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Politics from the pulpit
This has been a trying six months for Amy Piatt, senior minister at downtown First Christian Church. You might say one of her fundamental principles as a minister is being tested. She says her faith is being tested.
Piatt is among Portland's most politically active ministers. When she arrived at First Christian five years ago she began wearing an A-board sign in public that read, "As a Christian I am sorry for the narrow-minded, judgmental, deceptive, manipulative actions of those who denied rights and equality to so many in the name of God." Whether the cause be Muslin-focused immigration policies or gay marriage, she can be counted on to raise her voice for social justice.
So you might think that when President Trump signed an executive order three weeks ago telling ministers they could now endorse political candidates from the pulpit without risking the tax-exempt status of their churches and synagogues, somebody like Piatt would feel empowered. A barrier that once kept her from relating to her congregation some of her deepest convictions had been removed.
Piatt doesn't see it that way at all. She says she has never endorsed or un-endorsed a candidate from the pulpit and she still won't.
"I am a strong proponent of the separation of church and state," Piatt says. "I will will always do my best to keep my politics out of the pulpit."
Still, there's a fine political line that Piatt is continually figuring out. She'll tell her congregants in a sermon that equal access to health care is a health issue, but she won't name the Affordable Care Act as Congress debates its repeal.
Piatt's crisis of faith involved the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. She despaired. Immediately after Trump's election she joined a group of disheartened downtown pastors and congregants to pray for the country's future.
But that separation of church and state principle is too important for Piatt to abandoned. She says four years from now, if Trump is running for re-election, she hopes she sticks to her principle and doesn't denounce him from the pulpit, even though, she says, Trump does not represent the Christianity she believes in.
In Piatt's view, the executive order was payback to evangelical churches, whose members overwhelmingly supported Trump in the November election. But Piatt isn't so sure it will have its desired effect.
"This is my prediction," she says. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle. Once you give churches the permission to put their weight fully behind politics, you can't stop it. Trump will do something the churches disagree with and he won't be able to stop them from coming after him."
The Reverend David Wheeler calls himself "a Roger Williams Baptist," as a way of explaining why he won't endorse candidates, despite the executive order. Williams was a mid-17th century minister who criticized New England colonists for their treatment of the Native Americans.
"The point is everybody's welcome and no one is established or promoted or sanctioned by government," says Wheeler, who says as senior pastor at downtown First Baptist Church he's on the boundary between Protestant mainline churches who practice a more liberal theology and evangelicals who emphasize the authority of scripture.
Allowing ministers to make their churches more political is only feeding into the divisiveness that has overtaken many of the rest of the country's institutions, in Wheeler's view.
"We all live in our partisan bubbles and the church is pretty much the same way," Wheeler says. "There are red churches and blue churches…. It's just assumed everybody will vote red in evangelical churches and that abortion is a big issue, and in liberal churches most people affirm gay marriage and the right to choice."
Wheeler would prefer less politics in the church. "Following Jesus is not a partisan issue," he says.
Another minister dealing with a liberal/evangelical congregational split is Reverend Leroy Barber, a teaching pastor at Imago Dei in Southeast Portland. Imago Dei practices an evangelical brand of Christianity, so Barber knows his audience tends to be politically conservative. He's held back, never having told a congregation how to vote.
But in November, Barber couldn't help himself. He recalls what he said from the pulpit word for word. "You can vote for whoever you want. I'm not going to tell you who to vote for. But I'm not voting for Donald Trump. That's a quote," he says.
So why did Barber cross the line this election? He says it wasn't so much Trump's politics as his personal life. "I feel like white evangelicals contradicted their political rhetoric with a vote for Donald Trump," says Barber, who is black.
Barber recalls talking to white evangelical businessmen in the nineties who thought it appalling for a person to declare bankruptcy. "And now they were excusing Donald Trump's bankruptcy," he says.
He was once part of an evangelical study group who tossed out a member who committed adultery and divorced his wife. Trump, he points out, divorced twice.
