We Episcopalians like to point out, probably with something that falls short of Christian humility, that we are a church with more U.S. presidents than any other: 11, to be exact, from George Washington all the way through George H.W. Bush. This year, we do not have anyone on the ticket. But we could have, if we had not gone through the splits of the last decade. That’s because John Kasich, the Ohio governor who is arguably the most moderate candidate in the race, is no longer an Episcopalian but instead a member of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church (ACNA) in Westerville, Ohio. So far as I can tell, it’s not a matter of public record why he made the switch, and I do not care to know as a matter of politics: that’s between him and God. But it does bother me to think that a man like Kasich apparently felt like there was not space for him in the Episcopal Church. And it led me to wonder: Given Kasich’s moderate conservative politics — none of the Trumpian “build the wall” stuff, open to Obama’s Medicaid expansion, and strongly pro-life out of the Christian call to care for the poor and the weak, believes in traditional marriage but thinks that after Obergefell it’s time for politics to move on — in how many of our parishes would a guy like him feel at home?
I do not know the answer to that. But I wonder. I do not know an awful lot about the Episcopal scene in Ohio, but I do know that the last time I saw any Episcopalians from Ohio make the news, it featured the Very Rev. Tracey Lind, dean of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, blessing an abortion clinic. I have had friends tell me that this kind of thing either has led them to leave the Episcopal Church, or has made them think long and hard about it.
Whatever led Kasich to leave, I for one find it to be a real loss. He’s not only the sole Anglican candidate in the race, he’s also the only one who’s written an honest-to-goodness book about the Christian life. Most every political candidate writes a “book” about hardscrabble roots and what’s wrong with America, but Kasich’s book is actually just the nonpolitical story of how a biweekly men’s Bible study over the last 20 years changed his life: Every Other Monday: Twenty Years of Life, Lunch, Faith, and Friendship (Atria Books, 2011). I read it in an afternoon, and it’s honest and humble and from the heart. I’ve known guys whose lives have been changed by their men’s Bible studies too, and this is pretty much the book that they would have written if they’d put pen to paper.
Kasich and his group are not particularly pious or conservative — as he tells it, the idea for the group came to him and a friend over a few beers from a keg at a Christmas party, and the group has vigorous debates about whether this or that part of the Bible is history or allegory — but they are all men who have been deeply impacted by the simple practice of reading a chapter or so and talking about what it means and how to put it into practice in their daily lives. You finish the book and have no idea what Kasich’s politics are, but you want to call your friends and get a Bible study together that very minute. That apparently was Kasich’s whole idea in writing the book: he loved his Bible study so much that he wanted to tell the story and inspire people to start their own. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone on the fence about joining one.
So that’s the kind of fellow that we’ve lost: a politically moderate swing-state governor who reads his Bible cover to cover, thinks deeply about it, and tries to put it into practice. You can piece together some of his story from names and places he mentions in the book. Kasich was raised Catholic in the Pittsburgh area, but like many fell away from church as a young adult. His mother started watching Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, of all things, and became more evangelical in her faith, so she and her husband started attending a local Episcopal church. If something in that sentence sounds odd to you (e.g., Pat Robertson leading someone to the Episcopal Church), it made more sense in the 1980s in the evangelical Diocese of Pittsburgh before the splits of recent years. Kasich mentions in the book that the parish priest was a man named Stu Boehmig, now in an AMiA parish on the South Carolina coast, but for many years a priest in the Pittsburgh diocese. Boehmig, as Kasich tells it, was instrumental in leading Kasich back to faith after both of his parents suddenly died in a car crash in the late 1980s. From then on, Kasich started attending the church in which his late parents had renewed their faith: the Episcopal Church. And before long, he and a friend started a Bible study to better connect their faith to their daily lives.
Thirty years later, we have Gov. Kasich, a man who takes his faith seriously enough that it obviously interferes with his ability to stick to partisan political agendas and win presidential primaries anywhere other than Ohio. But what we do not have very much of anymore is the Bible-reading, small-group-loving, evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church that helped him find Jesus again. Nor, I suspect, do we have as many moderate Republicans in our church, like our last two Episcopal presidents, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. My worry is that we will have fewer and fewer Bible-studying, conservative guys like Kasich in our church as time goes on. Some might think that’s just what comes with the territory when you take prophetic stands for justice. I’m not so sure. I worry that we have been too caught up in the same dynamic of politicization, polarization, and division that’s made Kasich a dinosaur in this year’s campaign.
Maybe if more of us got together every other week to read the Bible (à la the Anglican Bible Challenge), ideally with a group of friends who do not all think or vote alike but want to grow in faith, we’ll be doing better 20 years from now.