Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Presidential Preacher Politics

Senator Obama has his Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pfleger, and Senator McCain has his John Hagee and Rod Parsley.

Republicans contend that Senator Obama has the more serious problem, because he sat under Pastor Wright’s preaching for 20 years and cultivated a close relationship with Pastor Pfleger, but Democrats respond that Senator McCain’s enthusiastic embrace of Pastors Hagee and Parsley make him equally culpable.

Both are right. Obama and McCain set aside their better judgment to advance their political careers, which subjected them to the charge of political opportunism. In the end they suffered public embarrassment. And both have recently made haste to disavow their connections to these pastors.

Most Americans are in the center of a bell curve. They are neither far right nor far left. Pastors Wright, Pfleger, Hagee, and Parsley enjoy significant followings, but they are outside the mainstream of American political and religious thought. Neither the substance of their theology nor the style of their preaching appeals to the American mainstream.

Theologically Pastors Wright and Pfleger hold to the doctrines of “Black Liberation Theology,” and Pastors Hagee and Parsley hold to a variety of doctrines, but especially regarding the “end times,” that place them outside the American mainstream.

Marshall McLuhan remarked that “Television is a cool medium,” which we might add does not serve well the “hot” preaching styles of Pastors Wright, Pfleger, Hagee, and Parsley. Their followers like their “in-your-face” style, but the American public does not.

As Americans, living under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, both presidential candidates and pastors enjoy the privileges of “freedom of religion” and “freedom of speech.” But constitutional freedoms and political wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand.

What lessons should we learn about “Presidential Preacher Politics”?

Today’s associations may become tomorrow’s embarrassments. In 1976 Jimmy Carter accepted the endorsement of Jim Jones, who later led several hundred religious followers to their deaths in a mass suicide. In 2000, after speaking on the campus of Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, George W. Bush had to immediately disavow any connection with its anti-Catholic image.

Tacit endorsements are usually better than explicit endorsements. Pastors can effectively convey their political preferences without making major public pronouncements. John McCain did not need a major public endorsement from John Hagee to have Hagee’s followers fall in line behind Hagee’s preference. For example, Billy Graham never overtly endorsed presidential candidates, but in subtle and indirect ways, such as prominently featuring a candidate or president at one of his giant evangelistic rallies, he conveyed his preferences. Richard Nixon, for one, benefited from this approach when he attended a massive Graham rally in Tennessee.

Religious leaders risk a crisis of credibility in making endorsements. If a religious leader endorses a candidate whose positions conflict with those of his followers, a credibility problem will likely follow. When the Chancellor of Bob Jones University (BJU), Bob Jones III, endorsed Mitt Romney, a Mormon, massive resistance from BJU alumni prompted his son, BJU President Stephen Jones, to immediately distance the University from his father’s endorsement.

Religious success does not insure political success. The requirements for building a major church or religious movement are not the same as those required for successful participation in politics. Religious leaders may speak with ultimate and final authority on matters of doctrine and organizational structure, but in the political realm, successful political leaders must speak more tentatively and respond more frequently to the necessity of compromise. So when religious leaders bring their confident assurance into the political realm with its emphasis on change and compromise, they risk making major mistakes.

What religious problems do Obama and McCain now have?

Obama and McCain have religious problems, but they differ. Obama must shed his attachment to the far left religiously in order to appeal to the American mainstream, where most voters are, while McCain must win the enthusiastic support of American evangelicals and conservative Catholics, who are part of the Republican Party’s power base.

As it is now, Obama’s principal liability is that the public perceives him as out of touch with mainstream America. That’s why Senator Clinton had such success against him during the primaries in winning the votes of evangelicals, conservative Catholics, rural voters, and others. And for McCain he has positioned himself slightly to the right of center, just as Ronald Reagan did, but unlike Reagan McCain's principal liability is that he does not yet enjoy the enthusiastic support of the religious right.

6 comments:

J Gregg said...

Best posting yet! Keep up the great work.

John g.

Steve Elliott said...

Very provocative posting. I enjoyed it and want to offer two points for consideration.

First, I'm not sure how one can equate the endorsement of a few pastors with the close, mentoring relationship Obama received from Wright. Obama's rhetorical vision is based on a Wright speech. He "endorsed" Wright's theology and theatrics by maintaining his membership for all these years, making substantial donations, etc. Obama's recent renunciation of the church is nothing more than proof he is pure and simple a politician and not a movement.

