From the Pulpit to the Public Square

Lay leaders sometimes tell me, “We encourage freedom of the pulpit. We like our minister to speak on controversial issues.” When I ask for examples, they often cite a preacher’s “courage” in expressing views … that they agree with. It’s okay to tilt at windmills so long as they belong to someone else. Workplace freedom is a relative thing, whether you work in a pulpit or some other kind of cubicle.

What a preacher can and cannot get away with saying has a lot to do with the social and economic situation of a congregation’s members. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his days as a young pastor and “tamed cynic” in Detroit, was cynical because he lived the irony of representing Jesus to the wealthy during the Depression while the auto workers suffered all around him. To the extent that he was tamed, it was because he learned to tolerate some of the moral dissonance every preacher has to live with. Any faith worth following demands its congregations to expand their circle of concern beyond the members’ comfort. The preacher, oftener than anybody else, gets caught in the middle.

The relationship of wealth to politics is not always predictable. In my own untamed days, during the Reagan Administration, I came to church one Sunday with a sermon in my pocket about peace—always a safe subject, so long as you steer clear of the specifics. But in this sermon I came out in favor of an anti-missle test ban. I felt prophetic (a feeling I have since come to regard as a sign of untamed egotism) and courageous. But no courage had been asked of me—not yet.

My small congregation relied heavily on its largest donor, a wealthy older woman I’ll call Mrs. Bertie, a philanthropist who for some reason had put us on her list for a small annual gift—small to her, I mean. Among her virtues as a donor was the fact that Mrs. Bertie made no demands. In fact, so far as anyone remembered, she had never once attended or participated in the church in any way. Perfect!

So there I was, firebrand sermon in my pocket, greeting people before service. You can guess what happened: someone had decided to invite Mrs. Bertie, and to everyone’s surprise, she came. I swallowed hard; said to myself, “This could be expensive”; and launched into my sermon, because I was brave and because I knew it was the right decision. Also I was a manuscript preacher and it was the only manuscript I had.

In the receiving line I braced myself. Along came Mrs. Bertie, a tiny woman with a high soprano voice. She pumped my hand and trilled for all to hear, “I agreed with every word!” That afternoon I went home strong in the knowledge of my righteousness, which had cost me not a cent.

We are not always so lucky. The flap earlier this year about Barack Obama’s former pastor illustrates the point. Speaking in the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ, a mostly African-American church on the South Side of Chicago, Jeremiah Wright became accustomed to great freedom of the pulpit to denounce violence and injustice by white people. He also was free to condemn the actions of the United States using language that would get preachers in genteeler churches into trouble no matter what they were talking about. For Wright, preaching to a congregation of black poor people, black college professors, and white people who chose to attend a predominantly black church, these messages went over very well. But broadcast later on YouTube in the heat of the presidential primaries, the same words fell like lead.

As Rev. Wright tried to explain afterward, white people responded badly to his words because they don’t understand the black church and its traditions. That is surely so. But every congregation is both a community of faith and a community of discourse. Especially a strong and vital congregation like Trinity United Church of Christ has its own way of extending the shared narrative of scripture and tradition into its own conversation. Over time, if the conversation is kept internal and not regularly opened to voices from outside, it becomes less and less intelligible to others.

Religious language tends, over time, to become insider gobbledygook. This phenomenon is not unique to clergy or congregations, but because our subject matter tends to the metaphoric and subjective anyway, incomprehensibility is a special hazard for us. Mainline Protestants lived for a long time with a narrative that took for granted the plausibility of Protestant versions of the basic tenets of Christian morals and belief. With more church-hopping, that narrative needs to be made suitable for wider audiences.

American Jewish congregations have constructed a powerful narrative of “Holocaust and redemption” that at one time justified almost completely uncritical support of Israel. As the Jewish community assimilates into the mainstream of American life (and as Israel’s history gets longer and more difficult to praise in toto), that narrative is acquiring nuance and complexity. Roman Catholics once took for granted a discourse that tied Catholic loyalty to certain national identities. With increased competition, intermarriage, and religious ignorance, the church needs to find other reasons to encourage people to be Catholic. To some extent internal modes of discourse still work, at least internally, but any in-group narrative decays over time unless it is shared and tested in a wider sphere.

This is not the work of clergy by ourselves. Only by inviting outside voices in and testing our in-group rhetoric outside—and by risking the discomfort and conflict that such conversations normally entail—can we create a public voice of faith. Communities of faith can and should keep our distinctiveness—the failures of the old ecumenism came partly from its habit of reducing the religious rainbow to a blurry gray. But to advocate distinctive viewpoints in the wider marketplace, we need vocabulary, narratives, and concepts that preach beyond the sanctuary walls. Like any other foreign language learner, clergy need to get our noses out of our guidebooks and talk to the locals.

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