HOLLAND, Mich. — While it's relatively unusual for a pastor to run for public office, it’s even more rare for this area to have a Democratic pastor running for Congress. But Bryan Berghoef checks all those boxes.
Berghoef is challenging sitting Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), and he’s running his campaign while still leading Holland United Church of Christ, which meets out of the Civic Center. For Berghoef, the way he pastors his church is similar to the way he is campaigning.
“As a pastor, a big part of my job is to be someone who listens to people, to be present with them, to hear their concerns, to walk alongside them and help them move forward in their lives,” Berghoef said.
That is exactly what he’s doing with his push for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives: meeting with voters, talking to them about the issues and listening to their concerns.
It may not sound like a loud and flashy campaign strategy, but Berghoef believes this wholesome approach will work to connect with voters.
“I think an important job of a representative is to listen,” he said.
Berghoef grew up in West Michigan—a region with deep roots in religion—and he said being a Christian here carried another identity: being a conservative. The 44-year-old pastor was a Republican in his 20s, and he even campaigned for George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. But after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Berghoef started to question that identity.
“I find many of the values Jesus taught and espoused more align with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party,” he said.
Historically, a majority of Christians vote Republican, identify as conservative and shape their political identity into their religion. In 2016, 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for President Donald Trump, and Christian leaders like Franklin Graham have partnered with the president.
However, there has been some fracturing of the hardline Christian-Republican affiliation during Trump’s presidency. At the end of 2019, a flagship evangelical magazine, “Christianity Today,” made the case that Trump should be removed from office.
Berghoef believes there is a growing number of Christians who are questioning the religion’s alignment with the Republican Party. “There are a lot of folks whose journeys—both spiritually and politically—are in flux,” he said.
Judy Cook Vander Zwaag was one of those people several years ago. Vander Zwaag is a member of Berghoef’s church; she said she and her husband left their denomination because they couldn’t support the views anymore.
This was around the time of the 2016 election, which is also the year the Holland United Church of Christ was founded.
“We are finding, as a church, there are more and more people who are ecstatic they found a church like us,” Vander Zwaag said. “We have many people who have a conservative church upbringing background, who couldn’t support a lot of those viewpoints, those ways of thinking, those ‘Christian’ values.”
Berghoef said he made it clear to his congregation they do not have to vote for him, and Vander Zwaag said he has kept his campaign largely out of Sunday morning services. However, she says the campaign makes her a little apprehensive, because if Berghoef is elected they will have to find a new pastor.
Even if the tides are changing, as Berghoef believes, Michigan’s 2nd congressional district is still a GOP stronghold. It covers much of the western Lake Michigan shoreline, from Ottawa County up to Mason and Lake counties. The district has been represented by Huizenga since 2011, and before that Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra held the office for 20 years.
In fact, this area has not elected a Democratic representative since 1933.
Berghoef's campaign, though, is a bid for bipartisanship. He thinks that his background as a West Michigan native and a pastor will resonate with Republicans whose beliefs don’t align with Trump or those who feel abandoned by the GOP.
“Those are the folks we’re inviting to join us,” he said. “And they don’t need to become a Democrat to support me.”
The campaign walks a fine line on issues that could appeal to Republican, Democratic and Independent voters. One part of Berghoef’s platform is affordable healthcare, which he says is a “big issue” for voters. The campaign website says Berghoef wants to move toward universal coverage but wants a system where Americans can choose between public and private healthcare.
Other key bipartisan components of Berghoef's platform are affordable childcare, increasing public transportation and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
Winning over enough voters to beat Huizenga, however, will be a battle. From 2010 to 2016, Huizenga won each of his four elections with nearly two-thirds of the vote. In 2018 when the congressman went up against Dr. Rob Davidson, the supported shifted slightly, but Davidson still lost by 12%.
For now, Berghoef is going to do what he’s always done: listen.
"The job of a representative is to try and bring as many people together as possible," he said.
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