By Carly Nations
And, it is true, despite our desire to avoid the discomfort of politics on Sunday morning, that our strongly held Christian beliefs have deep and lasting implications for public policy. In many ways, the inconvenience of the Gospel is that it requires us to dedicate our lives to God above all—above our family, our friends, and indeed above the empire and our politics. Yet, living above politics still requires us to share the good news with those whom Jesus sought—the sinner, the poor, the marginalized; and often, these groups are systematically debilitated by those in positions of political power. Thus, it becomes the job of the Church as the unified representative of Christ to not only share the Gospel with those who are marginalized, but also to remind those in power of their duty to the marginalized as well.
Jack Cobb, senior policy advisor for The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, emphasized, “The work we do is not advocating for what is best for The Episcopal Church (TEC) or what is best for Episcopalians, but taking the biblical and theological and baptismal covenant mandates that General Conventions reviews.” The Office of Government Relations translates this Gospel call into government advocacy, working alongside many other denominational groups on Capitol Hill who are similarly animated by the commandment of Jesus to love our neighbors. They bring this message not just to congregations or to individuals on the street, but to the most powerful individuals in our country.
TEC’s Office of Government Relations currently shares its headquarters with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), with whom TEC is in full communion. Animated by a similar call to spread the Gospel, as well as a shared sense of values and beliefs, the ELCA and TEC make use of that connection to work together on issues of public policy. However, much of the advocacy done in both offices relies on forming coalitions with other faith groups as well, increasing the overall impact of each denomination or faith to accomplish the work of their tradition in Washington, D.C. John Johnson, the ELCA’s Program Director for Domestic Policy, remarked, “There are almost 90 faith groups in Washington, D.C., that do some kind of federal advocacy and they do it differently, but we all know each other and we often work together. And we work together in coalitions around certain issue areas where we have similar policy and want to move policy makers in a certain direction.” For the ELCA, the importance of this work is multifaceted, perhaps even more so than for other faith groups in the nation’s capital. When a coalition of Lutherans came together to form the ELCA in the early 90s, they decided that advocacy work would not simply be a product of their commitment to the Gospel, but codified as part of their ecumenical structure. “Written into the ELCA’s Constitution is that the ELCA is a public church and that it will do advocacy. And I think that’s a really important distinction with The Episcopal Church,” noted Johnson. “Twenty-five years ago, when the ELCA formed, it wrote into its constitution that advocacy is part of our DNA.”
Similarly, the United Methodist Church has a long history of advocacy, stretching back beyond the formation of their unified denominational body in the late 80s to the work completed by smaller, individual groups of the Methodist Church in the early 1900s. Kurt Adams, communications director for UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, noted that the origins of Church and Society actually stretch as far back as the Protestant Temperance Movement, which advocated for prohibition. Chuckling at the obvious lackluster performance of their “first” endeavor, Adams was quick to note however that in 1908, the Methodist-Episcopal Church (which was, at the time, the Northern branch of the Methodist Church) adopted a social creed that called for various political positions based on the Gospel such as an eight-hour workday, the institution of a sabbath for factory workers, and an end to child labor—“That was one of the church’s first official organized statements around public policy issues. And that has continued to this day.”
For all three ecumenical partners, government advocacy begins with the individual congregants of the Church. Cobb noted that, for TEC, “General Convention is the only body that speaks for the church in a comprehensive way. In the public policy realm, General Convention decides what our positions are and the Office of Government Relations relies on these policies to help guide and instruct how we take a position on bills and regulations and public discussions.” In every way, the work of the Church on Capitol Hill has its origins in congregations and depends upon the work of individual congregants themselves to see policy through to completion. For The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) acts as the branch of the Office of Government Relations that is designed to reach congregations and “help give folks a brief education and overview of the issues and where church policy stands on those issues. EPPN then invites them to send a letter to their congressional delegation explaining why they think their members should vote to support or reject a bill.” Yet, as with all things in a democracy, power lives, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of many. Though the Office of Government Relations and EPPN are often thought of as separate offices, Cobb noted that the work of EPPN is simply a church-facing extension of the advocacy work completed in his office. “That’s a very important part of our work—to help empower the churches. General Convention calls on Episcopalians to be advocates, not just the people who work in government relations.” EPPN largely works through email and social media blasts that simplify this process for congregants, narrowing down the work to two or three clicks in order to make government involvement easy and accessible.
