Rev. Smith Goes to Washington

When it comes to questions about religion and politics and core questions about separation of church and state, clergy running for office is where the rubber meets the road. That’s why win or lose, the candidacy of Rev. Chuck Currie may inform our thinking about the role of religious progressives around the country for years to come.

An advocate for the poor in the Portland, Oregon area since high school, Currie has run homeless shelters, served on governmental and non-governmental committees and on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Several years ago he was called to ministry, went to seminary, and returned to Portland where he served for three years as minister of a member congregation in the United Church of Christ (UCC).

Now, in the face of ongoing hunger, homelessness, and inadequate social services, he wants to make a bigger difference so he is running for a seat on the five-member Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. Ten candidates initially filed to run in the nonpartisan primary to fill a sudden and unexpected vacancy on the legislative body that generates a roughly billion dollar annual budget (seven remain). If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two vote getters. (The Oregonian recently profiled the field.)

Clergy rarely run for office, but when they do, some ancient and sometimes contentious questions about the role of religion in public life have a tendency to surface.

Some are wary of anything that smacks of religion in politics. For two decades the religious right has waged deeply divisive anti-gay ballot initiatives, causing some Oregonians to see all Christians as conservatives. And then there is the similarity of the name of Currie’s denomination to that of the controversial Church of Christ. One blogger, for example, opposes Currie in part because of “the whole separation of church and state thing.”

But Currie says he has scrupulously sought to maintain a clear separation. He has, for example, taken a hiatus from blogging on the UCC’s national Web site and from preaching in churches in his district. Currie’s campaign nevertheless surfaces important questions about the proper relationship between both religion and politics and church and state as he engages in the quintessential act of democracy: running for office. There are few matters as important as how candidates, and the voters they seek to represent, address them. Indeed, how we do so has everything to do with the success of constitutional democracy in our time.

But it is not always easy.

A few years ago, for example, some Democratic Party faith consultants were advising candidates not to talk about separation of church and state because (echoing the assertions of religious right leaders like Pat Robertson) the phrase is not in the Constitution and besides, it might offend some voters. While such claims were certainly debatable (Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase has, after all, been used by the Supreme Court to help explain the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment for more than a century), it did reflect some pols’ discomfort with the subject.

That discomfort is not shared by Rev. Currie who is as forthright about the principle of separation as he is about how his faith propels his efforts on behalf of the poor and the marginalized. In the run up to the 2008 elections, he devoted a Sunday sermon to how he thought Christians should think about religion and politics and separation of church and state. Now, as he faces a hot election contest himself, Religion Dispatches recently spoke with Currie about these and other issues.

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Clarkson: Religious political progressives (and not just clergy) talk a lot about speaking truth to power—but I notice that there is much less talk about having enough power to address the injustices of which they speak. Many are effective issue advocates, but draw the line at engaging in electoral politics. In that light, how do you see your own evolution from issue advocate to Christian minister to politician?

Currie: There are different ways to serve as an advocate and to serve the community. Much of the time communities of faith address social issues through charity programs—and those kinds of programs are clearly needed. But our community desperately needs tax reform to stabilize human service and health care programs. Oftentimes such discussions are uncomfortable in a church atmosphere and so I’ve decided to [enter] this race because without such reforms we’ll have to continue cutting vital programs for the poorest of the poor, and I’m not willing to allow that to happen without trying to use government as a vehicle for social change.

That is not to say that I’ve given up on the church or don’t believe that people of faith have a role to play. We need the prophetic voice of the church but because Multnomah County focuses so heavily on the issues that have been central to my advocacy and ministry, I decided to try and serve the community in this new way and see if I might have a bigger impact.

On your campaign Web site you state:

The county runs human service and health care programs, provides support for public education and helps secure the public safety of the community. These are the issues I have worked on my entire adult life. And I’ve spent that last 25 years building powerful partnerships with nonprofits, religious organizations, businesses, and local government to address these issues and make our county a better place.

That there is apparently still much to be done suggests that there are limits to the power of advocacy alone. How do you see the situation and how did it affect your decision to leave your calling as a minister and become a politician?

First, it is important to note that I am not leaving the ministry. If elected, I will not serve a church as a full-time minister but will retain my standing as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and will continue to guest preach and teach as time allows. And my plan after serving as a Multnomah County Commissioner (be it for four years or eight) is to return full time to the church. As I said, the church has a vital role to play. Running for office is simply a different way for me to attempt to serve the community.

