SALT LAKE CITY — On the final Sunday before Election Day, around 30 members of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church gathered in the sanctuary for the early morning "awakening worship." They prayed over lost loved ones, shared communion and listened to the Rev. Steve Klemz preach on searching for hope.
Political issues like gun violence and immigration came up, but they were used to illustrate the need to love one's neighbor, not to anchor election-related directives. During a contentious political season, the goal of the church remains worshipping and serving God, not getting specific candidates elected, the Rev. Klemz said.
"It's not our best faith practice to endorse candidates or propositions, but we will stand and proclaim, especially in these days, what our faith-based values are," he said.
However, as partisan tensions rise between liberals and conservatives here and around the country, just mentioning values like welcoming the stranger can lead to frustration or hurt feelings, according to faith leaders. Since the election of President Donald Trump, it's become harder to unite politically diverse congregations.
"I'm pushing 40 years in ministry and I've never experienced such inner conflict and turmoil," the Rev. Klemz said.
Faith leaders described carefully writing out every word of sermons to avoid misinterpretation. They noted that conservative and liberal members of their congregations increasingly speak past one another, drawing totally different conclusions from the same event.
"I spend more time these days stating what's actually happening," said the Rev. Daniel Robertson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fairbury, Illinois.
Amid increasing political polarization, faith leaders are searching for a way to proclaim religious values without tearing people apart. As the Rev. Robertson said, "If we can't agree on where we currently are, how do we figure out together where we need to go?"
The most straightforward reference to politics at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sunday came during a group prayer. After asking for support for church leaders, Lisa Mensinger, the director of youth ministries, called for God to guide congregation members on Election Day.
"Let's pray for this nation's election. Help us to elect trustworthy leaders who will work for the common good of all people," she said.
Neither the prayer nor the sermon defined trustworthiness or offered examples of who counts as a good leader. Those lessons are sprinkled throughout every worship service, not saved for particularly heated political moments, the Rev. Klemz said.
"I would hope that a lot of Sundays prior (to this one) helped shape how we, as a people of faith, respond on Election Day," he said.
Similarly, the Rev. Robertson said he doesn't wait for election season to address political issues. It's his job as a pastor to emphasize what the scriptures have to say about the various issues in the news, he noted.
"When we look at what's happening in our society, countries, states or locally, I can't ignore it. It's part of my life," he said.
Every faith leader handles the political aspects of their work a little differently, said the Rev. Debbie Dehler, priest of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Indianapolis. Part of leading a flock successfully is knowing how openly to discuss politics in Bible study groups, prayers or sermons.
"That line may be different for me than the preacher across the street," she said. "Knowing who is in your congregation can make a big difference."
Over the last couple of years, it's become more difficult to figure out what's appropriate, faith leaders said. Debates around issues like immigration and health care are heating up in the political sphere, making it trickier to address them in a religious context.
"When a hot-button topic comes up, even if you just say the words, people will react before they listen," the Rev. Dehler said.
Even Bible readings can lead to pushback, the Rev. Klemz said, citing Leviticus 19:33-34, on loving "the alien who resides with you," as an example.
"In these days, something like that from scripture becomes a political statement," he said.
In addition to some political issues feeling too hot to handle, pastors struggle with rising partisanship, which interferes with lessons on religious values. People who will stick with their political party no matter what are less concerned about lying, adultery and other immoral acts, according to recent research.
For example, white evangelical Protestants, who show strong support for Trump, are now more accepting of elected officials who commit immoral acts in their personal lives than religiously unaffiliated Americans, Public Religious Research Institute reported in 2016.
In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals and 63 percent of religious "nones" said an elected official who behaves immorally in private can still be an ethical leader. Five years later, that figure had jumped to 72 percent for white evangelicals, while the share of religious "nones" who held that view (60 percent) was almost the same.
"That's a particularly strong indication of how partisanship has bent political ethics," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.
Surveys like these trouble religious leaders, who aren't sure how to combat rising partisanship. If they condemn political leaders who are caught in a lie or accused of sexual harassment, they risk ostracizing congregation members who would still vote for them.
"My call is to proclaim the gospel. If it seems as if I'm calling people or policies out or if I'm being partisan," that disrupts that call, the Rev. Klemz said.
At Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, he's addressed partisan tensions with group discussions. One such gathering, a Bible study on loving one's enemies, helped Erin Bramscher process her reaction to the 2016 presidential election.
"I was struggling with hate in my heart and that was an uncomfortable and unfamiliar emotion," she said. "I love how this community isn't afraid to have conversations about difficult topics."
Moving forward, religious leaders don't want to shy away from discussing politics or current events. They're committed to finding a way to bring the conservatives and liberals in their congregation closer together, even if that effort comes with awkward moments.
"We should listen to each other and open ourselves up to ideas or solutions we don't hear in our normal lives," the Rev. Robertson said.71 comments on this story
Worshippers may never agree on who to vote for or how to solve conflicts at the border, the Rev. Klemz noted. But they should feel united in their love of God and concern for the world, relying on shared moral religious commitments to carry them through difficult moments.
"Christians and people in our congregation will not agree on the best faith practices … nor will we agree on the best way to attain justice or peace," he said. "But that should never stop us from striving to be people of welcome and people who strive for justice and peace."