Canadian reporter reaches out to Republican pastor
By Will Braun
As I follow the crescendo of partisan acrimony leading up to the U.S. presidential election I am bothered by the feelings it evokes in me. I am bothered by the fact that the messaging of both sides is designed to fuel disdain and division, and that I get sucked in, even from this side of the border.
The only way I can see to break the cycle is to reach out
to people of differing views in an honest attempt to understand. So I
called Pastor Gus Booth of the Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn.,
just south of the international border. He endorses Republican candidates
from the pulpit and decries the “socialistic” nature of Obamacare,
which pretty much puts him on a different political planet than I am.
But I knew that talking to him directly, which I had done before, would
be a good antidote to the divisive feelings that U.S. election coverage
was causing in me. Genuine and direct human interaction has a way of
blurring the lines that divide.
I asked Pastor Booth what role he thinks the church should
play in the partisan battle zone. “To bring truth,” he said. Booth doesn’t
shy away from battle. Just because the election campaign is divisive
doesn’t mean Christians should “crawl in a little hole and
keep truth to ourselves.”
Booth suggests that Jesus was “one of the most polarizing figures
in history.” Personally, I’m more inclined to Jesus’ conciliatory
ways, but Booth has a point.
Booth’s tough talk contrasts with his free-flowing
small-town congeniality. His tone is more that of a friendly neighbour
than a moral warrior.
But in 2008 he became the first minister in U.S. history to pick a fight
with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) over the Johnston Amendment,
a 58-year-old piece of legislation that says entities exempt from federal
income tax cannot participate or intervene in a political campaign. That
means churches jeopardize their charitable tax-exempt status if they
endorse or oppose specific candidates for public office.
During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Booth critiqued Hillary Clinton
and Barack Obama from the pulpit. Later that year, he called on his parishioners
to vote for Republican John McCain. He sent both sermons to the IRS in
the hopes that it would provoke a legal battle that would ultimately
clarify the lines between government jurisdiction and the pulpit.
The IRS took the bait, but later dropped the investigation,
dismay, due to unspecified “internal procedural issues.”
I’m a believer in the separation of church and state, so I don’t
share Booth’s convictions about partisan pulpiteering; but that
makes it all the more important to get a sense of how the world looks
from his perspective.
Instead of argue with him, I move on and I ask him what he would say
to a room full of liberal Christians?
“I don’t hate you. I don’t hate homosexuals. I don’t
hate abortionists.” He speaks emphatically, pleadingly, convincingly.
He says conservative Christians get “labelled” very quickly
as “hateful bigots.” This pains him. While he acknowledges
that there are “railing” Christians who speak with anger,
Booth says his views on certain issues simply do not equate hate. He
emphasizes that truth must be spoken humbly and lovingly, as Jesus exemplified.
Though Booth believes in fighting for truth and says divisiveness
fact of life,” he still sees some value in conversations across
lines of division within the church.
“We need to be able to love each other in spite of our differences,” he
says. “My own secretary is a very liberal Christian who doesn’t
even attend church here,” he adds, “and I respect her.”
On Oct. 7, Booth again urged his parishioners to vote Republican and
sent his sermon to the IRS. Over a thousand other American preachers
did the same thing on that day, which is designated as Pulpit Freedom
Speaking with Booth didn’t change my political views,
but it gave me a respectful understanding of him and it reminded me of
a simple fact: we are all on this earth together. We need to find healthy
ways to be together.
A recent op-ed in The New York Times said both Democrats
and Republicans succumb to the impossible notion that the other side
will somehow disappear altogether if they lose the election — that
winning the battle will preclude the hard work of collaborating across
As Christians we also need to resist the temptation to overlook the essential togetherness of humans. Instead of looking down on others or looking away from them, we need to do the hard, humble work of creating a church in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, liberal nor conservative.
Braun lives in Morden, Man., and serves as Senior Writer for Canadian Mennonite magazine, in which a version of this article first appeared.