U.S. Clergy Strive to Peacefully Reconcile Politically Divided Congregations

Clergy across the country are finding it challenging to reconcile politically divided congregations but continue to strive to find unity. 

Rabbi David Wolpe preaches at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and saw a member leave the congregation because he would not teach sermons criticizing former President Donald Trump. He saw others leave over resentment over Covid-19 rules. However, Wolpe steadfastly maintains his resolve to avoid politics.

“It is not easy to keep people comfortable with each other and as part of one community. A great failing of modern American society is that people get to know each other’s politics before they get to know their humanity,” said Wolpe in an interview with the Associated Press.

Wolpe’s congregation includes hundreds of conservative Iranian Americans alongside liberal Democrats and isn’t alone in facing such divisive challenges. Although many congregations across the country are homogenous, others have sharp divides. Around elections, such as the looming midterms, clergy is confronted with trying to keep the peace while meeting the spiritual needs of all worshippers. 

Bishop Timothy Clarke, a Black pastor in Ohio, said there are “deep divides” in his congregation of more than 2,000 predominantly African Americans over the divisive topic of abortion. “There are good people on both sides,” said Clarke after recently addressing his congregation’s differences in a recent message. “I talked about the fact God loves everybody, even those you disagree with.”

Congregations deal with one divisive issue after another

Senior Pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Reverend Paul Roberts, said his congregation like many others across the U.S. has been dealing with one divisive issue after another. “The whole thing with Trump, Black Lives Matter, the pandemic really has highlighted a sense of uneasiness when you’re covering all these different topics as a church. It just seems there isn’t anything that doesn’t have tension over it.”

Roberts, whose congregation of 140 regular attendees is a diverse group, both theologically and politically, is about half white and half Black. The reverend said few people have left the church over its ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement but have mostly stayed together.  

Reverend Roberts attributed that to hours of consistent patient dialogue over issues including vaccines and mask-wearing. 

Reverend Sarah Wilson said her congregation includes liberal teachers, nurses as well as Republican business leaders that attend St. Barnabas Lutheran Church in Cary, Illinois. While there are conflicting views on abortion and partisan differences, she aims to avoid her own partisan rhetoric and keep political debate out of the church. 

“Politics are very important to me — I vote in every election. But I’m not here to tell a person how to vote or who to vote for. If people ask me, even for city council, I don’t do that,” said Wilson.

Reverend David Boettner said the congregation at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and its associated Catholic school community is economically, politically, and ethnically diverse at the cathedral, where he is vicar general of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, and rector.

Mass is celebrated in five languages, and student families and parishioners speak more than a dozen at home. Some families struggle financially while others are well off, he said. “We’ve definitely got folks that belong to the Democratic Party and folks that belong to the Republican Party and folks that probably don’t belong to either,” said Boettner. 

While Boettner said political issues sometimes crop up in church conversations, he suspects parishioners are less likely to share divisive views with him because he is their priest. He said he strives for consistent preaching about Catholic teachings on social, economic justice, and moral issues while steering clear of endorsing any specific political policies. He offers prayers for all leaders, not just those of a particular political party or organization. 

According to Boettner, “The church is not partisan. The Catholic Church is probably a great example of a church that offends both Democrats and Republicans alike.”