Previous month:
February 2016
Next month:
April 2016

Follow-up: How Are Religious Leaders Speaking Out About This Election?

My previous post generated some interesting conversation--some of which is reflected in the comments section below.  Let's keep those comments coming!  I also received a number of comments on Facebook (also great--but visible to a more limited group so comments on the blog are extra great).  And quite a few friends and colleagues sent personal emails with comments, links and resources.  

Here are some highlights of what I've been hearing this week:

First of all, a number of friends pointed out that some very prominent religious leaders have already come out in support of Donald Trump.  Back in September 2015, a group of 40 pastors (all of them associated with the so-called "prosperity gospel") made headlines when they met with Trump in New York and prayed for his blessing and protection during the campaign. Some of these leaders have gone on to campaign for Trump as "private individuals".  

In November, Trump invited a group of African-American evangelical pastors to meet with him at Trump Tower but then blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for pressuring these pastors not to endorse his candidacy.  In advance of the meeting, more than 100 African American Christian leaders signed an open letter published in Ebony Magazine challenging those who agreed to meet with Trump to reconsider.  The letter is powerful and I recommend reading it.

In late January, Jerry Falwell endorsed Trump as a "private individual" after having invited Trump to speak at Liberty University, a tax-exempt organization that of course does not endorse candidates.  More recently, both Franklin Graham (who publicly endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012) and Joel Osteen have had to make public statements clarifying that they have not endorsed Trump despite all the positive things they've said about him in the past.  Other Christian leaders, most notably Pope Francis, have been openly critical of Trump's candidacy.  I guess he can say what he wants because no one is going to revoke the Catholic Church's tax exempt status.

But by and large, religious leaders have stayed away from criticizing Trump.  Progressive groups such as have issued a joint letter this week calling for protests against Trump and a massive voter registration campaign.  They called on "people of faith" to join their campaign, but no faith groups signed the letter.

That statement echoed the work of a group of individuals--many of them artists and actors--who have been collecting signatures to a statement against Trump published on  And while there are a few people who could be identified as faith leaders (Anne Lamott, Reza Aslan, Cornell West and Sister Joan Chittister), none of them lead congregations and all signed as individuals.

So it is worth noting that on Wednesday of this week (March 16th) the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a "Word to the Church" for Holy Week.  The statement read, in part:

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

It is a strong statement--until it gets to the end.  If we are really acting in a way that is equivalent to the Israelites who built and worshiped a golden calf, is a call for prayer really an adequate response?  The Bishop say they have rejected idolatry--shouldn't they call on their congregations to do the same?  If we "must respect the dignity of every human being" I think some specific actions in response to those who degrade the dignity of others is called for.

But then again, our community has been praying for peace for five weeks and look what's happened.  We're feeling called to do more, to respond not only with prayer but with action.  When you take prayer seriously, it tends to open you up to God's call to love, not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.


How Can a Non-Partisan Community Advocate for Peace?


Like every other leader of a tax-exempt, religious congregation in this country, I am professionally non-partisan. This means that I have agreed not to use my job as an opportunity to advocate either for a particular candidate or party or against any particular candidate or party. This has never gotten in the way of doing what I think is right--until now.

Being non-partisan does not mean that I am required to be apolitical. That’s a good thing because I am very interested in politics and try to stay engaged in both local and national issues and campaigns. I live in a household where political issues are one of our main topics of conversation and I grew up in a family where the same was true.

I do also identify with a particular political party (my Jewish husband and I sometimes joke that the reason we have been able to find so much common ground is that the primary doctrine of both of our families of origin was the Democratic Party platform). But I have never believed that a particular candidate perfectly represents my values and beliefs, so it hasn’t been hard for me to talk about issues without advocating for or against candidates. Until now.

Our congregation does not shy away from talking about political issues. A few years ago, we worked to create a statement expressing our intentions for these conversations. We began by saying: “As a community, we do not pretend that Christian discipleship is an apolitical activity. Instead, we actively seek to develop political views and actions that are informed by our faith.” I’m pretty proud of that statement.

Our community is theologically pretty liberal and we’re located in a city that is predominantly Democratic so there are a lot of Obama bumper stickers in our parking lot on Sunday. But there are all sorts of other folks in the community—people who strongly identify as Republican, people who float around and people who proclaim their selves “Independent”. So in our statement about political conversation in our community, we wrote: “We recognize that we will come to a variety of conclusions about how our faith directs us to speak and act politically.  Not all of us endorse the same policies or candidates or share a political identity and we will do our best to avoid statements that assume political consensus.”