Additionally, EPPN provides educational series to congregants that help them engage with issues more deeply in their daily lives. “We began a Criminal Justice reform series in January,” Cobb offered. “Also last summer, we did a seven-week series on environmental issues and tried to highlight a number of the nuances and trade-offs in politics to help folks understand the nuance and shades of gray in public policy.”
Without the work of EPPN on the ground, the effectiveness of TEC’s government advocacy not only diminishes, but loses its most essential element, which is the individual voice of the congregants from whom policy originates. All three representatives from each denomination encouraged individuals to get involved in the polity of their church—to talk to their priests or pastors about attending the general elected gathering (General Convention, General Conference, Churchwide Assembly, etc.) and to propose policy that they feel is Gospel-based and would make a difference in the lives of God’s children. This engagement is not only important to the vitality of the Church, but also has direct implications for government advocacy work in Washington. Because the Office of Government Relations can only advocate for policy based on resolutions passed by the elected body at General Convention, it is not a body of The Episcopal Church, but rather a representative of the voice of each Episcopalian.
Because of the ELCA’s constitutional inclusion of advocacy, the presentation of policy to the Church is slightly different and more unified than that of TEC. Presented in the ELCA’s social statement, The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, the policies of the ELCA are clearly laid out in a way that reads similarly to a statement of faith: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is called to be a part of the ecumenical Church of Jesus Christ in the context in which God has placed it—a diverse, divided, and threatened global society on a beautiful, fragile planet. In faithfulness to its calling, this church is committed to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth in the processes and structures of contemporary society.” However, just like TEC, the ELCA firmly grounds its advocacy work in the specific language of policy passed at its representative Churchwide Assembly. Johnson remarked, “the ELCA and others work very hard to ensure that the advocacy that we do is based squarely in the elected voice of the church and that we follow those policies with diligence.”
Similarly, Adams remarks of the UMC that “The General Conference writes and revises these social principles every time it meets every four years. And that forms the basis for church and societies outward facing advocacy both on Capitol Hill and at the U.N.” Of the three denominations, the UMC has the most specific process for codifying church policy meant for advocacy. “The social principles are explicitly not Church law,” Adams explained. “They’re more like theological statements; they’re very more aspirational. The UMC also has—separate from the Book of Discipline (which contains Church law)—a Book of Resolutions that contains hundreds of policy statements on social issues. Social principles are not Church law because they are more theological statements about what we hope the world to be, not as it is. So, that’s not something you can really enforce, but it’s something to which we aspire.”
In some ways, TEC’s own policy is similar. Amendments to the canons reflect the changes in the rules for our clergy and congregations, while resolutions reflect the aspirational goals of TEC that guide the actions of the Office of Government Relations. However, Cobb noted that, “All General Convention policy does become our official position.” Additionally, Cobb emphasized that the Office of Government Relations requires specificity of language in General Convention policy in order to act: “There are sometimes multiple policies on a single issue. For example, we have multiple policies that call for universal, single-payer healthcare, but only one of those policies mentions that we should also support iterative, innovative, and new ideas to try and move us toward universal, single-payer healthcare. It was that policy that allowed us to support the Affordable Care Act, which got millions more people covered by health insurance.”
Thus, the work of the Church looks much like the body of Christ—though unified in our identity as Christians, the work of the unified whole must be carried out by the individual hands and feet of disciples working on the ground to bring the Gospel to fruition. Because the body of Christ is not made up of a homogenous whole, part of the difficulty and the joy of political work is that government advocates must do the work of the Gospel in a way that truly represents the diversity of the Church.
In all three denominations, policy leaders underscored the necessity of working in a bipartisan way in order to reflect the diverse bodies of their congregations. This is especially true in the work of the UMC, which is by far the largest of the denominations represented here. According to Adams, “The values that we are advocating for are not Democratic values, they’re not Republican values. I don’t believe that they’re liberal values, or conservative values. I believe that these are values about human rights, about care of creation, about how we relate to each other in community, and what that calls each of us to do—our responsibilities in community. These values are about how we care for the world around us, and how we strive to be peacemakers instead of creators of conflict. And so, that is a major reason—and the most significant reason—why we prioritize bipartisanship.”
