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Bird-Dogging and Bridge-Building: New Hampshire Clergy and the Primary

CONCORD, N.H. – Every four years, the Rev. Jason Wells gets the quintessential New Hampshire experience of bumping into presidential candidates and campaign staffers who want his vote in the first-in-the-nation primary. Like other clergy, he hopes to be heard on social issues important to him, such as hunger and the death penalty.

But how Fr. Wells and other clergy go about impacting the national debate in early voting states is a far cry from what it used to be. Methods have changed to keep pace with evolving campaigns — and to make clergy feel more comfortable about weighing in.

The landscape was different 12 years ago, when Wells went door-to-door drumming up support for then-candidate Barack Obama. He’d been recruited by a Team Obama staffer, who called on him at East Concord’s Grace Church, where he was serving as rector. Joining up meant keeping his clergy profile ultra-low. Example: he never wore his clergy collar while canvassing.

“I made sure to go to neighborhoods where I suspected few of my parishioners would be coming from, just to be sure I didn’t cross those boundaries in inappropriate ways,” said Wells, who is now executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches.

Much has shifted in the run up to this year’s Feb.  primary. Campaigns aren’t targeting New Hampshire faith leaders so strategically anymore, Wells said. Many who minister in this increasingly purple state avoid all campaign events, lest they appear partisan by attending.

Instead they’re finding venues where they can steer clear of the partisan fray, personalize issues for voters and improve the quality of political conversations. In taking such approaches, they’re able wear their clergy identities visibly and still fight for the issues they care about.

“To engage on a specific issue, rather than a candidate, feels more honest to me as a Christian,” Wells said. “When I’m thinking through issues, I’m also thinking through values, thinking through Scriptures and thinking theologically. I feel like I can represent the faith that’s in me.”

Changes on the campaign trail are part of what’s nudging clergy to try new approaches to getting heard. Despite New Hampshire’s reputation for retail politics, faith leaders (among other voters) struggle late in the campaign to get close enough to put questions to any major candidate, according to the Rev. Sandra Albom, curate at All Saints’ Church in Peterborough and chaplain at Plymouth House, a substance abuse recovery center in Plymouth. When Albom and other clergy advocates in the statewide networks have sought to ask candidates how they’d address the opioid epidemic, staffers have deferred the question, instead saying primarily: “Read the candidate’s website.”

Accessing presidential hopefuls in New Hampshire wasn’t always so difficult. The practice of “bird dogging,” or pinning candidates with questions that allow no wiggle room for vague or noncommittal responses, is a New Hampshire tradition. So much so that the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee still trains clergy and others in how to do it effectively. But the time involved for a minimal payoff can be hard for busy clergy to justify.

Campaigns do all they can to prevent unscripted moments with candidates, according to bird-dogging trainer Arnie Alpert, who co-directs the AFSC’s New Hampshire Program. He explained that at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s events, she takes only three questions, which are allocated by lottery. Then it’s on to the selfie line, where it’s almost impossible to pose a question and record her answer on a smartphone.

“As soon as she does the selfie line, they turn up the music in the hall,” Alpert said. “Then when you get up to the front of the selfie line, her staff people take your phone from you and then they take the selfie. What that does is keep you from using your phone to actually record the interaction.”

Such obstacles have left clergy in New Hampshire looking for better ways to impact the national debate. Many have found their vehicle in Love 2020, a new program organized by the Granite State Organizing Project, a faith-based community organizing group. Candidates from both parties are invited to have intimate audiences with 20 or 30 faith leaders, who question them about immigration, economic justice, moral values and accountability.

Candidates have jumped at the opportunity. As of mid-January, 12 Democrats had taken part, including all top-tier contenders except Joe Biden, who was reportedly still interested, GSOP director Sara Jane Knoy said. Republican William Weld had participated as well.

For clergy, the format allows for championing what they regard as moral concerns with policy implications, such as keeping families together at the US-Mexico border. It also lets them openly bring their faith convictions and church roles into the discussion.

“We as people of faith have to go back — however you vote — you have to go back and say, ‘OK, I voted for this person who I know isn’t perfect, but I came as close as I could to what Jesus says’,” said Jonathan Hopkins, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Concord, N.H. “Because Jesus is tough, man. Nobody [who’s running for president] is coming anywhere near that.”

