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Local preachers say separating pulpit and politics is tricky

Local preachers say separating pulpit and politics is tricky

Sara Baron freely admits that more than once during this contentious election cycle she’s had to bit
Local preachers say separating pulpit and politics is tricky
Rev. Jim Reissner, left, Rabbi Matt Cutler, Rev. Richard Carlino, Pastor Sara Baron, and James McDonald.
Photographer: Photos provided

Sara Baron freely admits that more than once during this contentious election cycle she’s had to bite her tongue and remember to keep politics out of the pulpit.

“It was hard for me to restrain myself recently because I wanted to talk about the way women are treated in the national media,” said Baron, who has been senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady for three years now. “But I just left it alone, and with what’s going on this election cycle it’s more difficult than ever to do that.”

The Founding Fathers used terminology such as “the separation of church and state” to protect citizens from any misguided form of theocracy and to ensure freedom of religion. No one would argue with that sentiment, and many Capital Region ministers like Baron are finding the concept of “separation” also has other useful benefits.

“Everyone in our society today has raised anxiety because of this election, and they desperately need time away from the news cycle,” said Baron. “So I decided that worship time would definitely be something apart from the election. I don’t usually have a steadfast rule, and I do certainly get accused of preaching politics sometimes because I do preach about issues. However, it has become my policy to avoid politics in the pulpit with every ounce of my being.”

At two of Schenectady’s biggest and oldest Catholic churches, St. John the Evangelist and St. Anthony’s, the Rev. Richard Carlino is hesitant to talk politics anywhere and at anytime.

“If a parishioner asks me my opinion I’m free to share it, but I’m always exceptionally careful if that topic comes up,” said Carlino. “I have very few political conversations, and a priest or a bishop can never publicly endorse or criticize a candidate. We are not tied to any political party. The best political party is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Carlino did add, however, that many of his parishioners are turned off by this year’s campaign rhetoric.

“I know that people are disappointed with all the in-fighting and the way the candidates speak to each other,” said Carlino. “They’re disgusted with the political [rhetoric] on both sides. But I’ll say this: I will hold the American population accountable for who they nominate and who they elect. There’s no one else to congratulate or to blame.”

At the First Presbyterian in the Stockade, longtime church member and elder David Vincent says he never hears the candidates’ names during worship services.

“Election opinions from the pulpit are extremely rare,” said Vincent, whose congregation is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, generally recognized as the more conservative of the two Presbyterian factions in the U.S. “Every week the pastor prays publicly for the president, Congress, governor, legislature, etc. As for the election, it is always a prayer that the outcome be the Lord’s will.”

A different view

At Albany’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, a member of the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA), Rev. Jim Reissner also has a line that he won’t cross over in the pulpit. He does, however, snuggle up pretty close to that line.

“I think politics in the pulpit is just fine because you need to talk about issues that affect people’s lives,” said Reissner. “I like the old adage, ‘A preacher should have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.’ But I do have a principle, and that is that I don’t mention specific candidates, no matter how much I love or loathe them.”

Earlier this summer before the Republican National Convention, one of Reissner’s parishioners felt he did cross the line with a Sunday sermon.

“The text was about casting out fear, and to be careful of those who would tell you to be very afraid,” remembered Reissner. “I heard after the sermon how I was preaching against the Republican convention. No, I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t feel like I had to, so I just let it go.”

At the Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady, Rabbi Matthew Cutler is also a bit more topical. He’s not about to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, but he’s also not afraid to bring up politics.

“There are issues of a political concern that demand a religious voice,” said Cutler, “and those are issues rather than people. At the Jewish High Holidays I preached about issues that were political and it had ramifications on how people should think and view the situation and how it might influence their vote. I speak about principles out of conviction, with the Torah as my guide and the Jewish tradition as a framework. I am thoughtful and concerned about how people may perceive what I say, but I’m not going to pull back on my intensity or my belief because I’m afraid of hurting someone’s feelings.”

Following the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election and the Florida recount, Cutler remembers losing one parishioner when he said it was time for the country to move on.

