Thomas Jefferson acknowledged that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was meant to erect a “wall of separation between church and state.”
But it’s nearly impossible for there to be no overlap, as University of North Georgia professor Matthew Boedy found in a recent analysis of sermons given by local pastors following the election of President Donald Trump last year.
“The central question of my study was how did ministers frame the election, if at all?” Boedy, a professor of rhetoric, writes in a paper to be published soon in the peer-reviewed academic journal Sermon Studies, based at Marshall University.
Boedy reviewed 47 sermons from 14 states and Washington, D.C.
“Nearly two-thirds of the ministers in this study mentioned the 2016 election in some manner, showing its importance,” he writes.
He also reviewed 11 sermons given in Hall County the Sunday after Election Day 2016.
In a recent interview with The Times, Boedy said he was “interested to see where the divide was” when it came to which churches touched on the election and which ones did not.
Boedy said he was not concerned with looking at the results along denominational lines so much as how individual religious leaders addressed their congregations.
“One interesting pattern from Hall County is that out of 11 sermons I found online, only three mentioned the election,” Boedy writes in his analysis. “This is a reversal from the overall pattern nationwide, yet mirrors Trump’s biggest state win, Wyoming.”
Boedy said those who did not address the election in politically conservative districts suggested “they didn’t see the election in foreboding terms.”
The Rev. Peter Wallace of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Oakwood was one of three Hall County leaders in Boedy’s analysis who acknowledged the election.
In his sermon, Wallace described the days following the election as strange and surreal. And no matter the political bent or how his congregants voted, nearly everyone seemed genuinely surprised by the result, he said.
He likened the “shock” to how Jesus’ disciples might have felt when they heard he would destroy the temple, as recounted in Luke 21.
“I just wanted to acknowledge people’s emotions,” Wallace said in an interview with The Times.
In his sermon, Wallace urged people on either side of the political aisle that doing God’s work remained their mission, including “listening to God’s call to serve the poor, the marginalized, those who may need more help and support or care than ever before.”
Wallace told The Times that his sermon received positive comments from parishioners on both sides of the political spectrum.
“I don’t think it’s my job to tell them how to think,” Wallace said, adding that he encourages people to vote but that they need to determine their political values on their own.
Wallace said he believes the separation is meant to protect the church from the state, not the other way around.
“I believe strongly in separation of church and state,” he added.
Kevin Myers, founder and senior pastor at 12Stone Church, which has multiple campuses, including one in Flowery Branch, said he rarely addresses politics or elections directly in his sermons. But questions about it from parishioners prompted a response last year.
“So, for a rare weekend, I addressed the conversation of the election,” he told The Times in an email. “Specifically, to clarify why we don’t talk about politics on the weekend.”
In his sermon following Trump’s win, Myers said this particular election reminded him of others.
“One party wins and celebrates and one party loses and commiserates,” he said, adding that the losing group always sees it as a sign of the apocalypse.
Myers said it’s up to the individual church, its leaders and its congregants to determine the role it has in local, state or national political debates.
“Some of my fellow pastors would address national politics as a dominant conversation for their weekends,” he told The Times. “12Stone, for example, chooses not to make political elections a primary or lead conversation for weekend teaching. We would rather have our debates around the existence of God, the truth of Jesus’ claims and the power of God to transform your life for good.”
This sentiment reflects Boedy’s conclusion.
“The wide array of comments show that while the election of 2016 may have had one clear political outcome, what it meant — what it is — to American churches remains complex,” he wrote. “These studies then show the overwhelming aim of sermons in American Christianity remains teaching the Christian life, even in times of national crisis and change.”