Honesty is the Best Policy from the Pulpit

Part three of the OnFaith Forum “Disbelief in the Pulpit.”

In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

Perhaps the two best known professions in which leaders are expected to have strong religious beliefs are clergy and politicians. And they often give similar rationales for lying or evading questions about those beliefs: namely, that they can do a lot of good if they don’t get sidetracked by superfluous issues. Translation: “I don’t want to lose my job.”

I can make a very mild case for their rationales. Some clergy focus on good works of a particular faith tradition, and feel the community would suffer if a replacement focused primarily on doctrine. Some politicians care about issues that have nothing to do with religious belief, and fear a replacement might turn a secular issue into a religious one.

Now to tell you what I really believe, this atheist will quote from John 8:32: “The truth shall set you free.” I respect people for being honest, whether I agree with them or not. And how does a skeptic like me decide when clergy or politicians are honest? When they say something that is more likely to hurt than help their careers. And a bonus for doing that, as John indicates, is a certain personal freedom that comes with telling the truth.

Best of all, sometimes you can be honest and still keep your job. The good news is that every member in the club of open congressional atheists has overwhelmingly won reelection. The bad news is that there is only one member in this club: Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal).

I expect that many, if not most, clergy have lost some of the beliefs of their youth. I like to think that Paul had the “talking snake” crowd in mind when he said in 1 Cor.13:11: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” Perhaps many parishioners would better be able to identify with and respect a preacher whose belief system has changed and matured.

While politicians are certainly justified in saying their personal religious beliefs are nobody else’s business, I had an unusual reverse experience in my church. (Yes, I do belong to a church. I joined the local Unitarian Church in Charleston after I was invited to give a sermon on “Positive Atheism,” and a significant number of congregants told me they agreed with what I said.).

At this church, a search committee invited members of the congregation to interview a new candidate for minister. At a private discussion with the candidate, I asked him about his personal theology, and was quite surprised when he told me he remembered at least eight of his past lives. I mentioned this in a discussion about the candidate by the congregation, and many of them were also surprised. But the search committee said the candidate had met other important criteria, and they didn’t feel it would have been appropriate for them to ask him about his religious beliefs. I didn’t vote for this honest minister, but he was hired, once again confirming that honesty is the best policy.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Herb Silverman
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  • LorettaHaskell

    It seems that in most churches the spiritual leaders of the church hold two main roles – that of counselor and the other of philosopher. When we listen to a sermon we’re often hearing reflections on the core values of the specific church’s tenets and the convictions of the leader who leads them. Because different congregations view the role of spiritual leader differently, each leader has a different degree of freedom to express his or her own opinion and/or reflect the views of the larger church that they represent.I think that from time to time in a pastor’s life he or she might not always agree with the official church position and feel convicted to challenge it. In that instance is the leader a true leader or does he become a politician? I suppose a little of both.While I think hearing the truth spoken always breathes life into any statement I think that many spiritual leaders are cautious to speak honestly and openly until their conviction becomes overwhelming and certain. Often that is a matter of personality and circumstance.

  • jonesm2

    While I do agree with Professor Silverman that honesty is the best policy, coming out as an atheist can create quite a few challenges for many people, not just politicians and clergy. There are many misconceptions in the general public about atheism that the coming out atheist must confront either directly or indirectly, and this can be disruptive in one’s job or social activities. I don’t feel the need to tell the check out person at Harris Teeter about my lack of religious beliefs and I have difficulty bringing up these topics with my friends who may believe that there was a guy who lived in a whale for awhile. That said, I am well aware that, as more atheists come out, the easier it will eventually be for all of us.

  • WmarkW

    This has been a problem for a long time: there are many professional theists but few professional atheists. Even Professor Silverman isn’t one (Dennett maybe is).

  • dangeroustalk

    It is not surprising that there are still a large number of atheists who are living in the closet. There is after all a great deal of social pressure aimed to discourage open disbelief. That pressure is much greater for those who make a living from their god-belief.Religion is a business. There are people in the world who have trained all their lives to preach the Bible. Not all of those people are forced into a life of celibacy either. Many have families to support. So when one of these people who was raised from near birth to believe and spends their life learning the details of the Bible finally realizes that it is all a sham, they have some real problems to think about and deal with.You can read the rest of my response to this topic:I will be responding to every issue posted in the ‘On Faith’ section. If you would like to be notified when my new response is up, please subscribe.

  • maryellensikes

    Not all (or even a majority of) churches use a democratic process to hire religious personnel, so a doubting clergy person can’t necessarily count on an understanding or loyal congregation. In some denominations, open discussion of ideas that conflict with official doctrine can mean a total separation from the faith group, career included. If losing one’s job as clergy jeopardizes support of a family, it may not be the right move despite the freedom and respect that may be gained. This, I think, must be decided by each individual for her/himself.

  • pelicanwatchcb

    A former clergyman told me years ago that there is a great disconnect in many mainstream Protestant churches between the person in the pulpit and the people in the pews. Many mainstream (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal) seminaries today take a modernist view of scripture, applying the tools of comparative literature, anthropology, psychology, archeology and other sciences to their understanding of the Bible. Of course, such an interpretation can lead to an understanding of Jesus, Moses, and the biblical world very different from the understanding of traditional believers. These young scholars leave seminary filled with inspiration and new ideas for making the Scriptures relevant to the 21st century, only to face congregations who know nothing of modern biblical scholarship and are outright hostile to such ideas. These young ministers can either swallow their pride and their integrity or they can find another line of work. And, of course, some of them become Unitarian ministers.