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Preaching or Avoiding Politics, Conservative Churches Walk a Delicate Line – The New York Times

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The second weekend in October was “citizenship weekend” at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

“Up and down the ballot, there are two very different visions for our nation, and every one of us need to vote biblical principles,” the Rev. Jack Graham, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers, told the congregation. The 45,000-member church has a committee urging members to be “actively involved in our government,” including by running for office. At one point, Mr. Graham told the congregation, 23 members of the church held some kind of elected office. Mr. Graham invited four to the stage that Sunday, all Republicans.

But Mr. Graham does not see it as his job to tell members how to fill out their ballots. “You preach on the issues; you don’t insult people by telling them how to vote,” Mr. Graham said in an interview. “People will figure out how to vote if you guide them from Scripture.” Last Sunday, he preached on the importance of religious liberty.

Decades after the rise of the Christian Right as a political influence, conservative evangelicals have a reputation for political activism. That reputation has only intensified in the Trump era. White evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump overwhelmingly in 2016, and have remained his most dependable supporters. The president himself, who is not a frequent churchgoer, has indicated that he assumes conservative evangelical pastors would be eager to speak even more directly — perhaps to endorse him — if freed by tax law to do so.

In 2017, he signed an executive order intended to loosen enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, the provision that forbids pastors at tax-exempt churches from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. “We are giving churches their voices back,” he said at a Rose Garden signing ceremony, framing the change as a gift to religious conservatives.

Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

But tuning into conservative evangelical sermons across the country in the weeks leading up to a hotly contested election reveals a complex relationship between the pulpit and politics. Some pastors grappled directly with the question of a Christian’s political obligations. Others edged close to an endorsement. But many barely hinted at political themes, perhaps gesturing broadly to “unity” or “justice.”

Compared with other Christian traditions, white conservative Protestant churches are notably unenthusiastic about engaging directly in some kinds of traditional political activities. If tax law changed, 45 percent of self-described liberal congregations would endorse specific candidates, compared with 11 percent of self-described conservative congregations, according to a forthcoming paper analyzing data from the National Congregations Study, an ongoing nationally representative survey of about 1,200 leaders of religious congregations. Black churches, whose members are often theologically conservative and vote Democratic, are the most politically engaged.

But surveys about voter registration or lobbying — activities that liberal churches are likelier to engage in — do not capture the full portrait of churches’ political messaging. “There’s a lot more political signaling going on than we pick up with these explicit collective actions,” said Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study and a professor at Duke University.

Surveys do not capture, for example, an American flag displayed at the front of the church, prayers offered for police officers but not protesters (or vice versa), or passing references to “life” or “freedom” in a sermon.

As a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, Keith Mannes would have said for most of his career that he did not preach about politics. He calls himself “a pretty conservative guy,” and he occasionally addressed abortion or homosexuality in his sermons, but he saw those topics as biblical, not political.

But in 2015 something changed when Mr. Mannes watched Donald J. Trump slowly descend a gleaming escalator at Trump Tower to launch his presidential bid. The gaudiness struck him as grotesque; the biblical term “mammon” came to mind.

After Mr. Trump became president, Mr. Mannes increasingly felt called to speak directly about what he saw as an ungodly alliance between white conservative Christians and Mr. Trump. But for several years, he tried to stay quiet. “It’s just in our bones that we don’t make trouble about politics,” Mr. Mannes said. “We don’t talk about that stuff from the pulpit.”

He delivered his last sermon at East Saugatuck Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Mich., on Oct. 11. After years of trying to “avoid politics” in the pulpit to keep peace in the congregation, he approached church leadership to suggest it was time to part ways. “You realize you’re extending all this energy just to make sure people don’t get upset,” he said. “I wanted to be able to speak openly in the world about what I believe.”

Credit…Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times

Pastors whose own political beliefs are in line with their congregations’ tend to feel more empowered to speak. In Apex, N.C., another evangelical pastor had watched in a very different mood as Mr. Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower. “When he came down the escalator, I didn’t know much about him but I turned to my wife and said, ‘Honey, that guy’s going to win,’” Rodney Finch recalled. Mr. Finch, the Black pastor of a large multiracial church he founded in 1995, said he had not been strongly engaged in politics before, but the moment was electrifying.

This election cycle, Mr. Finch is all in. On Oct. 4, he preached a Sunday sermon on voting. “The Bible is a voter’s guide,” he told the congregation. Without explicitly telling members how to fill out their ballots, he ticked off God’s priorities, in his view: abortion, support for Israel, religious freedom. He has also signed his church up with My Faith Votes, an organization that aims to boost turnout among conservative Christian voters by distributing voter guides and video content to churches for use in weekend services.

Mr. Finch is not alone in his awakening. Just 1 percent of Protestant pastors say they have endorsed a candidate from the pulpit this year, according to a survey conducted this fall by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. That number is unchanged since 2016. But 32 percent of Protestant pastors said they have endorsed a political candidate away from the pulpit, ostensibly outside of their role as a pastor. That is a 10 percentage point increase since the last presidential election cycle. Pastors who say they are voting for Mr. Trump are more likely to say they have made an endorsement.

Still, in many white conservative churches, “there’s a fear of being labeled ‘political,’” said Kaitlyn Schiess, the author of “The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor,” a book urging evangelicals to engage more intentionally with politics. “As Christians, we’re supposed to be above that.”

An analysis by the Pew Research Center of 50,000 sermons streamed online last year found that 4 percent of Christian sermons even mentioned abortion, and those that did rarely focused entirely on the topic. Smaller congregations were more likely than larger ones to hear discussion of abortion in sermons.

At many evangelical churches, there have been almost no hints from the pulpit in recent weeks of the divisive election on the way.

“My job is to articulate to the members of our congregation a traditional, orthodox Christian worldview,” said Tim Breen, pastor of First Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, a congregation he described as “center right.” “I don’t feel a call to recommend who to vote for or even necessarily how to vote.” Most people in his congregation, he said, would not be able to guess who he is voting for.

At Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., churchgoers can participate in a class titled “The Bible, the Church and Politics” on Wednesday evenings leading up to the election. One session listed biblical priorities including a safety net for the poor, fair wages, “creation stewardship,” personal responsibility and “protection of the unborn.”

“The church is trying to balance, ‘How do we engage faithfully with social issues, but how do we not get swallowed up?’” said Trinity pastor Walter Kim, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, referring to the American church in general. Mr. Kim describes his university-town congregation as “conservative theologically, but mixed politically.” “There’s a bit of a tension,” he said. “Some people come to church with a deep desire to understand their world. Some come to church to find a reprieve from the world.”

Mr. Kim tries to navigate that tension by focusing on larger moral principles rather than partisan politics from the pulpit. On Oct. 25, he preached from the New Testament book of James, a sermon that focused on humility, repentance and the ultimate folly of many disputes. He did not mention Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump or the upcoming election. “From the perspective of eternity,” he told his congregation, “we’re going to regret a lot of our fights.”

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U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang

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The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.

Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.

In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”

While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.

“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”

The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”

She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.

“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.

Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.

“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings

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Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.

In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The charity later walked away from the contract.

Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.

Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.

Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.

No fines or penalties were levied.

Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.

Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.

In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”

The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.

($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)

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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June

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The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.

 

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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