Our commitment to honor political differences and to refrain from endorsing any candidate or party is hugely important to me for a number of reasons. Differences of opinion make any community more interesting. More importantly, there are too few places in our country where people with political differences can talk with each other in thoughtful and respectful ways. And finally, I think a Christian community should stay far away from proclaiming that any particular human being is going to be our savior—we already have someone to fill that role in our lives.

But here’s the problem.

For the last five weeks, our congregation has been focusing on the roots causes of conflict and ways to wage peace. This focus came out of conversations at the end of last year related to mass shootings in our country and the growing threat of terrorism worldwide. We were exhausted by the stories of violence that had dominated the news all year. We decided that we needed to shift our attention to peace—praying for it, celebrating it and finding ways to promote it in our lives, our families, our community and the world.

This focus began in our Outreach Committee (the group that figures out where to direct the thousands of dollars KC give to non-profit organizations each year) and has now spread throughout the congregation. A number of people have pledged to pray for peace daily throughout the Lenten season. We’ve been gathering to pray together three times a week with peace as our central intention. We’ve been talking about peace in worship and in our small groups. It feels like our hearts are united around our shared yearning for peace.

But at the same time that we’ve been lifting up peace in our prayers and conversations, there is a candidate for president of the United States who has increasingly been advocating violence, including violence between his supporters and those who disagree with him. Our focus on peace had nothing to do with this candidate initially—but now, every time we talk about opposing violence, it seems like we’re talking about Donald Trump in particular.

We finally discussed this issue explicitly on Monday night at the last class in our Lenten study of the book, “The Anatomy of Peace”. There were people all various political persuasions in the discussion and every single person agreed that Donald Trump was inciting violence in our country.

“This community has always taken action about the things that we care about,” Wendy said to the rest of the group. “We don’t just talk about things. We can’t just talk about peace—we have to take action.” Everyone in the room agreed.

But what can we do? We fantasized on Monday night about a group of Democrats and Republicans, people from various religious traditions, coming together to pray for peace on Capital Hill. We imagined massive peaceful protests led by people from both parties that proclaim that we can talk together about political differences without insulting, bullying, disparaging or beating each other.

But the fact of the matter is, there is no such movement in this country. Those who protest against Trump often are also advocating for one of his political rivals. And Republicans who are disgusted by Trump have been pretty reticent to call him out and organize against him. In an election year, there is no “neutral ground” from which to speak out against a candidate. Everything is politicized.

So I’m really struggling. I know I am called to speak out against violence—violent behavior and the us-against-them ideology that supports violence. I can—and will—do this as a private citizen. But we’re also yearning to take some action as a congregation. What can we do?

Just Watching Her Blossom


This is a hectic time of year for those of us who love high school musicals--and I know I'm not alone.  I think every high school in Howard County puts on a spring musical and all of the performances are scheduled during three weekends in March.  I saw two shows last weekend and have three more planned for this weekend including "Shrek" at Oakland Mills High School (my daughter Rosa is playing in the pit orchestra).  I love these shows because I love musicals but also because I love watching people put their heart and soul into something.  Watch a high school musical and you'll see all sorts of kids in big and little parts push past their self-consciousness and give the show everything they've got.  The whole-heartedness of a performance moves me even when the singing and acting is less than perfect.

Last weekend, I got some additional inspiration from a conversation I had with an older couple I ended up sitting next to.  We greeted each other and compared notes about who we knew in the show.  "Do you have a family member in the show?" I asked.  "Sort of..." was their response.  There was a story there, and when I expressed interest, they were quick to share it.

Five or six years earlier, they had befriended a young girl in their neighborhood who was the only child of a single mom with some health challenges.  The friendship began because the girl was interested in patting their dog.  At first they just chatted when they saw her when they were out with the dog, but soon the girl was coming to their door asking if she could take the dog for a walk after school.  Things evolved from there--invitations to dinner from the girl and her mother, offers to help with a vexing math problem, and eventually, offers to help with transportation to some activities when the girls' mom was working.  The friendship continued even after the older couple sold their home and moved out of the neighborhood.  They showed me with delight that the girl had even thanked them for their support in her bio in the show's program.