Second, I'm also concerned to see Parsley and Hagee -- two preachers whom I would assume would be welcomed on the 700 Club -- hurled under the bus. The criticisms of Hagee and Parsley could have been levied on any number of prominent Christian leaders, including Pat Robertson. I don't think the lesson of Obama-Wright is that politicians need to sift through their endorsements from religious leaders with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. But there will be a different standard for your personal mentors and pastors.

perceiving said...

Very provocative posting. I enjoyed it and want to offer two points for consideration.

First, I'm not sure how one can equate the endorsement of a few pastors with the close, mentoring relationship Obama received from Wright. Obama's rhetorical vision is based on a Wright speech. He "endorsed" Wright's theology and theatrics by maintaining his membership for all these years, making substantial donations, etc. Obama's recent renunciation of the church is nothing more than proof he is pure and simple a politician and not a movement.

Second, I'm also concerned to see Parsley and Hagee -- two preachers whom I would assume would be welcomed on the 700 Club -- hurled under the bus. The criticisms of Hagee and Parsley could have been levied on any number of prominent Christian leaders, including Pat Robertson. I don't think the lesson of Obama-Wright is that politicians need to sift through their endorsements from religious leaders with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. But there will be a different standard for your personal mentors and pastors.

Kenyananalyst said...

Interesting reading, thanks.

Stephen Raper said...

Great post. One of your best yet.

Just my how-to from the political trenches...

Politicans can meet with the preachers in private, preferably as a group, so no one can claim that it was a private meeting between the two.

This allows the politicians to make their case without having to worry about a picture surfacing later of them with a controversial figure. Likewise politicians need to learn how to nod their head or learn how to say they understand the position, so they never have to say "I'm in agreement." Gives them plausible deniability on the one hand, or an opportunity to later nuance what the are agreeing with if they need to. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for leadership. But preachers can be blunt, while statesmen are called to be diplomatic.

If the candidate wants to speak at the church, revival, or on a religious tv show, they should be introduced by one of the deacon's of the church who has never made a controversial public statement, or even better, by one of their own campaign staff. Again, keeping a certain amount of distance between themselves and the preacher, who shouldn't even be on the stage at the same time.

When speaking, the candidates don't have to speak to religious subjects. They can speak about their main campaign issues. The fact that they are at a religious organization or event sends a message that the pastor finds their religious and political stances to be acceptable.

Thus the politician gets to make their case to the congregation, while avoiding the negativity which comes from an endorsement by a controversial person.

What has happened recently however, is that the preachers love their "fifteen minutes of fame." So it isn't just the politicans using the preachers; it is also the preachers using the politicans to increase their own visibility and public stature. I think Jeremiah Wright's national tour and his speech at the Washington Press Club illustrates that.

But a question remains With all the compromises that politicians have to make, why would preachers want to annoint a politician as the "Christian" candidate to begin with? Seems to be doing a disservice to Christ! So I am concerned about religious endorsements to begin with.

Stephen said...

According to a report (survey) on FoxNews, 26% of the electorate considers itself Evangelical. I would guess that something less than 5% subscribe to Afro-Centric "Liberation Theology".

Furthermore, from a practical standpoint, Evangelicals are a much more powerful group as the election comes closer. They care about issues, they talk, they get out the vote. One evangelical voter has the power of, perhaps, 1.5 regular voters. Republicans cannot win without that vote and McCain seems to have a political death wish as he deliberately ignores his best Republican base.

Rev. Hagee and Rev. Parsley are offering respectable good-faith interpretations of The Bible - whether people choose to be offended or not - according to their gifts, and they are not bigoted, nor are they hypocritical (as far as I know). IN that respect they differ greatly from The Lefties in Chicago.

Rev. Wright & Co., speak in defiance of The Word, making judgments, based on skin color, while holding up the MLK message. These are blasphemous hypocritical words that no biblically-true Christian could agree to.

The only common element is that a preacher is involved. Comparing the two makes no sense, as I see it.

A wise candidate will speak to the issue candidly, in terms that anyone can understand:

"Let's get real here. No candidate rejects a vote. I seek support from more than half the nation. Why would anyone expect a Bible Church to endorse a radical left-wing candidate, anyway? Has it ever happened? Views differ.

With just two candidates to choose from, I will probably be endorsed by all sorts of people that I will never see, let alone agree with. If a voter is faced with the choice of two candidates, he must pick one. Whatever my beliefs may be, I welcome the endorsement of anyone because I want to be elected, and my opponent is no different in that respect".