The Future Depends on Our Image of God - by Nancy Jo Kemper

Nancy Jo Kemper ’67 B.D.

Two years ago, at age 73½, I made a decision that most people couldn’t understand. I decided to run for Congress, as a Democrat, to represent the people of the 6th Congressional District in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Why would a grandmother, a nearly retired part-time minister, jump into such a thing in a state that turns more heavily red with each election?

On Jan. 10, 2016, standing in my church basement during my little congregation’s annual meeting, I knew with sudden clarity that I had to run for the congressional seat. Having thought about it ambivalently for weeks, it now became an urgent calling. I told the congregation what I was going to do. There was a stunned silence. I promised them I would not allow the campaign to intrude on church affairs and I’d continue ministry with them until the campaign’s final weeks. I told them I believed this fit my life-long vocation, and theirs, of mending what is torn in people’s lives, fixing what is broken in institutions, and creating communities of compassion.

No Illusions

One reason for running was that so few were willing to take on the Republican incumbent. I was under no illusion that I stood much chance of winning. One of my good friends, the former Lexington mayor, said bluntly, “Well, you’ll lose.” The soon-to-be-former lieutenant governor, a member of my congregation, worried that it would be too hard on me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

In the end, I lost by 22 points. This wasn’t so bad. In two other Kentucky districts, novice Democrats were trounced by 60 points or more. When I returned to the church after 10 weeks out of the pulpit for the campaign’s home stretch, the sanctuary was filled with members and non-members, Republicans and Democrats, who gave me a standing ovation. Their support signified something important: Christian faith obliges us to be involved in all aspects of human life: political, economic, social, as well as religious.

An Alternative Christianity

And we could claim some victories. My campaign endeavored to show a different kind of Christianity that many Kentuckians had never seen in political life. We articulated policies that were not couched in religious rhetoric but instead used aspirational social justice language that reflected compassion for the poor, the immigrant, and those who were denied their civil liberties. I had strong support from the sizable Muslim and LGBTQ communities in central Kentucky. At each campaign stop, I’d end my speech with a quote from Yale mentor Bill Coffin: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”

I refused to be negative in my campaigning. I was determined to avoid name-calling. My staff and I had many discussions about moral boundaries, but they had joined my team because I had laid out those ethical limits.

Within 45 minutes after the polls closed, the entire year’s effort was finished. I lost, and yet I didn’t. Many young adults thanked me for running. They said I had made them feel, for once, that politics

could be decent. Their comments, as well as the witness I tried to provide for an alternative Christianity, made the 80-hour weeks worth the effort. The experience was not exhausting but enriching – a privilege and honor.

Harsh Lessons

Much of what I learned that year was not encouraging. The election revealed once again that money is rapidly destroying our system of government. I raised $500,000, while my opponent amassed four times that amount, much of it from corporate donors who sought to eliminate financial regulations and consumer protections. The idea that money is speech badly distorts the notion of free speech, because those with the most money have the most speech. Sadly, in my experience voters really don’t care that money is controlling politics and government. Most do not see it as relevant to their lives. I would estimate that 90 percent of the voters in Kentucky’s 6th have never made a campaign contribution. Many have no idea what a campaign really costs or how the big contributions can dictate the votes of elected officials.

The campaign demonstrated to me that among many, Christianity has become a cult selling false certitude as a balm for modern anxieties rather than a faith movement following the way of Jesus. Many constituents are deeply frightened that the future holds only diminishing possibilities for them and their children. Too many Americans, urban and rural, educated and uneducated, are being left behind as the nation turns into a plutocracy.

Finally, the campaign confirmed to me how deeply media are reinforcing our polarized condition. With high rates of adult illiteracy in some areas of our country, and with TVs or radios blaring all day, the repetitive propagandistic liturgy of ideology frames the mindsets of millions. Many citizens whose lives are in jeopardy hardly bother to evaluate issues or look much beyond making it through the next day.

Can progressive Christianity address this polarization? At least for now, that would be a difficult task in broad swaths of our nation, where many would be horrified by an emphasis on faith as trust and not certitude, by arguments that the Bible’s truths are more than strictly literal, and by the notion that salvation might relate to how you treat your neighbors, not just having your sins washed away. Meanwhile, legions of educated young professionals are desperate for a more inclusive presentation of religion, an experience of mystery and awe, and for leaders who reflect ethics and compassion, not judgment.

A Moral Hinge

I believe history swings on a moral hinge, and right now enormous forces are pushing and pulling on that door to the future. Religion is one of the major forces doing the pushing and pulling. The sort of religion we espouse will determine whether humankind will be more divided, more alienated, and more violent as a species – or will find a way to work together knowing that neither the species, nor the planet, much less nations, will prosper unless all prosper. It is either the beloved community or the anarchy of oligarchs.

Much depends on our image of God. As Coffin often said, many seem to think God is in the protection business, offering a shield against illness or accident or evil until, inevitably, evil or illness falls upon them and they are left bereft of any solid ground on which to stand. No, as Coffin put it, the mysterious Holiness that we call God is in the relationship business, standing alongside us in good times and in terrible sorrow, and the love that emanates from that source of all being will enable us to stand on our feet again, to be resurrected, with hope and trust in tomorrow.

Repairing Distortion

Until American Christianity faces how egregiously its faith has been distorted, and learns how to communicate a new presentation of the gospel, our situation as church and nation will remain dire. We have turned churches into entertainment centers to help people feel good week to week. Churches should be places of alternative learning that stimulate intellectual curiosity and artistic creativity for adults and children, with a moral focus that goes beyond the personal to public well-being. Religion is more essential now in our public life than ever before – religion focused on building communities of care and compassion, wisdom and knowledge.

Can American politics be salvaged? Only if we elect individuals who will put country before party and put the good of the whole before the desires of the powerful. Only if we insist on truth in advertising in political races, overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and put financial limits on campaign expenditures. We need politicians who listen to people with their hearts.

I am encouraged by the persistence of resistance and by my Christian hope. Therefore I do not despair, even as we face the most critical challenge to our beloved nation since the Civil War. We must not give up the struggle.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper ’67 B.D. is a Kentucky native with 50 years of experience as a minister in the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. Known for her work in public policy and social justice issues, she was executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches from 1991-2009. She received YDS’s William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice in 2010.