The best thing I ever did in politics—but I can’t recommend it as regular work for pastors—was get a street light up for some folks. This was when I was appointed to fill an unexpired term on a small town city council. The mayor made me the south ward alderman—sounds pleasantly Chicagoish, doesn’t it—and that put me in charge of streets, snow removal, and other interesting duties.
He had asked me once before when a previous vacancy had opened, but I begged off. My wife really did not want me messing in city business; I was in enough trouble, she said, messing with parish business. But this time I took him up on it. South ward, I found, was hard on aldermen—something to do with city street conditions. Were it not for crumbling asphalt and strategically placed potholes, most of our streets would not have had a surface. From what I later gathered a number of constituents kept the south ward alderman’s phone number on speed dial.
The mayor appointed me because he doped out that in my background I had previous, um, let’s be generous and call it civic work. I had been a congressman’s whore but the actual job title was press secretary; same difference in my experience. I didn’t think that qualified me to sit on a city council. No, that was good said the mayor and he wouldn’t tell anyone if I didn’t. There were thirteen months left in the term; the job paid $50 a month; and, the mayor said, I wouldn’t have any real work to do except attend council meetings, figure a budget, and keep the seat warm until the next election. Being then the underpaid pastor of a small town parish, fifty dollars a month is what I heard.
It was an eventful year. That was the year I got to buy a brand new city dump truck. This is like every little boy’s best Tonka fantasy, a big, big truck, huh? This truck had everything and it was employed for everything that needed a truck, most crucially snow removal. I wanted to drive it just once but the equipment guy kept talking about needing a special class license, insurance liability, silly things like that. We also needed a new salt and cinder spreader that attached on the back of the truck for road treatment in the winter. I wasn’t nearly as interested in that but, I learned, if the truck wasn’t out plowing and putting down salt, the speed dialers went to work.
And along came the request for a street light. It wasn’t hard. I got the street light by simply plugging the figures into the total department budget. My fellow aldermen weren’t picky about what went into the budget, just so long as city revenues matched city expenditures. The entire city budget rarely amounted to more than $400,000. The budget was adopted unanimously and by the end of the next week, thanks to the city clerk making the necessary phone calls to the utility company, there was a street light where none had ever been before. I felt pretty good about it, but then I was focused just on getting a street light. Other facets did not occur to me until afterward.
The people who wanted a street light were parishioners. The city clerk was a parishioner. The local newspaper editor covering the budget meeting was a parishioner. Small towns are like that. Gee, if I needed a plumber at the parsonage I called the mayor; he was the town plumber. Thinking it over I do not believe parish pastors should serve on small town city boards or on big city boards either, not on any board where real decisions get made that involve real money and real people.
How would my parishioners have reacted if in my judgment the street really did not need an additional light? What if they had wanted just a really big yard light? What if the street light, while needed, simply could not be forced into the department budget? What if someone suggested I was trying to take care of my parishioners while making the city pay for it? What if, oh gosh, the street light amounted to nothing more than what we now call an earmark? I admit none of these questions came to mind at the time. All I wanted was that street light.
The street light was an objective need and the budget did prove cooperative. But even with all those elements in place, in a less trusting atmosphere it might have concluded pretty badly.
It was a small dilemma? Sure. But it might have pitted pastor against parishioners on an issue of some civic consequence, and that raises larger questions of a cleric’s role in public life. I am reminded of a time when the former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Herbert Chilstrom, defended church lobbying and verdicts on political choices as the church’s “reverent best guess” on any given issue. These “best guesses,” reverent or not, always seemed to lean, and still do, toward a certain point on the political spectrum. Such a “guess” once included encouraging a boycott of a major oil company because it did some business with South Africa in the Apartheid years. I had parishioners who owned one of the stations being targeted. They read about it in the denominational magazine. They were not pleased.
But the church must speak, we’re told. And the church does. There are Christians who vote, hold public office, serve on city councils and school boards; they argue politics and take sides on issues. Salt and yeast, someone said; the “priesthood of all believers” as most churches dress it up, working out their baptismal vocation as citizens.
What the church does not need, I contend, are church officials speaking officially on behalf of us who are not officials who then claim to be making the Christian witness. Many of the pronouncements—especially from what is left of the Protestant mainline—can be dismissively read as cultural accommodation. Oh, sure, no doubt. There are some issues where Christians must declare their faith and doctrine: defense of human life, human rights, and regard for the poor to name but three. But otherwise a cleric as a cleric running around “Christianizing” one side or another of opposing partisanships isn’t in anyone’s interest.
I am still glad I got the street light. But I have often reflected in the time since, it sure would have been better if those folks had been Methodists.
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.