I was really impressed with this "adopted grandparent" relationship because I know what a huge difference supportive adults can make in the lives of children, teenagers in particular.  The couple was very humble about their contribution.  "We used to be so much more active in the community," the man said.  "But now we're really limited by our age."  I protested that their relationship with their "adopted granddaughter" was a real gift to the community.  "Oh, that's easy," the man laughed.  "We already knew how to be a grandparent," he said.  "It was just a matter of watching her blossom."

I thought of this conversation today as I attended a training called "Working With Youth Experiencing Poverty:  What Do I Need to Know?" sponsored by the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center at Howard Community College.  The training featured articles and videos that referenced a lot of research about the ways in which poverty affects children.  There has been a huge amount of research done on this topic and the conclusions are pretty upsetting.  Poverty affects more than a kids ability to access all the little "extras" that enrich the lives of wealthier kids.  Studies have shown that poverty affects a kid's brain development, their ability to concentrate, their ability to make positive social bonds and a hundred other things.

But my main take-away from the class was that one of the most important tools we have to improve the lives of children in poverty is hope.  It is essential that teachers, counselors and other adults in a child's life believe that the child can overcome the challenges they face and have a positive future.  If the adults around a kid believe that, they will interact with the kid in such a way that the kid begins to believe that too.  And if a kid has hope for their future, there is a much greater chance that they will achieve their dreams.

I was very touched by that.  Sometimes I pay too much attention to the complexity of the problems.  I forget that even complex problems can be affected by actions or attitudes that are really quite simple.  Friendship.  Hope.  Songs.  Just being there to celebrate when someone blossoms.

This Is Sooooo Old


Last Sunday evening, I had some friends over. We drank wine and played “Fishbowl”, a multi-round party game that is version of charades. I enjoyed myself, of course, but one of the best parts of the evening was that we barely discussed Donald Trump at all. My daughter went so far as to create a sign for our front door that said in red letters, “Trump Free Zone”. I was tempted just to leave it there—but I took it down lest it become a conversation starter.

I’ve been struggling to write on this blog over the past couple of weeks, in part because we’re in the middle of Lent at church and there’s a lot going on. But the main thing that’s getting in the way of me writing is Donald Trump’s campaign for president. I feel like he is sucking all the oxygen out of the room. It’s not that I’m politically neutral—on my best days, I’d call myself a progressive activist. But there is so much being said on line about Trump already and I don’t have anything much to add.

But it also feels hard to change the subject.

Happily, my birthday was last Wednesday and my husband served up a huge surprise that has given me something to talk about every time I need to change the subject. Dan took me to see “Hamilton”, the Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton that is now sold out for the next year or so (he bought the tickets back in September and kept them a secret). What a gift! The show exceeded my high expectations and the performers were simply outstanding.

It wasn’t really an escape from the political conversations that have been weighing on me, but it helped me to re-frame them. On some topics, the show takes a stand. It unabashedly celebrates the contributions immigrants have made to our country from the very beginning. But when it comes to other issues, the show lifts up a tension between positions or viewpoints and allows it to stay tense.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator and star, talked about these debates (portrayed as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson) in an interview he recorded for “The New Yorker Radio Hour”. He said that he found it “heartening” when he realized that many of the points of disagreement between the Founding Fathers are still being debated today.

“The beefs between Hamilton and Jefferson are the beefs we’re always going to have,” Miranda told the interviewer. “We’re always going to push for too much government power and then we’re going to push back against it. We’re always going to go too far in helping other countries and then we’re going go, now we need to take care of things at home…. We’re always going to be fighting about these things—and that gives me comfort.”

And when the interviewer asked Miranda about the vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been such a feature of the Republican primary, he replied, “It’s soooo oooold.” His understanding of history has made him less alarmist, I guess. He’s heard it before (and worse) from the political predecessors of our current candidates. Anti-immigrant sentiment is “part of our politics”.

Does that understanding mean we just kind of shrug this stuff off? Does it mean we shouldn’t offer another perspective, a counter-narrative to the one that says immigrants bring this country down? Miranda’s show makes his response clear—he has something to say, and he says it loudly. But it does mean that this isn’t the apocalypse. It means that we have tools to respond, people who have responded before us. Panic is paralyzing. History can be discouraging—or it can become creative fodder, empowering us to respond to everyone who has ever dismissed or degraded anyone.