As Election Day looms, Christian pastors make bold political appeals

Prominent clergy on both sides urged their flocks to vote, even as they defended the propriety of addressing politics from the pulpit.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Dallas Church in 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(RNS) — In their final sermons before Election Day, some of the country’s most prominent Christian pastors urged their listeners on Sunday (Nov. 1) to vote, even as they defended the propriety of addressing politics from the pulpit.

“Some say we should hunker down in our churches and stay behind our pulpits and not engage these politics, but I wonder,” said the Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of the 45,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. “Why should we stay out of it?” he asked.

Preaching on a selection from the Bible’s Psalm 11, Graham cautioned those listening to his sermon that “the foundations are cracking,” and “freedoms are being taken away,” sometimes eliding the New Testament’s claims that Christ died to make his followers free with the freedoms promised in the U.S. Constitution.

The Rev. Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

A short drive away, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas and one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters, told his congregation, “Remember: When you vote, you’re casting a vote for righteousness or for unrighteousness, and when you stay at home, you’re saying, ‘I couldn’t care less.’ No Christian should do that.”

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Jeffress cut short his planned sermon to repeat a message he had shared earlier in the day on the Fox News show Fox & Friends. The pastor said that, while he is free as an individual to endorse a candidate for president or for another office, the church cannot, in an apparent reference to the Johnson Amendment, a 1950s provision of the federal tax code that prohibits houses of worship and other nonprofits from political campaigning.

In a 2017 executive order, President Trump weakened the rarely enforced measure and has since promised to “totally destroy” it, but it remains largely intact.

What Jeffress said he could endorse at church Sunday was a message encouraging all those who hadn’t already cast an early ballot to vote on Election Day (Nov. 3), saying it was the “duty” of his flock to vote for the candidates who will do “the most good, or at least the least harm, not only to us but to those around us, as well.” 

Later in the day, Graham and Jeffress participated in an online “Call to Prayer” in support of President Trump, along with a formidable roster of Christian clergy and worship leaders.

The Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, who leads New York City’s Middle Church, also preached from the Book of Psalms and made connections between ancient Israel and contemporary U.S. politics. “In the time of the psalmist, Israel had been a great nation and yet no longer was. Other nations had taken their spot on the geopolitical stage,” she said in an online service kicked off by a warm-up video celebrating those who have voted.

The Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis preaches in 2014. Courtesy photo

Few in her congregation, which the church’s mission statement describes as an “inter-generational movement of Spirit and justice, powered by Revolutionary Love,” were likely to have missed the correspondences Lewis was making as she addressed “the preexisting conditions of poverty, racism and xenophobia.”

Just in case, Lewis said with a chuckle, “I’m talking about Israel, but I’m also talking about now. The vulnerable reap what the powerful sow.”

Bishop William Barber, a North Carolina pastor and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, released a spirited virtual “sermon to the nation,” which was recorded last week at Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. Barber, who has spoken at the Democratic National Convention and has personally endorsed Joe Biden, preached on a verse from the biblical Book of Hebrews — “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”

He drew thinly veiled parallels between the “scattered” Hebrew community and present-day America. “The Caesars controlled the senate, they controlled the courts — they controlled everything,” he said.

“The people were struggling to hold on to hope. Sometimes they got down and depressed about the state of the world around them,” Barber continued. “And at their very worst moments they were tempted to believe that Claudius and Nero were as strong as they pretended to be.”

The Rev. William Barber II speaks during a rally protesting against President Trump’s policies outside the White House in Washington, on June 12, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Other preachers made their points more directly. While drawing his message from the biblical Book of Jeremiah, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., pastor emeritus at Chicago’s historic Trinity United Church of Christ, reminded listeners at the 11 a.m. online service of protesters and clergy being cleared from Lafayette Square to make way for President Trump to have his photo taken with a Bible at nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Wright’s scalding sermons on America’s racial divides are familiar to political observers, as they caused sometime Trinity attendee Barack Obama to disown him in 2008, when Obama was the Democratic candidate for president and Wright was tagged by the GOP as “Obama’s pastor.”

A dozen years later, Wright showed no signs of having recoiled from politics. “Honesty is on the ballot this Tuesday,” he said. “No more lies is on the ballot this Tuesday. No more twisting words is on the ballot this Tuesday. No more doctored truth and contradicting Dr. Fauci — those are the things that are on the ballot this Tuesday.” 

If many Sunday services had the feel of political rallies, only North Carolina’s Alliance Bible Fellowship featured a visit by a major party candidate. Vice President Mike Pence attended a service, alongside the Rev. Franklin Graham, at the church in the Samaritan Purse founder’s hometown of Boone.

Pence, who did not get up to speak at the service, nonetheless received a standing ovation from the mostly distanced worshippers at Alliance Bible Church. Pence sat with a mask on next to Graham and Graham’s wife, Jane.

The Rev. Scott Andrews, Alliance Bible’s pastor, said Pence introduced himself backstage as a Christian first, a conservative second and a Republican third. “I think that’s a pretty good order,” Andrews said.

Andrews made clear the service was not a political event, but he nonetheless thanked Pence for serving the country “so faithfully and so well for the last four years.” Andrews then prayed for the president, the cabinet, Congress, the Supreme Court and especially newly seated Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

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