"The question it puts in my mind is, is this about your religious affiliations and your stand on biblical principle or is this about your power and money," Barber says. "I'm concluding it's about power and money."
Barber believes that, at least locally, there's a racial component determining which ministers are willing to tell a congregation how they should vote.
"If you're talking white folks, they're not going to endorse a candidate, and I doubt that they did," he says." Not only is it not culturally acceptable to endorse a candidate in public. People don't tell who they voted for at the dinner table."
Black ministers, Barber says, are more willing to talk hard politics and endorse candidates because the issues involved are closer to their hearts, and their lives.
That sounds about right to Dorothy Cunningham, pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Tigard.
"I think he's spot on," Cunningham says. "As a privileged white female I could lose a great deal of my privilege by speaking out. That's not why I don't speak out, but I think it's a subconscious thing. I would be labeled a radical. African-Americans and any people of color and any immigrants, they have nothing to lose by speaking out forcefully, because they're already so far down the line of privilege."
Cunningham is another minister at an evangelical church whose own political beliefs tend toward the liberal. She never mentions President Trump and she never used former President Obama's name either. Her political statements from the pulpit tend to focus on social justice and use the word empire, which was a word used by biblical prophets.
"We are called to defy the empire when the rules of the empire go against what the kingdom of God is about," she says. In private conversations and even in bible study groups yes, but from the pulpit she will not advise her congregants how to vote.
Michael Cahana, rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Northwest Portland, drafted a three-page clergy statement of principles following the November election that never mentions any candidates by name but hardly needs to. The document protests against attempts to "relegate individuals to a lesser citizenship status based on religion or country of origin," and used biblical citations to support social justice causes ranging from universal health care to sanctuary cities and climate change.
But Cahana says he won't endorse or un-endorse candidates because separation of church and state is too important a principle, especially to minority religions such as Judaism.
If Matt Hennessee is right, one of the hidden influences during the November election might have been which pastors endorsed candidates. But Hennessee, a black pastor at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in North Portland, doesn't think black ministers are more likely than white ministers to tell their congregants how they should vote. After decades of attending Baptist conventions, he's convinced that politically conservative ministers are more willing to endorse conservative candidates and liberal ministers, hamstrung by the principle separating church and state, don't endorse anyone.
The Wednesday after the November election Hennessee presided over a gathering of about 50 worried congregants.
"I was proud of the fact that everybody could speak, even the Trump supporters. And the Clinton supporters, who were very bruised emotionally, they handled the Trump supporters so well," Hennessee says. "There would have been a time when some people would have been ready to have some real verbal smack down with that. It didn't happen. People allowed others to speak."
At the end of the session everybody—Trump and Clinton supporters—hugged. Hennessee, not a Trump supporter, never told his congregation how he intended to vote. And maybe, he says, that's why the hugs were able to take place.
"The advantage of not endorsing is it helps the atmosphere of accepting all views," he says.
Another reason he's never endorsed a candidate from the pulpit, Hennessee says, is fear of losing his church's nonprofit status. And that's not changing, despite the new executive order. The Internal Revenue Service just might ignore the politicization of conservative churches and Liberty College, whose president endorsed Trump, and still target liberal and minority churches, he says.
"We sill live in a country where a person of privilege can get away with a lot more," Hennessee says.
It was not a fear of driving away conservative-leaning congregants that kept Don Frueh, pastor at Parkrose Community United Church of Christ, from directly telling his church how he felt about Donald Trump in the months leading up to the November election.
"I'm not here to make people feel comfortable," he says. "I'm here to make them feel uncomfortable."
Frueh, openly gay and openly liberal, takes separation of church and state very seriously. He conducts marriages but prefers the actual signing of marriage licenses be done by a judge.
"If I'm an agent of the government, which I am when I sign a marriage license, it impinges on my ability to speak truth to power," Frueh says.
Frueh has never endorsed a candidate in front of his congregation, though from the pulpit he has endorsed ballot measures, which he believes speak more clearly to the social justice issues close to his heart.
Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer has begun to nag at Frueh. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister in Nazi Germany who spoke out against Hitler's plans to exterminate Europe's Jews, became part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, was sent to a concentration camp and hanged. Bonhoeffer, Frueh says, reminds him of the danger in finding comfort in absolutes--such as never making endorsements from the pulpit.
"He's one of my heroes," Frueh says of Bonhoeffer. "For him, that decision to join this underground plot was not simple. But in the end, it was what he thought needed to be happen in order to prevent this evil from taking over. We all like to believe it's going to be either this, or this. That the choice is going to be clear. But I think it's almost never clear."
Three years from now with re-election looming, if Trump has undermined the social justice issues Frueh so deeply cares about, will the pastor still talk issues, not candidates?
"I think I probably would speak up," Frueh says.
John Shuck earned his stripes two congregations ago as far as being willing to speak out for what he believes in. Gay advocacy, arguing against the war in Iraq, and liberal theological views cost him a job before a congregation that was decidedly more conservative than he was.
Shuck, now the pastor at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, won't endorse candidates from the pulpit, but not because he fears upsetting congregants who may disagree. He doesn't think supporting one candidate over another gets to the root of the political problems the country faces.
Shuck says he is critical of President Trump and equally critical of the state of American politics.
"I think the electoral process is compromised by the funding that goes into it," Shuck says. "I don't think we even have much of a choice. My politics are pretty radical anyway, so if it comes to an election (in 2020), I doubt I'll be for the other person either."
Trump's executive order is a mistake, in Shuck's view. He can envision a future in which candidates use churches on a large scale to solicit campaign donations and promote their candidacies. He'd rather the federal government enforce the IRS rules prohibiting nonprofit churches from endorsing candidates.
"It's a good rule," Shuck says. "If you want to endorse candidates you should pay taxes."
E.C. Bell, pastor at Chehalem Valley Presbyterian Church in Newberg, won't even allow voting guides in his church, much less tell his congregants how to vote. And he's not about to change, despite the executive order.
Chehalem Valley's congregation is mostly anti-abortion, Bell says, and he will talk from the pulpit about abortion not being in line with God's view of life. But talking about anti-abortion legislation or candidates, in his opinion, is too limiting.
"We may want to discourage abortion, but we want to encourage the care of single moms and children born with mental and physical handicaps," Bell says. "The problem with legislation is it doesn't do both. It can only stop doing something or say, 'You can't do something.'"
Telling people how to vote feels un-Biblical to Bell. "Usually most of God's encouragement is for God's people to do the right thing. Not for God's people to run around and tell other people."
Passing the hat--for $71 million
Religious institutions save a lot of money by virtue of their tax-exempt status. A 2012 study by University of Tampa sociologist Ryan Cragun calculated that churches annually save about $35 billion in federal taxes and $6 billion in state taxes each year as a result of not being taxed like corporations. Include property tax and investment tax breaks and the total tax savings to churches reach $71 billion each year, according to the study. That includes a parsonage subsidy which allows clergy to write off housing expenses.
Cragun's study also claimed that over 70 percent of church expenditures go to pay off operating expenses, not to charity, though charitable work is one of the reasons churches are given tax-exempt status in the first place.
If churches lost their tax-exempt status one of the biggest hits would be a drop in donations from individuals who itemize deductions on their tax returns. Those people would no longer be able to claim charitable donations so they might choose to give elsewhere, says Robert Boston, spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Could most churches survive without their tax-exempt status? Many large urban churches probably would fail or be forced to move out to the suburbs if they had to pay property tax on their downtown sites, says David Thompson, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Nonprofits. That would especially hold true in Portland, where many of the mainstream denominations maintain churches on prime Park Blocks real estate despite dwindling congregations and budgets.
But church charity isn't the only justification for the tax-exempt status, according to Thompson. The main reason, he says, is that nonprofit status limits government ability to intrude into people's practice of religion.
"Tax exemption for houses of worship is there to prevent governments from taxing the religious entities out of existence," Thompson says.