top of page

Part 3: Politics and Nationalism in the Church: A Kitchen Table Conversation

By Dr. Matthew Cobb (Host), Kevin Kot (Ojibwe), Colleen Bernu (Ojibwe), Patricia Dickson, (Congregational Justice Team Chair) the Rev. Beth Pottratz (ELCA), and the Rev. James Muske (ELCA)

Listen on: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible

In the wake of our last episode, Thanksgiving: An Autopsy, we’ve observed an uptick in the number of heated conversations within some of our ELCA congregations. Specifically, we’ve encountered a lot of questions and debates around politics and how we reckon with our role as members of a nation-state while also being members of the Body of Christ.

Conversations surrounding how these two identities inform one another and can be difficult and emotionally charged. They touch on some of the most tender areas in our souls related to how we think about ourselves, our family histories, and our relationships with our neighbors. When proceeding on this sacred ground, we want to walk gently and with caution so that we can relate to one another in a healing way rather than in a way that does further damage. Before we resume our more focused conversations around treaties, reparations, and bridge-building between Native Americans and Settlers, we are taking a pause to have a kitchen table-style conversation with spiritual faith leaders, Indigenous and Settler alike, to breathe into the work we are doing and ponder where we've been, where we're at, and where we're going.

So, what roles do our politics and our national identity have to play in our churches? We invited Kevin Kot (Ojibwe), Colleen Bernu (Ojibwe), Patricia Dickson, (Congregational Justice Team Chair) the Rev. Beth Pottratz (ELCA), and the Rev. James Muske (ELCA) to our kitchen table to wrestle with this question. The transcription of this episode has been edited for readability.

Matt Cobb [Host]: I appreciate you all being here, and I have a question for you to ponder. What is the crisis that brought you to this conversation? Rev Beth Pottratz [ELCA]: I can start with a humorous take on your question. It came last night. My husband believes that one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which is a huge comedy. But last night as I was preparing for this conversation, my family was watching this movie, and there's a scene in the movie in which the family all sits down for their Christmas meal. And they ask Aunt Bethany if she will say, grace. [Clip from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation: ]

Clark Griswold: Before we begin, since this is Aunt Bethany's 80th Christmas, I think she should lead us in the saying of grace. Aunt Bethany: What did you say? Uncle Lewis: They want you to say grace.

Aunt Bethany: Grace? She passed away 30 years ago. Uncle Lewis: They want you to say grace..the blessing!

Aunt Bethany: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...

All: ...and to the republic for which it stands. One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Amen.

[Laughter of participants ]

Rev Beth Pottratz [ELCA]: And I thought, as I had this conversation on my mind and that scene came up in the movie as we were watching it, I thought, what a better example of this topic at hand, of civil religion, of politics in the church, of how our faith and our political lives blend together in good and bad ways.

To answer your question a little bit more seriously: one of my big concerns in our society today, and I see it coming into our churches, is how completely divided and polarized we are as a society, especially in the United States because of our politics and political situation that we have going on. I see it all over the place where politics really becomes a dividing factor, and for the church, I think the Body of Christ is in crisis, that we use these politics to be divisive instead of bringing the unity of the Holy Spirit that we're called to do as Christians. Matt Cobb [Host]: If someone would offer an experience of why they came here today, that would be really helpful. Because we need to really land this on the ground for our listeners right now. Colleen Bernu [Ojibwe]: I'm just fed up, honestly. Why am I here today? I'm fed up with not being able to have a civil discourse with each other, I'm fed up with the fact that we've gotten to a place in our culture where we jokingly say that when we come together as families that there will be political division. I'm fed up that when we as a Body of Christ take a misstep-and it's going to happen when we take risks–that risk can either go in a way that makes everyone happy and we're all celebrating, or maybe it doesn't. I'm fed up that we've gotten to a place where when we take risks and it ends up being a misstep, we can't have a healthy conversation about it. [The debate turns into] “that's the liberals talking“ or “this is the conservatives talking,” and then we end up in this battle and we're not having a conversation about what it means to be baptized into a single family. Matt Cobb [Host]: That's identity too, and the politics of identity is what I hear you kind of get into, of the body politic. Beth talked about the Body of Christ. Is that the crisis points that we're talking about here? The intersection of body politic and Body of Christ or is it something even more grounded than that? I don't know.

Kevin Kot [Ojibwe]: I think it's moving away from a fundamental question. And that question is: What does the good news mean? What did it mean then, and what does it mean today? Has that meaning changed? When the writers proclaimed Jesus as having the good news, that was a counter-narrative to the emperor and empire. And I think we've veered so far away from understanding, trying to figure out what the heck that is, what that means, that we don't even go back into the narrative of looking back in the Exodus story. What was it meaning for the Israelites to come out of Egypt? What did all this mean? I mean, what is Christianity, if Jesus is the good news? What does that mean?

It doesn't land on any political spectrum. It calls out all political spectrums. If people are oppressed if people are hungry, if people are suffering, if you don't identify with that, you don't see your Creator. That's where you see your Creator. So, for me, a lot of these arguments, whether it be political, it still comes down to a very basic value of: what does the good news mean? You have to answer that yourself. That's just my thoughts. Colleen Bernu [Ojibwe]: Well, I would say, Kevin, if you can't answer that, then you can't answer what does it mean to love your neighbor either. You get all twisted up in the conversation of what does love my neighbor means. What does that look like? If you can't answer the very basic question of, “What does it mean to follow the Way?”, then loving your neighbor, which