“I said, ‘This is the way it has worked out and we have to accept it,’ ” said Cutler. “Well, someone got mad and walked out. But I feel like there are issues of conscience that relate to our spiritual core and they have to be spoken about.”

According to Skidmore College professor Greg Spinner, completely keeping politics out of a Sunday morning sermon is just about impossible.

“There are people of faith who feel called upon to speak up on issues,” said Spinner, who has taught religious courses at Skidmore for nine years. “They have a strong faith and a commitment, and they feel called through the gospel to make their voices heard. How directly or indirectly they do it, particular to this election, is something they have to decide, and I am sympathetic to ministers of all persuasions. They want their congregates to be engaged in this discourse of American democracy, but they don’t want to use the pulpit as a political podium.”

Other opinions

Here is a sampling of other Capital Region area ministers on the subject:

--Matt Stromberg, St. George’s Episcopal in Schenectady:

“I do try to avoid taking any overtly partisan stands in the pulpit. As a pastor, I’m the pastor for all Republicans, Democrats and independents, so we try not to alienate anyone. We don’t want to make this a Republican or a Democrat church. When it comes to talking specifically about social issues, I will certainly address those if I feel they’re relevant to the gospel and our Christian faith. But it’s not my responsibility to tell people how to vote. That’s up to their own conscious.

-- Bill Levering, First Reformed of Schenectady:

“We talk about how the church proclaims our principles and our values, but we rarely make the one-on-one transition into partisan politics. If I were to refer to a contentious situation, I would make it a general issue that the nation faces, rather than talk about a specific party. Informally, this election cycle has caught the attention of people, and the church is a place where people talk about what’s important to them, so there is a discussion, but we don’t have the name calling and the acrimony that is going on throughout the country. We try to remember to assert the principles and values that the church is founded on.”

focus on jesus

--James Pruch, Grace Chapel in Clifton Park:

“I don’t have a steadfast rule, but when I preach the goal is to direct people to Jesus and not to a party candidate or platform. I really want to show them the sufficiency of Jesus over and against king and country as it were. So as Christians we come from the perspective that human government is a good thing and ordained, but it’s not the ultimate. There are a wide range of opinions and options in the Christian faith and that allows for political persuasion. We direct people to the kingdom of God, and at the end of the day it’s not about red vs. blue or what side you’re on. No matter our differences we can unite around Jesus.”

-- James MacDonald, St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Schenectady:

“From the very beginning, I’ve said that you can not avoid politics if you’re really preaching the gospel because Jesus was political. But with that said, it’s not about dealing with American politics or even the global politics of our time. It’s much bigger than that. It’s very Anglican to try to have your faith inform your daily life, so when you head into the voting booth you need to be informed. Informally, I like my congregation to know where I stand, but I don’t preach current politics from the pulpit. We do have discussions at times, and we have to agree to disagree, but we do have ground rules. Our church is a safe place to discuss the combination of our faith and politics, but there needs to be some give-and-take, back-and-forth, and that’s why I don’t do it from the pulpit.”

-- Jeff Silvernail, Prince of Peace Lutheran in Clifton Park:

“From the pulpit itself, yes I do go to great lengths not to talk about politics. Occasionally we will bring up issues in the news, but I certainly try to avoid giving any indication of who I’m supporting and who I’m opposed to. We do have some education to help our voters. We have a program called REACH, which is Relevant Education for All Christians, and we talk about a variety of issues and try to help keep the citizenry informed. But I have not indicated to anyone who I am voting for. I have made up my mind who I’m voting against, but I don’t talk about it much and certainly not from the pulpit. I let them try to figure it out on their own.”

-- Brett Brimhall, Bishop of Glenville Ward of the Church of Latter Day Saints:

“We are politically neutral, so we do not endorse or promote any candidate, political party or their platforms. We don’t typically have clergy speak each Sunday, so what we do is invite members of the congregation to speak and assign them a topic. If someone … began to use a Sunday service to make their voice heard to promote a particular viewpoint, we would pull them aside and ask them to refrain. But that is very rare. It really doesn’t happen. Informally, everyone is free to say what they think, and the church does encourage participation in the political process.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or

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