Some churches leap into political process, others avoid it (Aug. 27, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Some churches leap into political process, others avoid it

Aug. 27, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0150}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND â€” While some Florida United Methodist pastors say politics and the pulpit don't mix, others disagree and find themselves, and their churches, in the thick of upcoming election activities.

Conference clergy were asked earlier this month to respond by e-mail if their churches were either polling places or venues for activities related to the election process. The responses varied, with more than 30 reporting their churches are voting locations or have been sites for forums allowing candidates to address campaign issues.

The Rev. Dr. Jimmie L. Brown, pastor of Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami, said he believes "the people of God need to be involved in the political process." That's why his church is a voting location and was the site of a community forum Aug. 4 sponsored by a collaboration of more than 30 organizations that are encouraging people to register to vote. The Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections also brought and explained the new voting machines to help voters become more familiar with them.

Brown said churches have a responsibility to educate their members, who are voters. "I believe in the holistic approach," he said. "We need to make certain that people get all the knowledge they can to make society better. We need to make sure the best people for the needs of the people are elected. The people of God need to be involved in issues such as health care, social security, education—all of the things that affect our lives."

The Rev. Dwayne Craig, pastor of McCabe United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, said his church has been conducting voter registration after every fourth Sunday worship service since April. He said the church is also joining efforts with the Sojourner Truth Center in the city and the Florida Consumer Action Network to canvass eight precincts where there is a high concentration of unregistered voters.

Being a Christian means having a political nature and more than someone "getting their soul right," according to Craig. He said it's about healing communities that have been disenfranchised and restoring those communities "from brokenness to wholeness."

Just as Brown said he believes churches have a responsibility to inform their members/voters about societal issues, Craig said churches shouldn't just "sit on a corner." They should be involved in the lives of people in surrounding communities.

"We don't have to resign ourselves to the way things are," he said. "Life can be better than what it is."

In an effort to demonstrate how President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, can potentially impact the lives of citizens, Craig is working to produce a voter education guide to inform people about the points of view of the candidates on education, employment, the economy, war in Iraq, national security, the poor/homelessness, civil liberties, health care, and family and marriage issues.

The idea of churches being heavily involved in the political process bothers the Rev. Dr. Frank Seghers, a retired pastor who lives in Jacksonville. He said he is "appalled at the number of appearances by some candidates in some of our churches."

Seghers pointed out that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and subsequent federal law and court rulings prohibit the use of churches for political gain. He said churches promoting voter registration is acceptable, but actively promoting one candidate or party above another is wrong. He said it would be "unconscionable for the church to lose its tax-exempt status because a United Methodist church has become the equivalent of a political action committee."

The Internal Revenue Service does restrict churches from participating in specific political activities. Churches that don't follow those guidelines are at risk of losing their tax-exempt status. Churches are allowed to "provide education about legislative and social issues, engage in boycotts or lawsuits to effect change, file amicus briefs in court, and they may meet with legislators and candidates for public office" according to Political Activity Guide for churches posted on the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration (GCF&A) Web site. Churches are not able to participate or intervene "in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. This includes the publishing or distribution of campaign literature, even if their pastor or a church member is running for office." Additional restrictions are also listed.

The Rev. Dan Jones, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Ocala, said he delivered a sermon titled "Separation of Church and State" in April as part of a series on controversial issues in culture. He contrasted a Christian worldview against a secular one and suggested, as Christians, involvement in government is a stewardship issue and not something to avoid.

Jones said Christians have a responsibility to determine whether or not candidates claim Christianity and live their lives accordingly. He said if members are given a choice between a Christian and non-Christian candidate, he is an advocate of voting for the Christian, regardless of political party affiliation.

The Rev. Clifford T. Patrick, pastor of Bartley Temple United Methodist Church in Gainesville, said his church is a voter registration site, and several candidates have visited the church. He stresses the importance of voting, but said he would never endorse a candidate because the overall message is the church should be for Christ.

The church can be used to promote a friendly atmosphere for voters, according to the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral. His church is a polling place, and members have set up a hospitality booth offering coffee, cookies and lemonade to welcome voters.

"I see this as servant evangelism, demonstrating a high-grace and low-risk opportunity for the church," Acevedo said. "It's a way to experience the kindness and love of God in a real, practical way."

Acevedo said the church "ought to and should" speak to social issues, but should be "leery of aligning itself too closely with issues, parties and, thereby, candidates because that is not a good place for the church to be."

The Rev. Donald F. Padgett said he was interested in politics during his 42-year ministry career, but waited until he retired in 1995 before volunteering for the Democratic Party of Volusia County. He is now a member of the Volusia County Democratic Executive Committee and donates at least 10 hours per week to the organization. Now that he has the time and is free from actively representing the church, Padgett said he did the right thing by waiting on the sidelines because he knew he "could not take sides in politics" while serving churches.

The Rev. Robert Pearcy, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Melbourne, said former churches he served were polling locations, but while in those appointments he decided the churches would no longer provide that service. He said the state mandates that churches/polling locations provide space for people to promote their political/social agenda, even though some of those viewpoints are contrary to church position.

"At the same time, the state is adamant that we cannot promote church issues," Pearcy said. "Until the polling places are free from political advertisement and promoting of social political agenda, I will not support the church being used."
Pearcy said he has had candidate forums in the past with mixed results.

"The issues are often very theological and kingdom issues, but it has been difficult to have presentations that don't spill quickly into political rhetoric with the taking up of sides," he said. "The kingdom issues seem to become forgotten."

Jones will make an attempt to keep kingdom issues before his St. Mark's, Ocala, congregation in October by writing sermons to remind the church it is called to "point to the reality of God's Kingdom in word and deed."

Craig, at McCabe in St. Petersburg, echoed those sentiments.

"As a Christian, our vocation has a political slant to it," he said. "I think we, as Christians, have to be politically conscious. It's a political act to preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

GCF&A's Political Activity Guide is posted under the alphabetical listing at


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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