Pastors from across the country convened in Washington, D.C., May 21-25, to hear homiletics experts discuss the relationship between politics and preaching. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)-affiliated Luther Seminary’s Festival of Homiletics touts a “diversity of the speakers and performers” to inspire pastors as they proclaim the Gospel. However, the conference invited mostly liberal Protestant preachers and politicians, including U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker (as my colleague David Jensen reported here) as speakers.
Among other speakers were Walter Brueggemann, Diana Butler Bass, and Otis Moss III. Collectively, conference speakers and attendees contemplated questions such as, “How do we allow Scripture to guide us in our political and partisan discourse?” and “What does your preaching vocation require of us in times such as these?”
Union Theological Seminary’s Assistant Professor of Church and Society, Samuel Cruz, answered these questions by declaring it is “hypocrisy or delusion to think preaching isn’t political.” Believing it impossible to separate politics from Sunday morning sermons, Cruz insisted those who do “shelter themselves from responsibility” and claimed pastors who keep “silent is to condone what is happening [in politics].”
Cruz’s lecture then attempted to discard all classifications of political allegiance, claiming politics was not about being liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican. Instead, he said politics is merely the “affairs of the city, mere involvement in how we live our social order.” Later in his speech, however, the Union professor seemed to redraw party lines by accusing conservatives of being anti-poor, cooperative with oppression, and too privileged to understand societal problems.
Less strident was Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, Senior Pastor of Washington D.C.’s historic Foundry United Methodist Church. Her speech was entitled “Stop Speaking Smooth Things.” Cirelli urged pastors to balance lighter Bible lessons with more challenging, rockier topics. She insisted the Church must “provide a critique for the way things are, but also give a vision for how things should be.” Try as she might, though, Cirelli could not refrain from taking an inferred political stance on certain issues, such as nationalized healthcare and gender identity. “When the impoverished, sick are told to give up their iPhones so they can pay for healthcare, when our siblings of other faiths and gender orientations are being condemned . . . it’s time to stop speaking smooth things,” she declared.
Mariann Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., described the role of a pastoral leader as “a vocation of movement, guiding a group of people from one place to another; speech given to and for an audience who may or may not be listening.” As the spiritual head of 40,500 Episcopalians in 89 congregations–including the uber-liberal Washington National Cathedral–and 20 Episcopalian schools, Budde seems to have experienced firsthand the weightiness of a leadership position. She recognized the “excruciating process [we] must go through when we prepare to speak . . . never knowing for sure if the choice we ultimately make is the one most pleasing to God.” In the midst of this seemingly overt liberal preaching convention, Budde somehow managed to come off apolitical. She made no mention of any specific politically-charged issue. Instead, Budde rightly pointed out that individuals coming into a Church space deserve grace and respect, even if they disagree.
The conference was intended to consider in what ways the Bible informed how pastors included politics in their Sunday sermons. While not all speakers tackled politically-charged topics, the conference hosted mostly liberal Protestant preachers as speakers. At the very least, the festival could have presented what they promised: diversity in their speakers.
Jayda Wyse is a Summer intern for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She is currently earning her undergraduate degree in Political Science at Biola University in La Mirada, California.