For example, Jack Cobb shared that the recent work of the Office of Government Relations has focused heavily on a bipartisan, broadly ecumenical effort to advocate for restrictions on payday lending. “It’s a coalition of Catholic bishops and charities, The Episcopal Church, evangelicals, Baptists—it’s really a group of folks who theologically, socially, historically have a lot of differences, but we all agree that pay-day lending is a real plague on the people of this country and something that we can work together on.” Not only is the effort on usury a uniting topic for the Church, but it is also one of the few issues that has garnered bipartisan support in the government. “In this case, the opportunity to work on this came up as I was meeting with some Senate staff,” Cobb shared. “It is an issue that absolutely has a very clear theological and biblical mandate and we have clear General Convention policy on it. Payday lending just works on so many of the different priorities we have. Whether it’s anti-poverty, racial reconciliation, our own faith and theology, it just made a lot of sense that this is something that we should prioritize.”
Excitingly, the promise of bipartisanship means that engagement both from the Office of Government Relations and from members on the ground has the potential to bring an important piece of legislation with real, meaningful impact on individuals to completion. Cobb explained, “We are working closely with our ecumenical and secular peers as well as some congressional allies who are really championing this bill, and so now we have gotten organized and will begin going in to meet with staff and committee members to talk to them about it. After extensive, but quiet, work with partners and Congress, we engage the Church through the EPPN to call on Episcopalians to write their members of Congress. In some cases, we will ask bishops or clergy to write in if their representative is on a committee that will review the bill or if they are a critical swing vote. The voices of people of faith and clergy can be incredibly influential in helping members of Congress feel comfortable voting their values rather than their party.”
John Johnson agreed with the importance of bipartisanship, remarking, “We recognize that when we look at Lutherans, we consider them very purple. And we think that our effort at a bipartisan focus respects everybody’s desire to remain focused on areas where people can come together and agree. At the end of the day, the Gospel mandate is pretty broad, so we’re able to be relevant based on what Congress and the administration are doing.”
During 2019, Kurt Adams stated that the UMC celebrated the passing of a bill to lower prescription drug prices in the House of Representatives, an issue which was closely followed by members of both political parties. “The challenge that we face is, as United Methodists—a very diverse group—we strive to hold everyone together under a big tent, while also articulating with conviction what we believe are sound theological positions on issues of justice in the world today. We really try to work with others who share our goals and values on a particular topic, and we know that our witness and our work is stronger when we are partnering with allies who can also bring networks of committed people to the table.”
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of politics today is the overwhelming sensation that individual actions—our voices and our votes—do not matter. Thus, all three policy advocates emphasized the importance of directing the Churches’ efforts to areas that have the highest likelihood of success. “With 14,000 bills, sometimes it’s whittled down to practicality. There are a lot of things that we support, but maybe our voice and our role is not going to be that major,” said Cobb. However, the gift of being Gospel people is that there is always good news. Just as Jesus redeemed us as Christians through the resurrection, so we must also believe that Jesus will complete that work in the world. John Johnson closed our conversation by noting that “Advocacy on issues locally, state-wide, or federally by a congregation, synod, a diocese, or a national body represents a degree of vitality, because it means that the expression of the Church is not focused inward, it is focused outward.” This outward focus speaks to an internal belief that the life and work of the Church is important and influential. It speaks to an empowered congregation that believes in the life-changing, transformative power of sharing the Gospel. At the 2020 Rooted in Jesus Conference, the Rt. Rev. Robert Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta reminded attendees that “God is not an Episcopalian. If we are not a Church that is rooted in Jesus, then we will become a clique that serves a cracker on Sunday.” Thus, in gathering together as Episcopalians each Sunday, we commit to the transformative truth of the Gospel that unifies us as members of the one body of Christ and calls us to partner with fellow believers to advocate for justice.
When congregants gather together on Sunday morning in Episcopal churches across the country, they end the service by praying the post-communion prayer, asking God to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do” or to “send us now into the world in peace.” The deacon affirms this prayer with a dismissal: “Let us go forth in the name of Christ!” “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the spirit!” The dismissal is more than a command to parishioners; it is a confirmation of our participation in the unified Church. When we share the Gospel with those around us, we do so as representatives of Jesus. Advocating for the poor and marginalized, challenging the voices the powerful aligns us with Jesus. It fulfills the promise of Mary’s Magnificat to “cast down the mighty from their thrones,” “lift up the lowly,” and “fill the hungry with good things.” The Gospel of Jesus is radical and life-changing; so is the voice of the unified Church that puts aside its individual differences to come together on behalf of the work of redemption.