Commentary

Lawn signs of the times

“It’s election season in America!” Saying these words the other day, I felt good in a familiar, strong, energetic way. Growing up in Minneapolis where my dad was active in Republican politics, we kids spent many election-season weekends trudging through the neighborhoods, lugging armloads of lawn signs. We didn’t know much about policy in those days, but being involved in politics was part of family life.

I’m a geek who is always registered to vote. (That voter registration card helped me get through airport security one time.) If there is an election underway, especially a national election, I have a sign in my yard for my candidate and a bumper sticker on my car. After the 1980 election, I drove around Wright County for years with a John Anderson sticker still clinging to my bumper. In the last presidential election, I replaced my Obama lawn sign after it was torn down — twice!

Ann Hafften

Luther’s teaching of the “Two kingdoms” encourages Christians’ participation in public life.

It’s different for pastors, it seems, and that matters to me since I’m married to one. In a recent online discussion it became abundantly clear that most of those ELCA folks — laypeople and pastors — believe that pastors should not reveal any political point of view. That would be seen as “partisan.”

That is probably the safest route for pastors. A pastor’s expressed support for a political candidate might be unhealthy and divisive for the congregation. And there was pretty clear consensus in our discussion that a pastor should not use the sermon to expound on political opinions.

It is wise for churches to follow the IRS guidelines for faith-community behavior and tax-deductibility: no public endorsement of political candidates. Position-taking on political issues is permitted. Clearly it would be inappropriate for a candidate’s yard sign to grace the lawn of a church or a parsonage. Candidate bumper stickers do not belong on vans or cars belonging to the congregation.

Relationships and trust among congregation members and ordained and lay leaders are precious and can be fragile. It would be wrong to jeopardize the confidence members have in their pastor, their willingness to approach her, because of political views. None of that prohibits a pastor from having political opinions or exercising the franchise to vote for a candidate, but wisdom might urge her to keep her personal viewpoint personal.

What’s a spouse to do?

But what about our own home and yard? What about the pastor’s spouse and family? Many in our discussion felt that a pastor’s spouse whose car sports a political candidate’s bumper sticker risks members of the congregation assuming that her husband supports the same candidate.

I don’t want to have to worry that by expressing my political view I might diminish my spouse’s effectiveness or put at risk his valuable role in our congregation, but I do. On the other hand, there is not much that my little bumper sticker can do to weaken the power of the gospel.

Luther’s teaching of the “Two kingdoms” encourages Christians’ participation in public life. I should probably find more ways to engage in civil society here in the small Texas city where we live. But for the time being, as a puny political minority in this place, it just feels very, very important for me to use the bumper of my car to make a witness to my values.

Not many of the Lutherans in my online discussion supported my position. The chat revealed another layer of feeling. I was saddened that none of the voices dedicated to being non-partisan shared my enthusiasm for the season. I found no kindred spirit.

I am filled with happiness, even joy, in the election season. I smell a memory of my dad’s pipe tobacco in the air and remember those campaigning Saturdays. I’m enthusiastic about my candidate and rejoice that I live in a country where I can cast a vote for the candidate of my choice. This time of year — autumn election season — gives me energy and joy and excitement.

I will gleefully slap a bumper sticker on my car and poke my yard sign into the crusty Texas soil. I would gladly turn cartwheels down the block in my candidate’s T-shirt. It’s election season in America, thank God.

Ann Hafften is a journalist and communication specialist, presently serving as US coordinator for the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). She is a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Weatherford, Texas.

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