Nancy Petty did a figurative double-take on the phone. I was telling her a story about one of her predecessors as pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, the great Rev. Bill Finlator.
Known for his outspoken liberal views – Pullen was thrown out of most organized Southern Baptist groups – Finlator often focused his sermons on the social issues of the day, civil rights first among them.
But one Sunday, when he got home for lunch after a sermon focused on a specific segment of the Bible, his daughter had expressed the hope for more politics, complaining that the sermon focused exclusively on the gospel “wasn’t very good.” Finlator loved that story. (And I’ve loved it enough to share it in this space before.)
Petty, pastor for 15 years and at the church for 25, is a fitting successor, a righteous person who has been steadfast in the liberal Pullen tradition, leading marches, speaking out on social issues and taking the heat for it.
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It’s no surprise that she’s not a fan of President Trump, who’s courted conservative evangelicals who have stuck with him despite some pretty gross comments he’s made about women, taped as we all know, and his own colorful personal life. Trump’s latest mission: to end a ban on churches from endorsing or opposing candidates. It was part of a 1954 amendment from then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson threatening the tax-exempt status of churches, universities and foundations that got involved in “overt” political activity.
On Trump’s part, this is playing to his base. For conservative preachers, it would be a chance to take the cuffs off when it comes to their desire to roll up their sleeves and get up to their elbows in partisan politics.
I told my friend and spiritual leader Petty that I hesitated to side with the conservatives, but it seemed silly to pretend that preachers and politics shouldn’t mix.
“What churches need to do and what preachers need to do,” she said, “is preach the social gospel, and if you’re going to do that, you’re going to be speaking about the political arena of our lives. The life of Jesus was about the political arena of his day. The thing on Jesus’ mind was what the government was doing to poor people, to the oppressed people of the day – what Rome was doing to keep poor people oppressed and marginalized.”
And so, she said, “When you step into the world of the one we’re trying to follow, you’re stepping into the political worlds of today.”
Trump’s “crusade” about the 1954 law, and the opposition to his position, seem, therefore, overblown. (My view; I promised Petty I wouldn’t drag her into this part of the issue.) Liberal and conservative ministers, Jesse Jackson and the late Jerry Falwell among them, were in politics for decades and will be for decades to come. If their flocks choose to follow and contribute to the candidates the preachers endorse, so what? That seems not a threat to the Republic.
But Petty offers some thoughtful observations on the story of Jesus as a combination of the political and the theological.
“Jesus,” she said, “was fighting the powerful who were continuing to siphon off the wealth of society from the poor. He took those guys to task, and it landed him on the cross.”
Petty believes all are entitled to their opinion and their interpretations of the gospel but that how someone tells the story of the gospel “either has integrity with the Biblical story or doesn’t have integrity with that story. You can’t play around with the political and the gospel, because that will take you some places. And people who want to play around with the gospel to maintain their privilege — that doesn’t have integrity to it.”
No preacher, liberal or conservative, can ignore the political world of the day, Petty said. “You can’t sidestep it,” she said. “You can’t say it’s all about salvation.”
Brother Trump is welcome to his view. I’m just waiting to see how he blames that 1954 law on President Obama.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.