Bishops Endorsing Candidates

So my brother bishop, Gene Robinson, has gone on public record as endorsing Senator Obama for President!

Beside the fact that I’m not sure anyone cares whom clerics like us plan to vote for, I wonder if he has considered the potential ramifications of this.

I’m not a lawyer and so hardly qualified to render a legal opinion on this, but I certainly cannot remember another bishop endorsing a political candidate in quite this way. It has always been my understanding that, while the church can certainly make “political” statements and get involved in “politics,” our tax exempt status depends upon our remaining “non-parisan.”

I would maintain that the church must always be involved in politics in order to fulfill our prophetic role. Our Washington office regularly “lobbies” our government on behalf of the church’s positions on moral and ethical issues, but never endorses specific candidates or political parties.

There was a big flap recently in one of our large California parishes when a retired rector “appeared” to be endorsing a political candidate. The IRS got involved, as I recall. We seem to have won that dispute precisely because the rector stopped short of endorsing a particular candidate during his sermon.

The Bishop of New Hampshire has now done so quite intentionally. Wonder if his chancellor will be hearing from the IRS any time soon? I wonder if our Office of Government Relations in DC will be?

13 Responses to “Bishops Endorsing Candidates”

  1. Fr Chris Says:

    How has +Gene endorsed Obama? Personal letter? Interview? Homily? A lot rides on that. If he did it as an individual rather than through some organ of the church (even if he does tack on “Rt. Rev.” or some other title), he’s probably fine, legally speaking. It’s the 501(c)(3) entity that can’t endorse candidates — all officers/employees of that entity aren’t barred from political activity.

    But there is definitely a question of propriety here, too, and I’m as nervous as you are about clergy endorsing candidates. A Protestant pastor I know well and respect has been very vocal about supporting Obama on his personal blog. I understand his reasons (though I have a different preferred candidate), but I always wonder in these cases whether the clergy in question is taking human sinfulness and fallibility seriously enough. Because the list of reasons they support Candidate X usually sounds like a hagiography, and there’s very little room for criticism of the favored candidate. Others in the public sphere may engage in that kind of saint-making of their preferred candidates, but we clergy have a higher commitment to truth, a commitment that makes it very hard for us to engage in active, public support of specific candidates while keeping our integrity intact.

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Excellent points, Chris. He did it in a public way, covered by the Boston Globe among others. You’re probably right that it was as an individual not an “entity” but clergy — and maybe especially bishops — are hard to separate from the diocese/church, it seems to me.

    I am strongly supporting a candidate for President next time, but no one will know which one unless they have a personal conversation with me about it and ask. Even then I may not tell!

    We’ll see how it all shakes out, but I did want to provoke some discussion on this matter. Hopefully, yours is only the first comment in this trail!

  3. Fr Chris Says:

    *nod* I agree that in people’s minds, it’s difficult to separate the individual from the church. And all the more so in a church with episcopal polity, where bishops are charged with safe-guarding the right teaching of the church (with ethics and public theology being important components of doctrine). So definitely some cause for concern. :-/

  4. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    two things get easily conflated here.

    the state has no business whatsoever telling a bishop, or a church, who he should or should not endorse, what he should or should not say. there is nothing wrong with a church which “intrudes” into politics, which makes whatever political statements it wishes, of this sort. the laws of the united states are better than most places, but still, the vestiges of state control of religion remain in the form of IRS-mandated “neutrality”, and we must protest this wherever we see it. the state has no business telling churches what they can and cannot say, and has no business handing out bribes (in the form of 501c(3) status) to those who choose to muzzle themselves in certain ways.

    second, there is the theological question of whether a bishop of the church should make such an endorsement. this is a theological question, and so it is one that the state has no business whatsoever intruding into. our theological judgment about the matter must be based on appropriate theological and ecclesiological factors, and concern for the ideals of the state need play no particular role in that process, and we must reject the notion that the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations have anything to do with how we make that theological judgment.

    On this second, theological, point, I can certainly see occasions upon which a bishop would wisely take a strong role advocating for or against a specific candidate. Whether this is such a case I cannot say; it is not my job to judge bishops. I always find that they get prickly when I do that.

    I will say that I am pleased if it is the case that +Gene has made this decision, whatever it may be, without taking into account the “potential ramifications,” since I believe that the ones you are talking about are entirely irrelevant ones to take into account.

  5. Fr Chris Says:

    Thomas —

    I’m a bit surprised by your comment — I don’t believe Bp Epting or I have conflated these two concerns. In any case, the primary objection I voiced had nothing to do with the legal realities at all. Many, many people — Christian clergy included — get lazy about the truth when they start endorsing parties and candidates. It is impossible to stay in the good graces of candidates if on the one hand you endorse them but on the other criticize their faults. And all the candidates, in both mainstream parties and all the marginal ones, have some serious flaws from the perspective of Christian public theology, no matter what strengths they might have. We have seen numerous clergy on the right sell their faith down the river to remain in the good graces of candidates, and we are starting to see it on the left. It is a very serious disease afflicting the American church, and there are good reasons to be critical of clerics who endorse candidates that have are solely theological and have nothing to do with tax law.

    Second, I find the notion of the government “bribing” churches a bit farcical. Every church in the country is welcome to organize under a different part of the tax code to leave themselves free to do whatever they want in the political arena. The state only exercises control over those churches that organize as 501(c)(3) orgs. No one is twisting anyone’s arm on this. I agree that these tax exemptions are problematic, for many reasons, but it’s the churches that are eating them up and believe they can’t exist without them. The government doesn’t need to sell the churches something they desperately want.

