How One Pastor Is Bridging the Partisan Divide

Adam Hamilton takes on controversial social issues from the pulpit, challenging his politically divided congregation to find common ground.

Dave Kaup / Reuters

A recent study found that Methodism is one of America’s most politically divided denominations, with both congregants and their pastors roughly split between the Democratic and Republican Parties. That makes rising partisanship a particular challenge for pastors like Adam Hamilton, of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. He estimates his congregants are perhaps 60 percent Republicans, and 40 percent Democrats—slightly more liberal than the communities from which they’re drawn, but still a decidedly red-state congregation. And, he argues, it gives the ways in which he navigates those tensions broader import.

Hamilton wanted to challenge his congregants to address pressing social challenges, despite their partisan divisions. “I’d like for them to look at the news every day, and think: ‘I wonder how the Gospel calls me to respond to this,’” he said.

So Hamilton teamed up with a local TV news station for Sunday services. Newscasters at KMBC 9 News created segments to be aired at the church, which Hamilton would then discuss with his congregants. One of the first dealt with the struggles of Kansas City’s public schools, left with few resources by decades of white flight, which in 2011 had just had their accreditation revoked.

“You could feel the discomfort in the room, because our folks lived in the suburbs with the best school systems,” he recalled. But he stressed to his flock that this was, in fact their shared responsibility. “Do you think God cares about the 32,000 children, or the teachers?” Hamilton asked his congregants. “And if he doesn’t, what do you think God cares about?”

“We took this thing that was uncomfortable for people,” he said, and forced them to grapple with what it meant, through the prism of their faith.

They passed around the offering plates. But instead of asking for donations, Hamilton used them to distribute postcards with the contact information of teachers and administrators, urging congregants to reach out to them and offer help. Today, the church gives more than half a million in donations every year to six area elementary schools, and supports a variety of tutoring and enrichment programs.

Hamilton retold the story Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. He offered it as an example of how his United Methodist Church has found ways to bridge partisan divides to engage with its community. “We try to bring both the evangelical and social gospel together regularly,” he said.

Hamilton is engagingly unassuming; his church website refers to him as Pastor Adam. The church now claims nearly 20,000 congregants spread over its four Kansas City-area locations.

Predictably, he looks back to the Gospel for inspiration.

“Among his disciples, [Jesus] chose Matthew the tax collector, who was a collaborator with the Romans, and he chose Simon the Zealot, who was absolutely opposed to the Roman occupation, and he was willing to kill and terrorize to drive them out.” Hamilton sees a model in that approach. “In essence, he took a hardcore Democrat and a hardcore Republican, and asked them both to be his disciples,” he quipped.

But finding ways to respect divergent views doesn’t mean that people will agree. “We’ve had members of both parties running against each other,” he said, stressing that congregants could share goals even as they disagree over the means of achieving them.

The election of Donald Trump has proved particularly challenging. After the election, Hamilton said, his church had Republicans and Democrats who were distraught, but also fiscal conservatives excited about the course that Trump might steer, and a congregant who showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat. And even though Hamilton parts ways with the president on both personal and political matters, he says he’s hoping for the best. “I’m going to pray that the office will ennoble him,” Hamilton said. “And that’s about redemption, and about hope.”

For his own part, Hamilton strives to position himself as above partisanship or political ideology. “People ask me this question all the time: Are you liberal or conservative? I can’t figure you out. And I say, ‘Yes, of course,’” he said.

But it’s not that simple, of course. The United States is seeing a rising tide of negative partisanship; people orienting themselves in opposition to the views of their opponents. Hamilton tries to stay nonpartisan, distinguishing between campaigns and policy. “When it comes to speaking about candidates, I’m as neutral as Switzerland,” he insisted. “But when it comes to issues there’s a way of talking about issues.”

Even so, when he tackles controversial topics from the pulpit, he hears from congregants who disagree. Some say they stay with the church out of affection for their pastor and community, and despite his bringing these issues into the church. But engaging with particularly controversial topics can tip the balance. “Those sermons, I get people who stop coming to church,” he said.

He recalled a sermon on Trump’s travel ban. “I understand what’s behind it, because we’re afraid,” he said. But he pointed back to things Americans had done in the past out of fear that the country now regrets. He cited scriptural passages on caring for the stranger and the alien, and challenged the factual basis of the ban. He ended with an interview he’d filmed with a local family of Syrian refugees, and the testimony of his Iraqi translator, putting a human face on the question.

Many said they were deeply moved.

But a few weeks later, one of his staffers reached out to a man who hadn’t been to services lately, and discovered that the sermon had driven him away. Hamilton reached out; they talked, came to a better understanding of each other’s positions, if not perfect agreement, and reconciled. But for every such example, Hamilton said, there are likely hundreds of others who depart without giving him the chance to change their minds.