Our faith, our vote

Our faith, our vote

Can running for political office be a religious calling?

For 14 years, Margaret MacDonald, a member of First Congregational UCC in Billings, Mont., has served as executive director of the Montana Association of Churches, working with diverse faith groups and the Montana legislature on a broad range of justice issues.

To many in the UCC and beyond, MacDonald became quite familiar after a string of hate crimes in 1993 upset residents in Billings, where Ku Klux Klan fliers were distributed, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated, the home of a Native American family was painted with swastikas, and a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a 6-year-old boy who was displaying a Menorah for Hanukkah.

In response, MacDonald helped form and lead the "Not in Our Town" movement, a grassroots, anti-hate campaign that's been celebrated and replicated in communities across the country. "Not in Our Town" also became the title of a moving PBS documentary about Billings' efforts to counter organized hate.

Now, MacDonald, 55, is embarking on a much-different type of campaign: she's running as the Democratic nominee for a Billings-area seat in the Montana State Senate.

"I have been active and involved with state public policy since lobbying in the 1981 legislature for family farmers and ranchers on clean air and water, mine reclamation and industrial impacts," MacDonald says. "During the ensuing years, I have always thought that I had something to offer from the other side of the table - as a lawmaker - and not someone calling to advocate for a particular issue."

And, her family life now seems more accommodating to the idea.

"My personal life was never at a place where I could see running for office and serving 200 miles from home, 90 days every other year, without negatively impacting my family," she says. "Now they are practically grown and I am in a place where I can run."

So how does a family-oriented, committed church worker find the chutzpa to run for public office?

"I explain that there is so much at stake in state legislatures this year, now more than ever, with our federal government having forsaken such basic considerations as sane fiscal policy," MacDonald says. "States are having to be on their toes, unless we want to completely abandon our most vulnerable neighbors and friends to poverty and despair."

Moreover, MacDonald says, many justice issues need her passion, conviction and support.

"I will vote differently from my opponent on almost everything I care about," she says.

'Winning' redefined

On the other side of the proverbial party aisle is the Rev. Scott MacLean, the Republican nominee for U.S. Congress in Connecticut's first district. A UCC minister, MacLean, 51, went to UCC-related Bangor Theological Seminary and has served UCC congregations in Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.

He's running for Congress, in part, because he's concerned about the federal government's fiscal mismanagement.

"It's irresponsibility on the part of both parties," he says. "Republicans promise tax cuts and Democrats promise more programs. It's all about vote mongering. No one takes a long view of what's best for our children and grandchildren."

He's also raising issues about the need for universal health care vouchers ("An idea that appeals to both Republicans and Democrats," he says), Medicare reform, and his own approach to campaign finance reform: uncapping the current limit of 435 House seats in order to reduce the size of each congressional district. That way, he argues, instead of having 650,000 constituents, candidates would be speaking to smaller-size districts, thus enabling more common folk to be able to afford to run.

MacLean believes the decision to toss a hat into the political arena can be difficult. In his case, it took 25 years of pondering a run for Congress before he actually decided to take the leap from the electoral sidelines.

"When you come out of a religious background, you have a certain way of understanding the way things work with regard to the human soul, and a part of that - to use an old Congregationalist term - has to do with one's 'sense of call.' If you are atune to that, you are looking to the clues that God might be dropping."

He's not saying he's certain that God "wants" him to be a Congressman, but he's listening for where God is leading, calling.

"It's very theologically based," he explains. "I love the journey aspect to it."

On Aug. 9, when he bested his opponent for the GOP nomination, his greatest joy was watching his two young girls - one in second-grade, the other in third-grade - run back and forth from the TV and computer to track the polling returns.

"One of the main reasons I decided to do this is that I want to be a good example to my daughters. . so that when they're 35 years old and looking back, thinking 'maybe I should run for office.' They can say, 'My dad did it.' . That's a win."

"I can win in many different ways," MacLean says. "Sure, getting more votes than the other guy is one of them. But there are many a number of ways that I can win."

