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Dr. Matthew Boedy: How Sermons Responded to the 2016 Election

November 27, 2017

 

Dr. Matthew Boedy

Asst Professor, Rhetoric/Composition

Department of English

University of North Georgia 

Gainesville, Ga. 

@matthewboedy

My wife was tired and couldn't stay up to watch the turn toward Trump on Election Night 2016. When I woke her to let her know what had transpired, she held me close and wept.

She was not just shocked but saddened, angry even. I, too, had my doubts and fears. And many of those emotions we shared then have continued in us and others.

And many of us go to church in times like these. My wife and I didn't attend church the Sunday after, but lingering in me during the transition was the question of how churches were dealing with the new reality. So after the inauguration, I began collecting sermons given the Sunday after the election. As a professor of rhetoric who studies religious rhetoric, I wanted to know particularly how those charged with our comfort, encouragement, and faith development handled the people sitting in front of them. In all, I read 47 sermons across 14 states. My rhetorical analysis of them will soon be published in a new journal called Sermon Studies, available here.

You may be wondering how I chose my subjects. Knowing the key role that white evangelicals played in Trump's victory, I wanted to see how churches dominated by them framed the election. So I studied my area - Hall County, Ga. Trump won Hall County with 73.7 percent. And at 80 percent white, a median household income well below the national average, and few with college degrees, Hall County mirrors the national picture of Trump voters. Included in the 11 churches was St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church in Oakwood, where [Day1 host and producer] Peter Wallace leads the congregation.

Trying to get some purchase on Christians across the entire political spectrum, I studied two groups: churches in counties where each candidate won the most in states where they had the biggest vote total (the "bluest" of the "blue" so to speak) and churches in four "battleground" states - North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. I choose churches in counties that each candidate won the biggest total.  

What were the results? First, about 60 percent mentioned the election in some fashion. Two sermons took a positive view of Trump while one took a directly negative view. But most weren't that specific, bemoaning the divisive campaign in general.

For example, Collide Church in Yadkinville, NC. It is located in the North Carolina county that gave the biggest victory for Trump in that state. It associates itself with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Liberty Church Network, the church planting organization started by Jerry Falwell.

While the preacher at Collide did not mention the election on November 13, I was drawn visually on its website to its four-part series titled "Election Infection" given in September and October. In its description the church suggests the sermons would "wade through the messiness of the modern political system" and the campaigns' "desperate" attempts for votes and "empty promises" to help the church "discover what God says on the subject." In short, the series aimed for its hearers to "avoid contracting a case of the dreaded election infection!"

To see the election akin to the flu is consistent with many sermons in my study. And, of course, the implication is that "the gospel" or good theology could inoculate the sick. And what was the theological medicine at Collide? There were sermons on how to talk across the political divide and how to not rely on the government for what the church should do. But also the final sermon (called "Make America Great Again") suggested the "American church" judge itself before others.

A handful of preachers - all from churches in the liberal wing of Christianity - shared emotions from the campaign and its outcome, mainly grief, sadness, and fear, particularly in minority communities. Many sermons in conservative churches were in the 40 percent that did not mention the election.

All that may not surprise you. But what might? Preachers from both sides - conservative and political - framed the election through the dual citizenship of Christians. They addressed how Christians could live out their primary, heavenly citizenship in a place where they also had some responsibility. This action was grounded in a faith in God's sovereignty over the results of the election and the world. In short, preachers did not want their congregants to think their duty as Christians had passed even if their duty as citizens had been completed. The preachers reframed the end as a beginning, as a renewal no matter who their listeners voted for. That led to many calls for unity.

But there was also a prophetic move by some. Consider the post-election homily at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. As a reminder, Philadelphia went for Clinton, while its state went for Trump.

At Saint Mark's, Father Sean Mullen framed his homily on the election as a warning. Leaving aside what the liturgical calendar provided from the New Testament that day, Luke 21, he turned to the Old Testament passage from Malachi 3, which he said offered a better "commentary on the national moment." The key line for the minister is "Beware that you are not led astray." For Mullen that meant not being led astray by a "sad" election that had "an air of convenient religiosity," an election which left truth "lying bleeding in the public square."

Yet in these "times of trouble" Mullen said the church has the "perfect response": hope.

These sermons after the 2016 election reflected the divided America that went to the polls a few days earlier and so aimed at healing, whether individual or communal. It was hoped that this hope would move the people in the pew from what Mullen called a "convenient religiosity" to one that prioritized faith in Jesus over fidelity to anything else. The overwhelming aim of the sermons then was teaching the Christian life. That was not a surprise.

 

For more information about Sermon Studies, click here.


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