Religion & American politics:

The makings of a pastoral presidency?

posted by Omri Elisha

Despite Mike Huckabee’s strong evangelical turnout in South Carolina, his campaign still struggles to overcome to apparent the lack of consensus across the spectrum of evangelical constituencies. Recent NYT coverage and posts by Michael Lindsay and John Schmalzbauer reinforce just how complex the cultural styles and political sensibilities of American evangelicals can be. Moreover, as Jeff Sharlet of the Revealer noted after the Iowa caucuses, Huckabee’s religiosity is not the only religiously significant factor in this election year. Evangelicals at the grassroots, like many voters, assess candidates for their leadership potential as much as their issue-orientation. And when thinking about leadership, evangelicals build their perceptions on exemplary role models in their very own communities.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of the local church pastor in the lives of conservative Protestants. Even in an age of Christian parachurch networks, media outlets, political action groups, and celebrity elites, the primacy of pastoral authority – and the larger congregationalist ethic on which it draws – remains a deep and impenetrable part of the evangelical subculture. But what does this authority mean in the present day and how does it pertain to the renewed prominence of religion in electoral politics?

I once visited a Southern Baptist megachurch in Tennessee, where during a service the senior pastor asked everyone to stand up, turn to the person next to them, and say one thing that they are thankful to God for. Not having a clue as to the most appropriate response (I am neither a regular churchgoer nor a Christian), I looked at the elderly couple to my right and simply said, “My parents.” The woman smiled back and confidently said, “Our pastor.”

At the time I thought to myself “Really? With one shot to express thanks for something God has done in your life, that’s it??” But as I spent more time observing evangelical congregations I realized this was no trivial matter. Church pastors represent not just leadership and hierarchy but the very vitality of the congregation itself. They are expected to embody the integrity of the church as a moral community, even its cracks and fissures, and at the same time they must convey lofty aspirations that the congregation ultimately strives toward. In some ways, the role of the pastor is idealized in a manner not unlike the office of the president. In other ways, pastoral leadership is vastly different not only in scale but in substance.

Allow me to list three qualities – a cursory and incomplete list at best – that I believe define the role of the church pastor (in ideal-typical terms) among many conservative evangelical congregations today. First, the pastor is meant to be a reflection of a congregation’s conscience. He expresses what the people believe as well as what they think they should believe. He expresses their fears and loves, their conflicted longings, as well as their collective ethos of moral indignation combined with rigorous self-scrutiny.

Second, the pastor is a figure of paternal authority, a leader who disciplines and nurtures in equal degrees. He is, in a real sense, a “decider” who is assumed to know what’s best for his flock provided that his decisions are framed in terms of biblical orthodoxy and confirmed through institutionalized channels of “accountability” (which is key in bureaucratic megachurches). Of course, as any seasoned churchgoer knows, his decisions rarely go entirely unchallenged; so much of his authority is also connected to his ability to manage discord and minimize internal dissent.

Third – and this is an area where pastoral leadership has evolved considerably in recent decades – the pastor is a mediator of ideas, movements, and popular culture. In other words, he serves as a resource and guide through the rich marketplace of modern religiosity. It is true that we have witnessed a tremendous individualization of religious activity, such that people can pick and choose the books, workshops, movies, and social causes that inform their spirituality. But it is also true, for example, that many churchgoing evangelicals look to their pastors (and pastoral staff) to find out which books, workshops, etc., are especially worth their time and money. Before there was Oprah, there was Pastor Bob.

What does all this mean for the current presidential election? Since the church pastor is such a dominant, totalizing figure in the lives of churchgoing evangelicals, I would first suggest that when trying to understand (or predict) the voting patterns of evangelicals we might do well to ask not only which candidate is the most religious or best represents “core values” of the religious right, but rather which candidate is seen to be the most pastoral.

Then again, it may be wrong to assume that evangelical voters in the current moment are necessarily looking to elect a pastoral president in the strictest sense. So we must also ask: what if any aspects of pastoral leadership do evangelicals want to see demonstrated in a potential Commander-in-Chief? (And could this provide any insight into what churchgoers mean when they say a candidate comes across as “presidential?”)

Finally, given the critical differences between pastors and presidents, we need to consider certain pastoral qualities that simply cannot be duplicated in the oval office. For example, the pastoral role of mediator described above requires a level of social intimacy or direct interconnectivity between leaders and followers that even the most stirring fireside chats can only approximate.

Perhaps then the challenge for candidates courting evangelical voters is not merely seeking a delicate balance between moderation and conservatism, or idealism and pragmatism, but also finding that elusive sweet spot where the authoritative qualities of the church pastor, the corporate executive, and constitutional defender meet.

Lest we forget, there are substantive political and economic issues at stake in this campaign. As recent polls and primaries suggest, evangelicals are diversely attuned to them. With all the Huckabee Hullabaloo, it’s also easy to forget that it takes more than bass guitars, shadowy crosses, and theocentric rhetoric to make a former pastor into a future president.

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