Getting Personal


One of the nice things about being a pastor is I’m ethically barred from endorsing candidates. This doesn’t mean I lack opinions on important topics, nor does it mean I don’t have candidates to which I lean. It means I am not permitted to declare myself a member of a political tribe through candidate endorsement. It’s something a lot of pastors ignore, as they try to be vocal about any endorsement being personal and not institutional, but I’m not particularly comfortable making that distinction 1.

Now, I’ve been a registered Independent since I was 18 years old, so I’m quite comfortable not endorsing candidates. Canvassing for my political tribe isn’t part of my make up, I don’t have a political tribe 2.

But as I’ve watched the local political races play out across social networks and in town discussions I’ve come up with another reason why I don’t endorse candidates for office, and especially for local office.

Things get personal.

I suppose this may be inevitable in a small town, where it can be almost impossible to not encounter persons with whom we may have personality conflicts. If we head to a parade, a town event, or just go for a walk chances are at some point we’re going to come across someone we don’t personally like. And, given how our culture values a righteous grudge over reconciliation, those personality conflicts tend become more and more abrasive over time.

There is no grudge like a small town grudge.

When these abrasive relationships become tied to the pursuit of power and authority, things heat up quick. Long-standing passive animosity becomes active, and tends to spread through the relationship circles of the political combatants. Often a person’s ideas aren’t the target of debate–the person is. Party affiliation is used as a shorthand for “them,” but political ideology has zero impact at the local level 3. The underlying coal fire is about making sure that person, and those affiliated with them, neither retains nor gains power. It’s difficult to build community when the issue of governance itself works to tear community apart.

This is not to say that the personality conflicts, and resultant animosity, are never earned–they often are. But politics in a community which has lost an impulse for reconciliation is a special form of toxic 4.

I’m a Baptist pastor. My impulses toward reconciliation are religious in nature, as the story of the Christian faith is God reconciling with the world through Jesus. This is the message I preach in worship week after week after week 5. But this message of reconciliation is also why I won’t endorse candidates–because the reconciliation of the Christian Gospel isn’t supposed to just be vertical, between humanity and God. It’s supposed to be horizontal, between neighbors. It’s supposed to cross over the walls we put up to keep us apart. And this horizontal nature isn’t meant for just “good church folk 6.” It’s a blessing meant for everyone. And, as a pastor called to help people toward reconciliation, I have to do my best to demonstrate it.

In other words, I’ll be “them” because of my faith. It comes with the territory. But I can’t become them by joining in with local grudges and long-standing conflicts, which are often buried underneath political divisions. I have to find a way to work with anyone who is willing, and work for the good of those who aren’t willing, because that’s how healthy communities form. And encouraging healthy communities to form is a big part of my calling.

  1. Though I do acknowledge, legally, I could. Pastors don’t give up the rights to political expression afforded to every one living under the auspices of the Constitution. 
  2. Nor am I advocating for some Hegelian synthesis of the two current major parties. I’d like to see more parties take a larger and larger role in our political system to force limited coalitions to form. One can dream. 
  3. Those who are tied to party apparatus like to point out that party affiliation is how we gain a voice in county and state affairs. And like to claim that we need to work for one’s chosen party to have control so we have a voice. This is the logic of corrupt political machines. 
  4. Also the benefits of striving for reconciliation don’t require “them” to agree to work toward it. When we work to let go of animosity, which isn’t easy to do, it begins the healing process even without cooperation. 
  5. 10:30 AM on Sundays. Central Baptist Church in Palmyra, NJ. I’m terrible at self-promotion, but that was a lay up 
  6. Who too often can’t even do this amongst themselves. Perhaps the only grudge like a small town grudge is a small church grudge.