How far can clergy reasonably go in the name of religion? More to the point, are there any limits to what counts as religious? In the wake of the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, religious leaders “vowed to mobilize their congregants to push for gun control legislation and provide the ground support for politicians willing to take on the gun lobby.” According to the New York Times, the leaders had come to the conclusion that the time had come for “action beyond praying and comforting the families of those killed.” Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s public policy office—the General Board of Church and Society—sent out an “action alert” on gun control to bishops and other church leaders. “I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action. And it came from some who wouldn’t normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses.” I contend that Winkler missed an opportunity for a more intense or riveting spiritual response than merely praying or being sad (as though this were a religious response) as he moved off religion itself into the realm of political activism. It is possible that the clergy in general undercut their own religious credibility in becoming advocates for gun legislation.
To take sides on a political issue is to be partisan in nature. Even if many people in one’s congregation happen to take the same position, those who take the opposite stance would at the very least feel a slight discomfort in listening to a speech under the subterfuge of a sermon. The New York Times reported at the time that advocating limits on guns was controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals were opposed. A CBS News poll taken during the week following the massacre found that while 69 percent of Catholics wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 percent of white evangelical Christians agreed. Even in a Catholic homily, promoting gun control could distance or even offend nearly 30 percent of a congregation. The advocacy could be viewed as a manifestation of the priest’s own politics taking advantage of the pulpit.
Therefore, a cleric’s decision to weigh in on a political issue could potentially divide or even rupture a house of worship. At what cost to the worship? Indeed, partisanship itself may be inherently inconsistent with worship. Whereas the latter is transcendent in nature or orientation, political issues are “this worldly” and thus eclipse transcendence. Jim Winkler not only risked introducing division into Methodist churches; he also missed the opportunity for transcendence beyond that which comes with prayer. In other words, he was going off a false dichotomy.
Admittedly, there was something unifying, and thus holistic, in the gathering of clergy from the three Abrahamic religions (and various sects thereof) at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. exactly one week after the shooting. It might be tempting to conflate this unity with that which is presumed through faith to go along with transcendence (e.g., an attribute of God or of the experience itself). There is something “other worldly” about the church bells including on toll for the 20 year-old gunman who committed suicide after having killed 20 children and 8 adults at the school. That is to say, including him changes the perspective to one that is more holistic, even transcendent, because he is grouped in with the victims. Experiencing the toll for the shooter can be transcendent because the symbolic act goes beyond “the ways of this world” in treating humanity itself as a part rather than the whole. The unity of various religions taking part would have enhanced the significance of the transcendence were it, rather than gun control or even sadness for the victims, emphasized by the clergy. Had they been oriented to changing the perspective to one that is more transcendent, they would have remained within the religious domain. In fact, they would have been promoting it! Using the occasion to lobby or organize for gun-control legislation, on the other hand, shifted attention away from the more transcendent perspective onto one that is divisive or at least all too familiar in terms of partisan divisions.
Generally speaking, a religious perspective that is transcendent via symbol, myth or ritual can situate a horrible situation that seems total. Including the two “sides” of a conflict in a way that erases sides altogether by adding a transcendent dimension—which relativizes the conflict itself—can demonstrate the utility of transcendent experience itself, and thus religion. The point is not forgiveness. That new moral implications can ensue is also not the point. Nor does it mean that religion is morality (or even is bound to moral principles). Drawing a moral lesson from a tragedy is not in itself religious. Worse still, taking a side and promoting it—which from a religious angle could be categorized under self-idolatry—treats the conflict or issue itself as the background or basis rather than as relative or partial. Perhaps in wanting to cover more ground, the clergy oriented to gun-control legislation may actually wind up with less from the standpoint of their own native fauna. In wanting more, maybe we betray ourselves and, in so doing, can actually wind up with less.
For more, please see Laurie Goodstein, “Religious Leaders Push Congregants on Gun Control, Sensing a Watershed Moment,” The New York Times, December 20, 2012.