‘Healing in the Heartland’ speakers offer differing views on the church’s political engagement

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Mar 18, 2024

A panel discussion during the Diocese of Missouri’s “Healing in the Heartland” event March 16 included (seated, from left) the Rev. John “Jack” Danforth, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the Rev. Naomi Tutu and the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas. Missouri Bishop Deon Johnson, at the podium, was the moderator. Photo: Screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri hosted a “Healing in the Heartland” event on March 16 designed to help bridge the divide in American society in a polarized election year, but it ended with its four speakers disagreeing on if and how the church should be engaged with politics.

The event featured remarks from three Episcopal priests and one United Church of Christ pastor:

  • The Rev. Naomi Tutu, priest associate at All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, Georgia and a daughter of the late Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu;
  • The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, interim president of the Episcopal Divinity School, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and theologian in residence at Trinity Church Wall Street.
  • The Rev. John C. “Jack” Danforth, former U.S. senator from Missouri, current partner in a St. Louis law firm, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and envoy to Sudan;
  • The Rev. Traci Blackmon, formerly the denominational lead for justice and local church ministries in the UCC and now a public theologian and author.

In individual remarks and other questions to the four as a panel, they described how they approach social justice and other potentially polarizing issues. But when asked how they would respond to the call to keep politics out of the pulpit, there was some disagreement.

Brown Douglas, Blackmon and Tutu – all Black women – described how their faith calls them to be engaged in working for justice and their understanding that Jesus didn’t stand outside the political systems of his day. Jesus wasn’t killed for praying too much, Brown Douglas said, but because he had become an enemy of the political and ecclesiastical structures.

Being a person of faith is political but not partisan, Blackmon said. “Politics is how we live our lives,” she said. “I am called to be political. I am not called to be partisan.” But, she added, “I do not think the pulpit should be used to tell people who to vote for.” Tutu noted that when people from the margins of society speak about issues from the pulpit, it’s labeled as political. When the preacher is a privileged person, it’s not.

Danforth, a white man, said that during his 26 years as an elected official, he always tried to do his best and do more good than harm. But in the end, “Politics isn’t the realm of the ultimate. It isn’t the kingdom of God. It’s just politics,” he said, adding, “Do not confuse politics and religion.”

Tutu said she never would have expected Danforth or other elected officials to be God’s representatives, but she does expect people in power “to do good for God’s people.” And when they fail, “I’m not gonna let you off the hook,” she said.

Because laws dictate where children like her could go to school, what water fountain they could drink from and where her family could buy a house, Blackmon said, “I don’t have the luxury of [politics] being a separate system.”

There is a difference between attacking people and attacking bad and unjust laws and policies, Brown Douglas said. And to know whether laws and policies are actually serving the people who are hurting the most, “when the least of these say, ‘Oh, that feels like justice,’ then we are at least on the way to justice,” she said.

Before the opening Eucharist, and printed in the service bulletin, was an acknowledgement that the diocese encompasses the traditional ancestral lands of the Osage Nation, the Illiniwek/Peoria Tribe, the O-Gah-Pah (Quapaw) Tribe, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, and other First Peoples.

It also noted that Lewis and Clark used enslaved and Indigenous people as they explored what would become the state of Missouri, and that it became a state through the Missouri Comprise of 1820, which allowed it to enter the Union as pro-slavery. It also was the home of the enslaved Dred Scott, noted for the 1857 Supreme Court ruling that because he was Black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue for his freedom.

Missouri Bishop Deon Johnson and the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, presided at the Eucharist, and Tutu was the preacher. Ministries around the diocese also had tables where they could share information with event participants.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.