"One church's vote for Jesus" was the headline on a story I wrote a few years ago on a Washington, D.C.-area congregation that declared itself a "politics-free zone."
This was the lede:
LAUREL, Md. — People of all political persuasions are welcome at the Laurel Church of Christ.
Politics is not.
“Believe it or not, it almost destroyed this church at one time because we’re so close to Washington,” said adult Bible class teacher Stew Highberg, who retired from the Air Force and works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The politics of the president and the House and the Senate would creep in,” explained Highberg, a former Laurel church elder. “So we had to put a moratorium on it. You’ll get booted out of here if you start talking politics.”
He was joking about that last part. Mostly.
More than 300 people worship with this fast-growing Maryland church: Roughly three-quarters work for the federal government, the military or a government contractor or have a family member who does.
“We figure we can try to convince people they’re wrong politically, or we can try to persuade them to follow Jesus,” preaching minister Michael Ray said. “We pick Jesus.”
I was reminded of that Maryland congregation when I saw a front-page story in today's New York Times on a South Carolina megachurch:
According to the Times, Redemption church in Greenville, S.C., is "a church where races unite, politics divide."
In advance of this weekend's presidential primaries in the Palmetto State, the Old Gray Lady wraps familiar images of a megachurch band and coffee shop around the political narrative:
GREENVILLE, S.C. — The members of Redemption church, a bracing blend of black and white with a smattering of Latinos, flowed into their arena-size sanctuary on one of the last Sundays before the South Carolina primaries. They prayed side by side in the glow of the animations streaming across a million-dollar video wall. They sang together, arms raised, to carefully calibrated worship music that fused strummy, sentimental rock with melismatic soul. They mingled afterward in the church’s Higher Grounds Café & Coffee Bar, standing in line for chicken-wing lunches.
What they all scrupulously avoided, however, was any discussion of politics, even as they knew that the political center of gravity had shifted to South Carolina. Avoiding such talk is an unwritten rule, scrupulously followed: “A taboo,” said Tamara Mangle, 30, an African-American who works at the gym and favors Bernie Sanders.
“It’s almost like we’re at war with each other,” said Becky Greene, 68, a white receptionist at the church offices who supports Senator Ted Cruz. “It’s like the conservatives and the liberals, and never the twain shall meet.”
The motto of this Pentecostal megachurch is “Where Many Become One,” and its members are proud of their racial progress. “This,” Ms. Greene said, “is how it’s going to be in heaven.”
But heaven will have to wait. As the presidential road show heads to the South, Redemption is a reflection of one of the region’s most persistent divides. Despite the unmistakable, sometimes startling gains that Southern blacks and whites have made in working, living and even praying together, when it comes to voting and politics, the gulf between them is so vast it can barely even be discussed.
It's definitely an intriguing story. I found it fascinating all the way to the end.
The Times does a nice job of quoting a variety of church members and leaders of differing political persuasions.
But here's what I couldn't tell after reading it all: Is this church really a political powder keg? Is the member who describes the situation as "almost like we're at war with each other" being literal or ironic? Is there a real divide? Or is this divide more like the kind that might exist between members who disagree on whether to root for the South Carolina Gamecocks or the Clemson Tigers?
None of the roughly 1,300 words in the Times report is "Jesus."
However, I wonder if — like the Maryland church I covered — the folks at this South Carolina megachurch would cite bigger priorities than which candidate emerges victorious on Saturday.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there are a few holy ghosts in how the Times frames the outlook of Redemption church members and leaders.