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A House Divided: Progressive Christian Leaders are Speaking Up in the Age of Trump 

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  • Sanford Nowlin
Last year, Father Steven Gamez of San Antonio’s St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church felt compelled to comment on President Trump’s recently enacted “Muslim ban” during mass.

Slamming the country’s doors on refugees flies in the face of the Beatitudes, which state “blessed are the merciful,” he told the congregation. Afterward, an angry parishioner confronted the priest, demanding that he keep politics out of the pulpit.

“When things like that happen, it just gives me more fire, more energy, to preach even louder,” Gamez said. “My personality is to meet it head-on.”

Recent polls may show evangelicals supporting Trump in record numbers, but since the president took office, progressive faith leaders haven’t exactly kept quiet. Some have become increasingly vocal about the administration’s policies — even when it means stirring up difficult discussions in their churches.

Earlier this week, the organization Vote Common Good stopped in San Antonio as part of a 31-city bus tour urging people of faith to help flip Congress. Organizers are counting on some Christians — evangelical and otherwise — being turned off enough by Trump’s record on immigration, human rights and other issues to seek checks on his power.

“There are a lot of evangelicals who feel homeless right now,” said Doug Pagitt, the Minnesota pastor who leads Vote Common Good. “They watched the theological takeover of their faith, then they watched a Trumpian political takeover of their country.”

Vote Common Good’s San Antonio stop stumped for Democrats Gina Ortiz Jones, who’s running to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, and Joseph Kopser, who’s vying for the district vacated by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith.

But that’s far from the only indication religious progressives are eager to have an impact on the midterms.

A group of Catholic nuns is conducting a 54-stop tour to mobilize voters in opposition to the regressive tax law Republicans enacted. And a recent New York Times story examined grassroots support among evangelical women for Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Starting from Behind

But if progressive Christians are looking to have an impact at ballot box, they appear to be starting at a disadvantage.

The religious right has already pieced together a strong ground operation — one used to knocking doors on issues like abortion and driving congregants to the polls. And this fall, evangelical leaders demonstrated their political clout by forcing Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment to the finish line.
click to enlarge SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
Rev. Vince Anderson, a Brooklyn-based gospel musician touring with Vote Common Good, said he doesn’t expect his group’s efforts to pull the faithful away from the religious right. Instead, he hopes it can energize and support Christians who feel alienated by the current political climate.

“We’re providing a community of support to these people,” Anderson said. “I don’t think any of us thinks we’re going to be changing any minds.”

Hot-Button Topics

Local religious leaders said the deeply partisan era makes for some tightrope sermons, especially when they can’t avoid talking about the divisive issues the Trump administration has raised.

“It’s forced me to be more nuanced as a speaker,” said Andries Coetzee, pastor of University Presbyterian Church. “There’s just so much going on right now that we can’t avoid these hot-button topics.”

Coetzee’s South African upbringing also makes it hard for him to hold his tongue about the current political environment. He recalls how the Dutch Reformed Church was complicit in the apartheid system that oppressed that country’s black majority.

“To me, the problems we’re facing aren’t about Trump,” he said. “He’s a symptom of a deeper ill in our society that comes back to a system of white supremacy.”

Natalie Webb, pastor at Covenant Baptist Church of Garden Ridge, said her congregation is trying to make sense of the current political turmoil. In recent sermons, she’s touched on the abuse allegations surrounding Kavanaugh hearing and the racism at the heart of the Charlottesville protests.

“They have seen so many tragic and hateful things happening,” she said. “I know that’s not new, but it now it feels more condensed.”

Even so, Webb said it’s not her place to endorse candidates or assign political solutions.

St. Rose’s Gamez agrees. Even with the recent confrontation and walkouts, he gives his parishioners credit for being able to vote their conscience. And he hopes they show up at the polls come November.

“The Catholic Church will never tell you who to vote for, but as a Christian, there are issues that have to be at the forefront when you’re casting a ballot,” he said.

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