The Delta Queen Riverboat, the Election, and You

In the early 1970s my family and I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. At that time the Delta Queen–the famous, luxurious riverboat that traveled the Mississippi and other rivers especially in the South–was still taking cruises from St. Paul to New Orleans and back, stopping at many places in between. When the Delta Queen came to St. Paul, many people of the city went down to the boat docks to visit her. If you desired, you could go aboard for a short visit to see the interior of the famed riverboat, which was comprised of four decks and eighty-seven staterooms that accommodated 174 passengers. The accommodations ranged from luxurious suites to rooms so small that there was hardly room enough for a single bed. The dining room had large chandeliers, and white linens adorned the tables.

In 1970, I took our four children to see the Delta Queen. As we approached we could hear the old, unique thirty-two note steam calliope playing. As we and the other visitors boarded, we were greeted at the top of the loading ramp by the flamboyant captain himself, dressed in his ornate uniform. Once aboard the main deck, the polished brass rails and door handles caught one’s attention. Next was the wide staircase that led to the second of four decks, where the staterooms and dining room were located. It was a wonderful experience for the children and me.

As we were leaving, I overheard a conversation between the captain and one of the boarding passengers who had never been on the Delta Queen. He and his wife were booked for a round-trip to New Orleans and back. As they were greeted by the captain, the husband said, “Captain, I suppose you know every sandbar in the river.” “No, I don’t,” replied the captain. “Oh, you don’t?” said the boarding passenger, with a note of alarm in his voice. “No, I always felt it was a waste of time to worry about the sandbars,” said the old, knowledgeable captain who had charted the course of the riverboat for several decades. “A waste of time?” questioned the passenger. “Yes, a waste of time,” said the captain. “You see, I never spend any time paddling around in the shallow waters. I head straight for the deeps.”

Such words of wisdom that old captain did speak! Far too many of us spend our time paddling around in the shallow things of life instead of heading straight for the deeps–the profound, the significant. We get tangled up on the sandbars of the shallow waters of life, dissipating our energies on the trivial. This is especially relevant now as people throughout the United States are preparing to vote in the election of this coming Tuesday, November 4.

Too many of us have become tangled up on political sandbars, leaving us to paddle around in the shallow waters of radio and TV advertisements for our knowledge of political candidates and propositions. Instead, for our own good and the good of our country, we need to go directly to the deeps–directly to learning in depth what the candidates stand for, what they have done in the past, and what they themselves say they want to accomplish if elected. And those propositions–many of them are worded in such a way that the initial impression is the exact opposite of what they are all about. When we are voting on bond-issues, temporary tax increases, changes to our state constitution, and what have you, we need to make certain that we know exactly what we are voting for.

As a parish minister for many years, I always emphasized to the congregations I served the religious person’s responsibility to be interested in politics and to vote. But I also took the position that it was not appropriate for the church to become involved in political campaigns nor for its clergy to endorse specific candidates or political parties from the pulpit or during church services or activities. What the clergy did on his/her own was a personal matter, but it should be made absolutely clear that he/she was not acting in the capacity of the minister. Although I am now retired and do not serve as the minister of a particular congregation, I firmly hold to those same beliefs.

I came to those views by studying the wide implications of the Gospel of Mark, verse 12:17, where Jesus is quoted as saying: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (RSV) Note, Jesus is not merely making a suggestion here, but he is making a definite statement of what we are expected to do. He is making it quite clear that there are certain obligations all of us have to the government, and that we should meet those obligations. At the same time, however, he is saying that our obligations to the government do not infringe upon our obligations or God, and we are obliged to honor those obligations as well.

And that brings us to codes and regulations of the Internal Revenue Service. Going to the official IRS Web site, we find a regulation prohibiting the participation of not-for-profit organizations, including “Churches & Religious Organizations,” in political campaigns. The section of the IRS code I refer to is titled, “The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations.”

The code itself reads as follows: “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

That pretty clear, isn’t it?

So this Saturday and Sunday, I encourage all members of the clergy to emphasize to their congregations their obligation to vote in the election this coming Tuesday, November 4. At the same time, I encourage churches and their clergy not to campaign during their services or other activities. And let us all go to the deep waters of understanding the issues and the candidates before going to the polls.