    The Church is a political community founded in a message that has serious political ramifications. But there is a huge difference between being politically active and being partisan — and nearly every time in our history when we have engaged in the latter kind of activity, the results have been devastating for our ability to exercise an independent voice and maintain our integrity. These are the “potential ramifications” that need to be considered when any Christian clergyperson considers endorsing partisan politicians.

  6. ecubishop Says:

    Now, this is the conversation I hoped would take place. Thanks to both! Others?

  7. rwk Says:

    Although in the legal realm Bishop Robinson clearly stated he was endorsing Sen. Obama as “an individual” and not as a bishop in the public perception realm it is something altogether different. As church leaders step into politics in this way they can sow great division within their own flock. Bishop Robinson was perfectly within his right to endorse whomever he pleased, whether it was a prudent and humble decision that set his role as citizen ahead of his role as bishop is yet to be seen.

    I also bring this up in the sense that in a church as badly divided as the Episcopal Church is at this time, was it a good decision to offer yet another basis for division?

  8. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    chris: i did not say that you or bishop epting had conflated the two, merely that people so often do. they speak as if the reason a priest should not meddle in politics is because the IRS says so, or because the tax consequences are dire.

    however, the bribe talk i intend in all seriousness. 501c(3) status is a great financial boon to churches. of course it is voluntary whether we wish to be in that status, but the point is that the US government is entirely serious in the clarity with which it makes these regulations. the idea is quite clear: we will give you a tax benefit (the benefit is that contributors can make contributions tax-free, thus encouraging contributions) if you in turn will agree to muzzle yourselves in certain ways.

    i do agree, in general, with the idea that Christian clergy ought not to participate actively in politics, but the boundaries of this are extremely hard to parse. surely Christian clergy might well participate actively in fighting oppressive regimes (in, say, Nazi Germany or current Zimbabwe). traditionally, clergy should not be leaders in parties or labor unions, because such a role is very hard to reconcile with the obligation to be a pastor to all. the Roman Catholic church bans clergy from running for political office, and so forth. so the bounds are difficult to parse. i would welcome rules in our church like those the RC Church has, but so far Sen. Danforth has not seen an obstacle of the sort that I would see. If Danforth can endorse himself without people getting upset, then I’m confused! I think he should have been told, long ago, by his bishop, that running for office as a Senator was inconsistent with his obligations as a priest. But, then, that would be judging his bishop, and bishops get prickly when people do that.

    my concern is that the bounds must be parsed strictly on pastoral bases, and not because the IRS says so. we should make the determination on the basis of what is right to do, independent of the Tax Code, and if the consequence is loss of 501c(3) status, then that’s that, and we may have to learn to live with greater integrity and fewer perks. if, that is, if the exercise of our independent theological judgment means we should be involved in such-and-such a way.

    it is not clear to me at all that “every time” we see clergy involved in politics the consequences are bad. Surely it is sometimes, and other times, involvement is imperative. I sympathize with the view that this is not a case where it is imperative, of course! But what about Archbishop Romero?

  9. ecubishop Says:

    Once again, can we be clear that “clergy involved in politics” is not the same thing as clergy being involved in “partisan” politics. Politics is the way groups of people organize themselves, seeking (if not always achieving!) the “common good.” “Parties” are political entities, instrumentalities which raise money and advance individuals toward personal positions and positions of power. It seems very clear to me that there is a distinction here. The church can be involved in politics. We should not endorse specific parties or candidates. In this case, I think the IRS is (gasp) ” “theologically” and “politically” correct!

  10. Fr Chris Says:

    Bp Epting has it exactly right — the issue is not politics, but parties and individual candidates. It’s not merely the pastoral concerns that worry me, though those are very real. It’s the lax relationship to truth that is very closely wrapped up with partisanship.

    That said, in extreme circumstances, where a party of the people, with truth on its side, was opposing an all-powerful, repressive regime, I would probably not stand on the sidelines worked up about this theological point. But that is not the country we live in, and neither popular party fits the description of that hypothetical, truth-filled party I might support as a clergyperson.

  11. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    I think that it would have been perfectly OK for Christian Clergy to actively oppose Hitler, as a particular person running for office, and the Nazi party, as a particular party, and not merely speak in generic terms. So I’m afraid that any principle which means that Christians can’t oppose Nazi’s, as such, is a principle that is missing some details!

    But my point is broader: the Episcopal Church has never seriously held that clergy should not endorse candidates. Sen. Danforth is the solid and convincing evidence of this. If a cleric can run for office, then clearly a cleric can support a candidate by name. If there is something wrong with this, and I think there is, then I want to see something broader than just criticism of Robinson. What about Danforth?

    How about a canon on the point? I think there would be good cause for one, but how bout it?

  12. Fr Chris Says:

    I see your point about Danforth and Robinson, and I follow the logic. Not being an Episcopalian, I can’t say I’m very worked up about the canonical questions, but I do agree there are very serious problems with a cleric running for political office.

    As for the Nazis, there is a *huge* difference between opposing a party and endorsing one (or opposing a candidate and endorsing a candidate). I think Christian clergy have a responsibility to be critical of the program of the national Republican Party in the United States, because (as one single example among many) that party holds as a plank in their 2004 platform that the state should discriminate against homosexuals, discrimination I believe is at odds with the faith I’m called to spread. But that’s a far cry from believing I can then endorse the Dems (or a Dem candidate) without a whole lot of caveats.

    So I certainly agree that Christian clergy can oppose evil administrations and regimes. But that’s speaking truth against evil power — positive endorsements often take the form of speaking untruths or half-truths to empower people in the secular realm. It’s those positive endorsements I’m uncomfortable with.

    Anyhow, I’m flying back to France tomorrow and probably will be offline for several days — thanks to both of you for the conversation on this!

  13. sonicrafter Says:

    I actually enjoyed reading this article.Thank you.

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