How have people reacted to your identity as a minister as you introduce yourself to voters and ask them for their votes?

Oregon is often called one of the least “churched” states in the union, and nowhere is that more true than Multnomah County. This is a very progressive political community but you do run into some people who are openly hostile toward religion and religious figures. And sadly, there is sometimes good reason for those feelings.

Religious leaders in Oregon, for example, have been at the forefront of efforts to deny civil rights to gays and lesbians. Some secular political progressives (certainly not all) see religion as being opposed to progressive values. There have been a few voters who have shut their doors or refused to take my literature because they know that I am a minister. Some have said they will not vote for me because they believe doing so would violate the separation of church and state.

While these incidents have been relatively few, my campaign team has had to wrestle with the question of how we introduce me to voters because of these concerns, but I have decided it is important for people to know my background in the church and my respect for both religious pluralism and the Constitution. I’m afforded the opportunity in this campaign to help educate the community and show voters that not all Christians are right-wing fundamentalists, but I also recognize that for a small number of people my beliefs disqualify me as a candidate.

Two recent examples come to mind that illustrate the concerns that have been voiced. At a recent candidate forum, I was introduced as being a “moral figure in the community.” That prompted one of the other candidates to ask me directly during the Q & A part of the forum if I felt that atheists or other non-believers could be moral people. A commenter on Blue Oregon, a progressive political Web site, asked a somewhat related question:

As an atheist and a strict supporter of the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state, I have concerns about a minister (no matter what stripe of religion) who runs for elected office. I have a friend who is a minister who also feels that clergy shouldn’t be involved in politics for a different reason, to wit “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”

Can you please explain how I have any assurance that you will not attempt to bring your belief into this office? In a time when America is more dangerously close to becoming a theocracy than ever before, I believe it’s incredibly important to ask these kinds of questions.

The basic thrust of my answer to both these concerns was that 1) Yes, atheists can be moral people… I’m married to one, so I should know and 2) That I strongly support the separation of church and state but that no, I cannot say that my faith won’t inform my views and I don’t believe that is what Thomas Jefferson or anyone else ever intended.

Most voters I’ve talked with, however, have been more interested in my long history of work with local nonprofits. That work relates directly to the mission of the county.

Fellow UCC minister Barry Lynn (executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) worries that religious liberals may inadvertently emulate the religious right by seeking to impose religiously-driven political views on the rest of society, and thereby become “left-wing theocrats.” How do you explain to voters how you relate your values to politics and public policy?

If I ever felt that my role as an elected official would force me to violate my understanding of what it means to be a Christian I would resign my office. I want people to know that and understand that my values and principles come before politics. But I also want people to know that religion alone will not guide my actions and/or votes.

My office will be open to people of all faiths and people of no faith. Those elected to public office are there to represent all the people regardless of religious belief(s). I will not, for example, display religious symbols in my office. A government seat is not a place to promote religion. I have not in this race campaigned in churches and I have declined to answer questions from all religious organizations that publish candidate voter guides.

In your last post on the UCC’s national blog before your campaign, you took Fox News provocateur Glenn Beck to task for his claim that churches that advocate for social and economic justice are like Nazism and Soviet Communism. Your response was partly couched in scripture and I think would require some translation for people outside of the Christian community. As a candidate, have you found yourself having to shift gears, as it were, between the language of church and the languages of campaign politics and public policy?

Yes, I tend to speak in theological terms and have had to shift gears to talk the language of public policy. Sometimes the two can intersect comfortably but I’m mindful that George W. Bush, as an example, often quoted from hymns or Scripture readings that conservative evangelicals would have recognized, and that in doing so he spoke a kind of coded language that helped him gain political support by misusing his religion for partisan political gain. So I try to be careful about the words I use so they are both transparent and accessible to all people.

Obviously, when trying to engage the faith community in issues such as tax reform, as an example, I draw on Scripture to talk about responsibility and power. As a candidate, I can still frame the debate in moral terms but I don’t make explicit religious arguments.

frederick.clarkson@gmail.com'

Frederick Clarkson is a Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America (Ig Publishing, 2008), and co-founder of the group blog, Talk to Action.