The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: When should clergy criticize policies of the government?

The previous and the current presidential administrations have drawn sharp criticism from the pulpit for positions the president has taken. When is it appropriate for clergy to take a stand on government policies?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Ethics and Religion Talk

Ethics and Religion Talk /George Weitor

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“My first question of clarification is regarding the nature of the government policy. Is the policy a moral instruction or imposition? Or, is the policy something that is innocuous and does not adversely affect humanity?

“Positions taken by Presidential administrations that through the imposition of governmental policies minimize human beings to a selfish, ideological, commercial or totalitarian end (cf. the Seventh Commandment of the Decalogue), are deserving of criticism because it not only demeans specific individuals but also all of us. Remember, that anything meant to limit or harm one group by the government opens all of us up to the same treatment.

“Jesus teaches us there are two commandments. One, to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and our whole being. Two, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Are we willing to open ourselves to asking what the Holy Spirit is teaching us when confronted by a minister who is  challenging a governmental policies?”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterian and Reformed preachers should have the freedom to address anything the Word of God addresses. They are obliged to speak where God has spoken: ‘The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?’ (Amos 3:8). This is especially true when the enactments, policies, or conduct of our rulers threaten to call down the wrath of God upon the nation.

“However, ministers are fallible human beings. The human conscience can be short-sighted, mistaken, or selective in responding to current events. Moral outrage may lead us into matters beyond the scope of our expertise. ​Some preachers who cried out against President Obama now maintain embarrassed silence with regard to President Trump. Faithfully preaching the Word ‘in season and out of season’ (II Timothy 4:2) is the best safeguard against such human folly.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“It’s important to note that this current administration has also garnered much praise from at least as many pulpits as those where criticism is leveled. Many people are surprised by this, given the history of our president’s rather checkered past and well documented personal behavior. But we shouldn’t be. Regardless of everything, this religious demographic is interested only in results as measured by policies introduced and enforced. They are clearly getting what they want.

“Our nation has a long tradition of religious leaders taking stands, for better or worse, on legislation and laws that are in opposition with their values. It is always appropriate to do so. That said, I am deeply saddened when clergy members use their position to demean others or attempt to scare the flock into believing that holding any opinion opposite of theirs is downright sinful.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“When I stand in our pulpit on Sunday mornings I am very careful to speak only on the policy or actions of our government and not about any one individual. It is no secret that Unitarian Universalism is a very left leaning religion. Because my congregation is a well-informed group of people I see my role as primarily addressing specifically where our faith lands on a given topic. During any given week I find there is usually one particular issue that has weighed heavy on their minds, this is how I decide what to speak about on Sunday. My role is to help shepherd the people I serve through morally and ethically challenging times it is not to engage in political debate with our current administration. As for our current president I find it best for my own spiritual well-being to not speak about him at all.”

My response:

My congregation contains both strongly left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives. I need to be able to speak to any and all who come to our services, regardless of their politics. At the same time, I need to be faithful to my understanding of Torah. So I ask myself -- Do Torah and Jewish tradition have a definitive response to this question? And then I ask -- Is this the only supportable position or, if not, is this at least by far the strongest supportable position, so much so that this congregation needs to hear about it? When I am convinced that I have something to say which is strongly supported by Torah and that any opposing position has significantly less support based on my and my particular movement’s understanding of the role of Torah and Jewish tradition, then I take a stand.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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