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Clergy: Faith inspires politics, calls for compassion

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Feb 13, 2020
Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds The Church of Latter Day Saints in Belfast is covered in snow on a recent winter morning. The denomination encourages respect for minority points of view, according to Jim Dickson, who recently stepped down as president of the congregation.

Clergy of different faiths and different political perspectives in Waldo County and beyond express surprisingly similar views about how faith should inform political activity. One thing they all seem to agree on is that Americans must learn how to disagree about issues while maintaining compassion and respect for those with different views.

Most of those who spoke recently with The Republican Journal said they expect people of faith, regardless of where they fall on the religious or political spectrum, to be politically active in this presidential election year.

Pastor Jim Culbertson of Morrill Baptist Church said he also expects to see plenty of political activity on the part of non-religious people, while the Rev. Dr. Kate Winters, co-pastor of The First Church in Belfast, UCC, said she thinks religious people might be more vocal about the intersection of faith and politics this year, though she does not necessarily expect more people to get politically involved.

Faith as a way of life

Nearly all the clergy interviewed said their faith is a way of life, and, as such, guides all they do, including political action; however, their personal interpretations of scripture impel them to different kinds of activity.

Rabbi Lily Solochek, who came to Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Rockland last August, serves a congregation from around the Midcoast. The synagogue is not affiliated with any of the branches of Judaism, Solochek said. American Jews have a long history of being politically active in social justice causes, they said, from the labor and civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries to LGBTQ+ rights and climate change today.

Many Jews read the Torah — the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jews regard as having been written by Moses — as a directive on behalf of their fellow human beings to be "caretakers of the earth," Solochek said. "All of the political activism that I do is very much in line with my religious beliefs."

Jim Dickson, who was president of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Belfast until last December, said the church teaches respect for minority viewpoints "from the top down," and also emphasizes respect for civil government and the law. "Somebody else's personal choice does not have to align with mine," he said. "My responsibility is for me." He added that members are encouraged to be involved in the political process and to work for "good causes."

Culbertson said, "Faith should direct how we think, how we live and how we engage with society." He added that people must understand their own values and then seek out candidates who align with those values.

"Faith informs our conscience," said the Rev. Joel Krueger, co-pastor at The First Church, who is married to Winters. How we vote, along with the rest of our actions, is informed by our faith. "Belief in God's love is the primary motivator," he said.

Peter Sheff, pastor of non-denominational Abundant Grace Ministries in Searsmont, said evangelical Christians live their whole lives based on the Bible, adding that the extent to which you believe in the God of the Bible will influence your politics and worldview.

Winters, who was a Roman Catholic into early adulthood, put it even more strongly. "The gospel requires political activism. I'm a Christian before I'm an American."

Encouraging informed participation

While most of the clergy interviewed said they do not tell members of their congregations how to vote, all said they encourage members to be politically aware and to vote. Regarding the political choices faced by his flock, Sheff said, "I have the responsibility from the pulpit to make sure my people know where the candidates stand on different issues."

For example, "We need people on the school board with a biblical worldview who know that God made us, male and female," he said.

Sheff plans to invite all political candidates in Maine running for local, state or national office to address his congregation at events that will be open to the public, he said. Issues of particular importance for his congregation are abortion, assisted suicide, religious liberty and the United States' relationship with Israel and the Jewish people generally.

Abundant Grace will also hold voter registration drives, he said; First Church has also held voter registration drives and will offer voters rides to the polls, according to Winters.

Where clergy disagree is on which political issues that are most important. In contrast to the issues that concern members of Abundant Grace, listed above, the issues that are most important to the people of The First Church include climate change, immigration and asylum seekers, and homelessness, Winters said.

There is also disagreement on how to balance the rights of the individual against those of the community or the broader society. Culbertson said it is important to have dialogue, on both the local and national levels, in order to establish societal norms.

He said people in the U.S. are less interested today than in the past in what is true, preferring "our own truth."

Promoting fruitful dialogue

In order to have fruitful conversations with people who disagree with us, we must come to have compassion and respect for them — in biblical terms, to love our enemies, he said. He added that, from a Christian perspective, "being made in God's image gives everyone innate value."

Sheff, too, expressed concern about Americans' seeming inability to bridge their divides to work toward mutual understanding. He noted that he is friends with State Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Waldo, although he disagrees with most of her political positions. He said he prays for all political leaders, whether he agrees with them or not.

"Let's stop this stupid hostility that's going on today in politics where if I don't agree with you, I've got to hate you," he said.

Winters noted, "You cannot be 100% ethically pure," adding that she pays federal income taxes even though she strongly disagrees with how some of the money is spent and disapproves of many of the policies of the Trump administration. She said while faith can and should influence political action, the law should not favor one religion or denomination over others.

She said she could imagine going to jail for her beliefs, because if you break the law out of religious conviction, you must be ready to accept the consequences.

Solochek said the members of the Adas Yoshuron congregation, and American Jews generally, often have a hard time talking to each other about Israeli-Palestinian relations. The rabbi tries to make space, they said, for conversations about Israel where people feel safe, because opinion is deeply divided on the issues.

Dickson talked about what an educational experience it was for him to be part of the Greater Belfast Area Ministerium, where he worked on community concerns with pastors who had very different views from his, and became friends with them.

"It's easy to be friends with someone that agrees with you, but we are challenged to become friends with everyone," he said.

Pastor Jim Culbertson sits in his office at Morrill Baptist Church. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
The Rev. Joel Krueger, left, and the Rev. Dr. Kate Winters, are co-pastors of The First Church in Belfast, UCC, and are also husband and wife. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Rabbi Lily Solochek, pictured in downtown Belfast, has led Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Rockland since last August. Their congregation draws from all over the Midcoast. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Peter Sheff pastors Abundant Grace Ministries church in Searsmont, an independent, evangelical congregation. He is shown in the church's fellowship hall. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
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