Iowa pastor says running for office is a test of faith

'It's just a really good experience to know what it's like to be an outsider, to be a stranger, to be asking for people's welcome,' the Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott said.

The Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott leads a workshop at the Common Good Forum on Jan. 11, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

DES MOINES, Iowa (RNS) — Loving your enemies isn’t an easy thing to do on the campaign trail.

Even if the candidate is a pastor.

“(Faith) pushes us in ways that are not always comfortable, which means sacrificing yourself and caring for people that you wouldn’t want to care for normally, like loving your neighbor or loving your enemies,” said the Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott.

“Running for office is definitely a harder way of living that out.”

Garriott, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who is running for state Senate in Iowa, is hardly the first faith leader to seek elected office. But in an era where the Republican Party often dominates conversations about faith and politics, the pastor is one of several Democratic candidates quietly mustering religion-conscious campaigns to take down powerful Republicans in 2020.

For Garriott, a background in ministry is a strength to be touted — not a weakness to be hidden under a bushel. And running for office is an act of faith.

Originally from Minnesota, Garriott served as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in New Mexico after graduating from college, focusing on the issues of sexual assault and domestic violence. She then enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, hoping to learn how to help pastors address those same issues. It was there that she met her husband, then a scholar of patristics, and first began considering ordained ministry.

The Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott on Jan. 11, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

The two moved around the country for several years after that: first to Philadelphia, where Garriott worked as a hospital chaplain, and later to Illinois, where she enrolled in seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

After seminary, Garriott served congregations in West Virginia, Virginia and Iowa before becoming an interfaith organizer for the Des Moines Area Religious Council in 2017.

“I like to connect with people, meet folks, make connections for them — I’m a connector,” she said. She explained that she was inspired to take the post after hearing about a rash of hate incidents in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election.

Through her work as a pastor and an interfaith leader, she met Republican Charles Schneider, the lawmaker currently serving as state senator for Iowa’s 22nd District, when he asked her to open a session of the state Senate in prayer. After that, Garriott said, she began to follow the Republican more closely.

She eventually grew frustrated with his policies, sometimes even showing up at his events to pepper him with questions while sitting in the front row.  

When she saw that Schneider was up for reelection, she decided to challenge him. 

“I remember I had this dream that he had gotten new yard signs and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, someone’s gotta do something,’” she said of Schneider, who serves as president of the state Senate.

A few candidate trainings and conversations later, Garriott announced over Facebook that she was running for state Senate on a platform focused on addressing local, practical issues such as water quality and education funding.

“Water quality and water management issues are huge here,” she said. “When it rains, people drown in Des Moines.”

Garriott doesn’t hide her ministerial credentials. Her campaign launch video features images of herself in clerical garb, and she told Religion News Service that her experiences as a religious professional showcase her commitment to being “an engaged citizen.”

She noted that in her previous job as a parish minister, she served as pastor to Tom Latham, who was a Republican congressman representing Iowa’s 3rd District at the time.

“Navigating difficult issues, being in relationship with people who see things different than me, trying to work through conflict together, loving people that you disagree with — those are things that I bring because of that experience,” she said.

The Rev. Sarah Trone Garriott leads a workshop at the Common Good Forum on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Garriott also believes the values of her liberal-leaning Lutheran faith are applicable to broader public service.

“Welcoming the stranger, caring for your neighbor, caring for the poor, being willing to admit you’re wrong, humility … and seeing the greater good, that common good, that public common good that I think we’ve lost track of — I think those are valuable,” she said.

Garriott referenced Scripture and her faith repeatedly while leading a workshop on “Being Political” at the “Faith, Politics and the Common Good” summit convened in Des Moines earlier this month. The summit was hosted by Vote Common Good, an advocacy organization run by progressive Christians, and featured speeches from other clergy-turned-candidates such as Bryan Berghoef, a minister running for Congress in Michigan as a Democrat.

Speaking to a crowd that included local Iowans as well as Mike McCurry — onetime press secretary for former President Bill Clinton — Garriott said she thinks of Scripture often when enduring rejection on the campaign trail, particularly when knocking on the doors of voters.

“It’s just a really good experience to know what it’s like to be an outsider, to be a stranger, to be asking for people’s welcome,” she said.

She told RNS she is careful to avoid preaching or regularly engaging in “theological conversation” from the political podium, and steers clear of mentioning her campaign when operating in a ministerial capacity.

She also acknowledged that being a religious professional can lead to conversations that focus narrowly on what she called “hot button” issues such as abortion, which she contends is more complicated than “pro-choice or pro-life.” Her campaign website does not list a formal position on the issue, although she has appeared at protests standing with Iowa abortion rights advocates.

It’s also unclear how she would fare against Schneider in the general election. Her incumbent opponent is formidable, although Garriott said the Democratic Party has “targeted” the seat after overlapping House districts went blue in 2018.

Not that Garriott is dwelling on any of those challenges just yet. She still has to win the Democratic nomination, not to mention maintain her day job. In the meantime, she hopes to model a candidacy that draws strength from both the political and the pastoral.

“You have to be clear about who you are and what you believe, and say, ‘Yes, I am for all of you, and I care about all of you, and I work with all of you, and I’m listening to all of you. … But here’s where I’m at.’”

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