Preachers walk a fine political line

Leaders split on how politics should relate to one’s religion.
Friday, August 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:39 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

When she was a prosecuting attorney for St. Louis, Maureen Dickmann convinced people in the jury box to think like her.

When she preaches on political issues at Rock Bridge Christian Church, the Rev. Dickmann wants people in the pews to think for themselves.

“I don’t believe I have the inside track to tell people who they ought to vote for,” said Dickmann, who has preached at Rock Bridge, a Disciples of Christ church, for 17 years.

“I think sometimes it is incumbent upon me to challenge people to think about difficult things,” she said. “But it’s not to give answers. That’s not the pastor’s role.”

In an election season when political and religious issues are wed, religious leaders face a thorny task. While communicating moral guidance to their congregations, they cannot tell the faithful how to vote.

Supporting a candidate would cause a religious institution to violate its 501(c)(3), or tax-exempt, status. To remain exempt from federal income tax, religious organizations cannot be involved in campaign activities that would help or harm any candidate, according to IRS regulations.

For pastors such as Dickmann, that means talking about political issues, not candidates, from the pulpit.

She said she does not set out to preach political sermons, but faith compels her to speak on social issues such as violence, hunger or homelessness.

Those political topics are not divorced from religion, she said.

“There’s lots of politics, lots of economics in what Jesus said,” Dickmann said.

Endorsing a candidate or party would not only breach the Catholic Church’s tax-exempt status but would rob Catholics of the chance to use their conscience in voting, said Barbara Ross, director of the Diocese of Jefferson City’s Social Concerns Office.

In October 2003, the U.S. Catholic bishops released their quadrennial statement, “Faithful Citizenship.” The document outlines principles and questions for Catholics to consider in the election year. No political candidate is endorsed in the statement.

“We’re not trying to tell people how to vote,” Ross said. “We’re trying to help people form their conscience, in light of Catholic social teaching, so that they can choose more wisely.”

Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom also refuses to dictate his congregation’s political choices.

“I am not a guru,” he said. “Which side is God on — the side of the Democrats or the Republicans? I don’t want to call the shots in this way.”

Feintuch said he would feel comfortable speaking on abortion or same-sex marriage during services at the Columbia synagogue.

“These are ethical issues, and I think it’s important that you share with your congregants where you think your faith or your group of people stands on such issues,” he said.

In July 2003, a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found a close split on whether religious institutions should voice opinions about political concerns. Of the 2,002 respondents, 44 percent opposed churches expressing stands on political matters, while 52 percent felt it was appropriate. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Pastors have an obligation to speak out on socially just or unjust policies, but endorsing a candidate would be difficult, the Rev. James Powell of United Methodist said.

“A particular candidate or party usually has so many different positions, some of which we might agree with, some of which we might disagree with,” said Powell, assistant to Bishop Ann Sherer of the Missouri Conference of United Methodist Church.

Ross said Catholic priests or authorities who indicate people must vote for a particular person or party are speaking for themselves, not the Catholic Church.

“That is not the official position of the Church,” Ross said. “And I think we should make every effort to correct those instances.”

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