James Altman is a Roman Catholic priest in Wisconsin, little known outside his parish until a few weeks ago. Robert Jeffress is the high-profile pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas. They have a message in common for members of their faiths: Voting for Democrats who support abortion rights is an evil potentially deserving of eternal damnation.
Their fierce, openly partisan rhetoric is attention-grabbing, but it remains the exception in America’s diverse religious landscape, even in this divisive election year. Most members of the clergy, including foes of abortion, steer clear of overt endorsements or denunciations of political candidates. Numerous denominations try to frame their stance on abortion in ways that respect multiple viewpoints.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, has adhered for three decades to a nuanced policy aimed at respecting churchgoers on all sides of the debate.
“We say that abortion should be seen as a path of last resort, but we defend a woman’s right to make decisions over her own body,” said Bishop Paul Egensteiner, who heads the ELCA’s Metropolitan New York Synod.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 45,000 churches, declares in a policy statement that it “actively, ardently and unwaveringly opposes abortion on demand,” but simultaneously appeals for civility.
“We do not dismiss those who advocate for legal access to abortion as unconcerned for human life or unworthy of our respect and attention,” it says.
Such stances and tones differ sharply from those offered recently by Altman and Jeffress.
“You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat,” Altman said in a YouTube video, admonishing people to “repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell.” His comments were criticized by many Catholics, while endorsed by some others, such as Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Tyler, Texas, diocese.
Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and a close ally of Donald Trump, employs similarly strong language in denouncing the president’s opponent.
“As long as Joe Biden and the Democratic Party continue to support unrestricted abortion for any reason and at any stage in a pregnancy, priests and pastors like myself will have no problem saying, ‘Only Christians who have sold their soul to the devil would vote for Joe Biden,’” Jeffress said via email.
The Rev. Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and one of the SBC’s highest-ranking Black leaders, criticized Christians who stress their opposition to abortion while minimizing the problem of racism, and objected to the partisanship making inroads in some churches.
“While too many so-called pastors wait for the morning talking points from their chosen political party, too many are failing at an essential pastoral task,” he tweeted last month.
Earlier this month, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement repenting for shortcomings in combating poverty and racial inequality. It pledged to “resist being co-opted by political agendas” and to uphold a “comprehensive pro-life ethic that protects both the unborn and the vulnerable of all ages.”
The association’s president, the Rev. Walter Kim, said many NAE pastors preach about various policies but most avoid political endorsements.