An Introduction to “Preaching and Politics”

[1] Is it just my jaded perspective, or does it seem when it comes to news coverage of mainline Protestantism, good news is no news? The investigation by the IRS into All Saints Church in Pasadena on the grounds of campaign intervention garnered front-page attention and multiple newswire stories. On the other hand, the letter signed by the ELCA bishops opposing budget reconciliation which cut Food Stamps and Medicaid received nothing approaching the publicity of All Saints.

[2] Where and how the church is called to be in the world is not just the subject of much rumination from our best theologians, it’s a primary concern of our nation’s founding documents. And, of course, a question that drives much of the work of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. While Father Regas was preaching his sermon on the eve of the election, Journal of Lutheran Ethics was publishing its own election issue, centering around two poles. Writers responded to an essay in which Mark Noll described his dissatisfaction with both political parties, and several thinkers described what issues had been overlooked in the election.

[3] Was it wrong for Father Regas to make it clear who would not receive his vote? Marie Failinger discusses the legal aspects of the ruling for us. Reverend Regas allowed that it was possible to disagree with his political opinions and still be a Christian, though any dissenters in the pews were bound either to be irate or have second thoughts. From the sermon text it seems pretty clear to me Father Regas wasn’t going planning on punching the “George W.” chad in this lifetime. Our respondents (and most newspaper editorials) are in favor of Father Regas speaking his mind. Failinger ponders whether, even if the IRS does succeed in revoking the tax-free status of All Saints, churches should or would be discouraged from speaking out.

Ulrik Nissen finds that, legal issues aside, the preacher was holding people accountable to the name by which they are called, and we should expect nothing less.

[4] The question I am pondering is what purpose the sermon served. I want the preacher to bring the scripture to bear on the present, to open my ears to God’s call. This, of course, the preacher could not legally do if he thought God was calling All Saints to vote one way or the other, and did not do in any direct sort of way. What was the outcome of his sermon?

[5] The most effective aspect of the sermon was most deeply rooted in the congregational life of All Saints. Calling the church to account for its stand as a peace church was the center, a grounded and moving moment. From tradition, Gospel, and the commitments made by All Saints, Father Regas presented a serious challenge to the Iraq War, making the connection for his listeners between their declared beliefs and the concrete realities they faced.

[6] The low point of the sermon featured Jesus telling President Bush his doctrine of preemptive war was a “failed doctrine.” Reverend Regas had fertile Christian tradition at his disposal in which to describe what might be wrong with such a policy, but instead pronounced preemptive war a failure in practical terms. Surely it is too early to tell what the full impact will be. And just as surely, applying practical terms distracts us from applying the impractical terms of our faith. Here, it seems to me, the pastor has wandered from his true path into a realm where he did not bring the Gospel to bear, convinced that he is right on practical grounds.

[7] He recovered, however. When he took both candidates to task on how the poor had been ignored in the election-something most of our contributors discerned as well-he again spoke to the daily life of the congregation. All Saints is well known for social activism and poverty ministries-Regas was merely putting words to the action already underway.

[8] Did the IRS and the newspapers take no notice when All Saints declared itself a peace church? When it participated in feeding the hungry and ministering to people living with AIDS? The words of Reverend Regas are only words unless they are given form in the life of the congregation. Without the proper context, perhaps his words would have been ignored. It might be a good sign that the government was concerned enough to bring charges. It means that people truly are living out the Gospel as they hear it.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.