With American society sharply divided by political tensions, faith leaders are choosing what type of voice suits them and their ministry settings. Some feel compelled to carve out a prophetic stance that involves supporting candidates who share their values and agendas, according to Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.

But many avoid that terrain, she said, because of what they think it means to always be clergy, even when they’re not working. Many cannot in good conscience provide a clergy endorsement for a candidate. Nor can they set their clergy status aside for a stint of overt politicking.

In deep purple pockets of New Hampshire, where Democrats and Republicans live side by side, clergy focus on helping the faithful understand key issues and one another rather than advancing particular outcomes at the ballot box.

That’s the case for the Rev. Jay MacLeod, rector of St. Andrew’s Church in New London, N.H. and priest at Epiphany Church in nearby Newport. Both towns are divided politically. Newport went for Donald Trump in 2016 while New London went for Hillary Clinton. Since the 2016 vote, St. Andrew’s has been convening a 90-minute Faith & Issues Group every Saturday morning for discussing issues from immigration to mass incarceration and the environment. When the youth group hosted a forum on guns, teens and adults shared the stage in a demonstration of how widely divergent views can be debated respectfully.

It’s “not my role as a Christian leader, nor the church’s role as the body of Christ, to endorse candidates but rather to encourage people to reflect on how politics can advance God’s kingdom and bring us a bit closer to a world without bloodshed, poverty or prejudice”, MacLeod said in an email.

The congregation is politically varied, with libertarians singing hymns next to socialists. Enabling many views to be heard helps the congregation maintain its identity and authentic character, according to MacLeod.

“It takes some tending to safeguard this political plurality,” MacLeod said.

Sometimes ministering in purple trenches involves healing. At St. Christopher’s Church in Hampstead, N.H., the Rev. Zachary Harmon, rector, found a flock still nursing its wounds from the 2016 election when he came the next year.

Harmon described the last primary season as “not quite war within the parish but close to it,” He added, “The impact on people in the parish, with the politicizing of everything, can be quite pronounced [in New Hampshire]. When people start to see each other as enemies, it becomes very difficult.”

Harmon has cultivated opportunities for people on all sides to make personal connections with those directly impacted by hot-button issues. They meet refugee families, for instance, through a resettlement ministry that helps collect basic furnishings and household items for new arrivals settling nearby. Other outreach provides connections with homeless veterans and family members with loved ones battling opioid addictions.

“In a small town in New Hampshire, it can seem like it’s just an issue in the big cities sometimes, that it doesn’t happen in my neighborhood,” Harmon said. “But this makes it clear that this impacts people.”

Harmon’s wife, the Rev. Kate Harmon Siberine, brings a different approach. She serves as rector of Grace Church in East Concord and is also planting a congregation in Franklin, where Tabitha’s Table Dinner Church allows for structured conversation as worship unfolds over a meal.

“I want to have a different political conversation in this country,” Siberine said. “The church is one of the last places where people of different political persuasions can get together and figure out, with some facilitation, how to have better conversations so that everything doesn’t have to be a debate.”

Worshipers at Tabitha’s Table learn, through practice, how to listen as issues are framed through the lenses of their neighbor’s values — which might be Christian-based but quite different from their own. The ground rules prohibit using worship to discuss particular presidential candidates, but campaign issues can be fair game.

“We’re much more able to have an impactful conversation about health care when it’s people talking about their insurance not covering a procedure that they need, as opposed to: ‘What do you think about Obamacare?’” Siberine said.

As much as clergy are embracing new ways to frame and impact political discourse, old-fashioned campaigning for individual candidates still continues, albeit in evermore low-key ways. One New Hampshire Episcopal clergy family hosted meet-the-candidate receptions at home for Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. The priest emphasized that the home is about an hour from the church and the receptions have no link to either the congregation or the priest’s role. Nevertheless, the priest requested anonymity, out of concern about possible negative repercussions from hosting the events.

Others meanwhile are glad to be out in the open about their positions on issues and their status as clergy, even if it means they don’t get to endorse anyone.

“As a Christian leader, I encourage people to think deeply about the issues from a spiritual standpoint that goes beyond what they’re hearing on the news,” Hopkins said. “For example: guns. It’s not about guns. It’s about violence… How does Jesus encourage us to think about violence, which is to be non-violent? That’s my thing. And I always say: then people vote how they vote. And that’s between them and the Lord.”

Mark Hatch contributed to this story


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