Raising important issues, helping frame the policy debate, letting your voice be heard, or even gaining campaign experience for a future race, MacLean says, each can be viewed as a "win."

He points out that, in the now-classic movie "Rocky," the rookie boxer's stated goal was "to go the distance with Apollo Creed - and he did," MacLean points out. "So winning is just how you define it."

Impacting human lives

Also, on Nov. 7, the Rev. Phil Hoy, a UCC minister in Evansville, Ind., will vie for a third term as a Democratic member of the Indiana House of Representatives, where he represents a district that includes downtown Evansville and some suburban neighborhoods. Prior to that, Hoy served 12 years on the Vanderburgh County (Ind.) Council, including two terms as a Republican, before completing his third term as a Democrat.

"If there's any reason I'm involved [in politics], this is the reason: I don't want to see the public schools wrecked and the middle class dismantled, which means the poor are totally left behind," Hoy says. "Those are moral issues that really get me moving. Because, whether you're talking about highways, prisons, schools or anything else, they're all moral issues, because they impact the lives of human beings."

But public service has never interrupted his ministry in the church. For 13 years, he was the full-time director of the UCC-supported Tri-State Food Bank, a large-scale food distribution ministry co-founded by his first wife, Barbara, who died in 1987. He's also served several pastorates in the Evansville/Tri-State Association, including Zion UCC in Henderson, Ky., where he's now the interim pastor.

"I've always felt that people with Christian convictions should apply those to politics without crossing the church-state line," Hoy says. "Let's try to be fair with taxes, be reasonable with how we approach things, use some wisdom, honesty and integrity. I try to do so without hiding my convictions."

Because Hoy is an ordained minister who often wears a clergy collar, some have naively misinterpreted where he might stand on social issues. But these folks probably don't know him well.

For instance, Hoy recently fought to keep religious groups from profiting from the sale of Indiana's "In God We Trust" specialty license plates. ("I didn't want to see this as a fundraiser for any religious group, and it won't be.") He spoke out passionately against Indiana's anti-gay marriage ban. ("I know my history. I know where the first pink triangles came from - it was Hitler's hatred of gays.") And he has been critical, at times, when invocations before legislative sessions have turned into evangelistic worship services.

"Everybody has a right to bring their moral agenda, even if I disagree with it, and they do. All of us do," Hoy said. "For me, the [church-state] line has to do with establishment, anything that moves toward the establishment of religion."

'God calls to service'

The Rev. Marvin Silver, while on sabbatical earlier this year from his work as a UCC public policy advocate in Washington, D.C., attended a "Wellstone Camp," organized by the family of the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, to help young leaders become more active in the political process.

At "camp," Silver was empowered to take the political plunge, deciding ultimately to seek a Democratic nomination for a seat on the Prince George's County (Md.) Council.

"I was really struggling with the calling to serve in public office," Silver says. "I was concerned with what was happening in my community. I thought [the incumbent] was non-responsive to the challenges our community was facing. . And I was feeling torn that I do this [advocacy] work everyday and still I live in a community that needed something that I had to offer."

During the campaign, Silver was surprised by those occasions when people asked, "Why are you running for office? You're a minister!" "I sometimes had to explain the role of minister - that, yes, ministers had a role to play within their congregations, but that sometimes God can even call those same ministers to public service. I gave the example of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr."

Powell (1908-1972), a Baptist minister who once led the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, is considered one of the most prominent African Americans to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Silver's primary election was held on Sept. 12, and although he didn't win the vote count, he gained valuable experience, and he was buoyed by how many people expressed encouragement for his progressive values, for his voiced concerns about the need for responsive governments, neighborhood safety, better schools and community development.

Out-spent by his well-financed opponents, Silver wasn't able to buy hundreds of highway signs, purchase television time or pay campaign staff. Instead, unlike opponents who campaigned full time, Silver had to continue working his full-time church job.

But he didn't end the campaign feeling discouraged. He won some key endorsements, and garnered the respect of community leaders and organizations, including some of his opponents' supporters.

"When I really needed something," Silver says, "I really felt like God delivered." 

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Contact Info

J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org