The clergy seeks to reconcile politically divided communities

One member of Rabbi David Volpe’s diverse congregation walked out because Volpe didn’t want to preach a sermon critical of Donald Trump. Dozens of others have left displeased with the synagogue’s rules to combat COVID-19. But Wolfe remains steadfast in his determination to avoid politics when he preaches at Temple Sinai in Los Angeles.

“It’s not easy to keep people comfortable with each other and be part of the same community,” he said. “The great fault of modern American society is that people know each other’s politics before they know their own humanity.”

Volpe, whose congregation includes liberal Democrats and hundreds of conservative Iranian-Americans, is far from alone in facing such challenges. Although many congregations in the US are relatively homogenous, others are sharply divided. In some cases, the divisions become more pronounced as the midterm election season heats up, leaving the clergy to keep the peace while meeting the spiritual needs of all its members.

A black pastor in Columbus, Ohio — Bishop Timothy Clark of the First Church of God — says there are “deep divisions” in his predominantly African-American congregation of more than 2,000. He called abortion a particularly divisive topic after a Supreme Court ruling in June that allowed states to ban the procedure.

“There are good people on both sides,” said Clark, who addressed the congregation’s divisions in a recent sermon.

“I talked about how God loves everyone, even those you disagree with,” he said.

The Rev. Paul Roberts, senior pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, said his congregation — like many others — is dealing with one controversial issue after another.

“This whole Trump thing, Black Lives Matter, the pandemic has really highlighted the sense of anxiety when you’re covering all these different topics as a church,” he said. “It just seems like there’s nothing that isn’t exciting.”

His church has about 140 regulars, a politically and theologically diverse group that is roughly half black and half white. He said a few people left the church because of its support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but for the most part it stayed together.

He attributes that in part to hours of dialogue with patients about issues like wearing masks and vaccines, which some black members were wary of because of a history of mistreatment of African-Americans.

Rabbi Judith Segal is asking members of her politically divided congregation in Coral Gables, Florida, to sign a code of ethics pledging to respect people with different views.

Recently revealed signs at the synagogue, Temple Judea, reinforce this message.

“No matter who you vote for, the color of your skin, where you’re from, your faith or who you love, we’ll be there for you,” one sign reads. “That’s what community means.”

Segal said members of the Reform congregation often ask her and her assistant rabbi, Jonathan Fish, to address certain issues.

“We are careful to do this in a value-driven way, preaching our tradition and our Torah,” she said. “For example, we know it’s important to us as Jews to welcome immigrants, but we will never tell anyone how to vote.”

The Rev. Sarah Wilson said her faith at St. Barnabas Lutheran Church in Cary, Illinois, includes Republican business leaders and liberal nurses and teachers. There are bipartisan differences, as well as conflicting views on abortion, but she tends to keep political debate out of the church and steer clear of her partisan rhetoric.

“Politics is very important to me – I vote in every election,” she said. “But I’m not here to tell people how and who to vote for. If they ask me, even to the city council, I don’t do it.”

The congregation at Sacred Heart Cathedral and its associated Catholic school community is ethnically, economically and politically diverse, said the Rev. David Bettner, the cathedral’s rector and vicar general of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Mass is celebrated in five languages, and parishioners and student families speak more than a dozen at home; some are financially strapped, while others are struggling to survive, he said.

“We definitely have people who belong to the Democratic Party and people who belong to the Republican Party and people who probably don’t belong to either,” Boettner said.

Political issues come up in church conversations, but Böttner suspects congregants are less likely to share polarizing views with him because he is their priest. They’re being shared more freely on social media, and he’s seen an increase in political posts as the midterm elections approach. Abortion and religious freedom, including recent Supreme Court rulings, are high on the agenda, he said.

Böttner said he strives for consistency in preaching Catholic teaching on moral, social and economic justice, while avoiding endorsing specific policies. Prayers are offered for all leaders, not just those from a particular party.

“The church is not partisan,” Boettner said. “The Catholic Church is probably a prime example of a church that offends both Democrats and Republicans alike.”

In Bluefield, W.Va., the Rev. Frederick Brown said he has sought “middle ground” during his nearly three decades as pastor of a diverse but collegial congregation at Faith Center Church.

“Staying in the middle of the road means that God considers it all important,” he said. “When you vote, you can vote for your beliefs, but don’t attack someone else’s beliefs because they differ from yours.”

At Temple Sinai, Rabbi Volp strives to encourage mutual respect in his congregation. As a positive example, he cites the men’s book club: in a recent initiative, he alternated between reading a book by a center-left author and a book by a conservative.

Still, Volpe, 64, says political differences are deeply entrenched.

“When I was born, people objected to their children marrying people of a different race, but they didn’t object to them marrying people of a different political party,” he said. “Now it’s the other way around.”

Associated Press writers Holly Meyer, Luis Andres Enaa and Peter Smith contributed to this report.

Associated Press religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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