catholic nun, lacked time to counter.
Catholicism was again an issue in the 1960 campaign, when famed New York “power of positive thinking” pastor Norman Vincent Peale helped host a secret confab of Protestant clergy in Washington, DC to organize against Catholic Democrat candidate JFK. A Washington Post reporter sneaked into an adjoining sound box and reported the proceedings, embarrassing Peale into political silence, shutting down the plot, and ultimately neutralizing organized Protestant opposition to JFK. (Coincidentally young Trump, who still lauds Peale, and his parents attended Peale’s church.)
JFK himself neutralized religion as a political weapon against him during the 1960 presidential campaign by addressing a Houston clergy association, where he pledged that his Roman Catholicism would not impinge on his constitutional duties as president.
An equally momentous gathering of clergy and religious activists with a presidential candidate occurred in Dallas in 1980 when Republican nominee Ronald Reagan addressed thousands of conservative Evangelicals led by figures like the elder Falwell and Pat Robertson, among others. “I know you can’t endorse me … but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing,” Reagan famously told them. It was a tectonic moment for Evangelical activism, with many formerly Democratic church goers, many of whom had supported “born again” Jimmy Carter, shifting Republican, where they have largely remained for 36 years.
Clergy and religious interaction with presidents and candidates dates to the very beginning of the United States. George Washington penned missives to various religious denominations promising religious freedom for all and frequently received clergy, such as Bishop Francis Asbury, founder of American Methodism. At a later meeting with clergy, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed how Washington the “old fox” evaded sharing details of his own religious views.
In the early republic, older established churches like the Episcopalians and Presbyterians often supported the Federalists of Washington and John Adams. Rising new revivalist movements like the Methodists and Baptists often supported Jefferson and Democratic populists. But by the 1830s French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Christianity was stronger in America than in Europe because American churches weren’t as tied to political factions, whereas in Europe the church was often tied to the ancient regime.
Religion generally has been a constant source of moral renewal in American politics. But with some high-profile exceptions, typically congregations, denominations and clergy don’t support specific candidates. Sometimes black Protestant clergy host and virtually anoint Democratic candidates. And sometimes national conservative Evangelical leaders embrace Republican candidates, although such endorsements remain rare at the local congregational level.
At his New York meeting, Trump criticized a 1950s era policy that still prohibits tax exempt groups like churches from endorsing candidates as an ongoing abridgment of “religious freedom.” And maybe it is an undue restriction on free speech. But more routine church and clergy endorsements for political candidates, whether legally facilitated or not, seem like a bad idea for Christianity, if not the nation.
Christianity’s enduring power is not as an organized political force but as an ongoing moral and spiritual influence that many competing factions can view as an honest broker and voice for social cohesion. Tocqueville’s 19th century observation that American Christianity was strong because it was not partisan remains instructive.
Also instructive for many politically active Evangelical clergy is the Roman Catholic example, which precludes candidate endorsements by clergy or churches. Instead Catholicism strives to proclaim permanent moral principles to contemporary political life.
Likely most of the hundreds of Evangelicals who met with Trump were not clergy but lay people active in politics. Several on his advisory board are also lay people, like former Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. But 10 of the two dozen are pastors, and there are evangelists, preachers and ministry leaders.
No doubt they are sincere in their good wishes for the nation. But clergy and Christian leaders, when they step directly into political campaigns, risk losing their moral authority in exchange for what is often ultimately very little. Pastors retain their greatest influence by remaining in the pulpit.