Beware the poli-pastors.
Politicians have always been chided for promising anything during a campaign, even the moon in the form of manned lunar bases, and metaphorically in the form of economic bliss, health care nirvana, and two-sentence solutions to Iraq.
Increasingly, however, promising the moon just isn’t enough. Politicians – regardless of party, policy, or standing in straw polls – are making promises of harmony, unity, even salvation. Consider Sen. Obama’s words last year, “…we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; because our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation.” Or consider his words yesterday, “We’re going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”
Really? That is dicey theology no matter ones creed and begs the question of the of said salvation’s destination – heaven or streets full of hugs?
Such a sentiment is easy to ridicule, but actually flows from an ageless stream of American political rhetoric. While we are accustomed to hearing promises like Herbert Hoover’s, “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” we forget how the honorable George Washington promised America would advance because of the “the gracious indulgence of Heaven” and could therefore “look forward to the riches, power, and happiness… it seems destined” to reach.
Virtually every American politician has assumed a divine right to utter spiritual truths and make spiritual promises. Lincoln declared without a hint of cynicism that government’s “leading object is to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit,” not only materially, but spiritually.
Those spiritual promises, however, tended to adorn political speeches, not provide their substance. Ray Suarez, in his book The Holy Vote, confirms that while “God appears in the words of Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Carter and others, the Almighty has now moved from the wings to the center of the speech.”
Why? In part because of “George W. Jesus” and his enormously successful political self-portrayal as “pastor-in-chief” to millions of evangelical Christians. If politicians always run the last campaign, then Bush’s spiritual exhibitionism is leading some candidates – mostly Democratic ones – to speak as much about their spiritual goals for themselves and for America as about their policy goals.
If this salvation talk from politicians is confusing, try listening to some of America’s leading pastors.
Like American politicians, America’s clergy have always had a political voice. After all, it was John Winthrop sloshing across the Atlantic on the Arbella in 1630 who first proclaimed America “a city set on a hill” and thus a “new Jerusalem”.
Now, however, pastors and religious leaders are becoming defined by the their political promises. Consider the Christian mega-ministry Focus on the Family. In a letter to supporters kicking off 2006, Focus leader James Dobson sited only one leader for inspiration. Jesus? Paul? Moses? No, no, and no. It was “Ronald Reagan [who] once said, ‘Every new day begins with possibilities. It’s up to us to fill it with things that move us toward progress and peace.’” In Ohio, nearly 1,000 churches are now part of a political mobilization network to support conservative candidates. Rev. Al Sharpton attacked fellow African-American pastors not over bad theology but because they had “chosen to ignore or have simply forgotten the big-picture vision promoted by Dr. King and his kin” by opposing gay marriage. What gives?
The poli-pastors are taking over. Politicians think that by sounding like preachers they are going to win votes and preachers think that by sounding like politicians they will grow churches, bring in money, and “save” America. Unfortunately, the net result is bad politics and even worse faith.
Ascribing too much spiritual weight to politicians burdens them with a spiritual authority they do not have – no matter what they do, they won’t deliver a new heaven or create a new earth. They are limited to governing well and serving citizens in their pursuit of peaceable and productive lives. Meanwhile, becoming too encumbered with politics distracts spiritual leaders from their primary eternal purpose and entangles God in political fights that cheapen his reputation.
Let’s hope it doesn’t require crystal meth and gay prostitutes to set everyone straight – though that is helping New Life Church find its way back.
Its founding pastor Ted Haggard, who also headed the National Association of Evangelicals, was exposed last year for dabbling in those things. I talked to a friend who attends the church. He was crushed by Pastor Haggard’s sins, but stayed in the church. How was it going?
Wonderful, he exclaimed. Given all of Pastor Ted’s political involvement, his sermons had become ever more political – more America than Jesus. Now that had changed. Jesus was back, the church was thriving and relationships were being renewed.
They are rediscovering that ‘hope in the unseen’ is the stuff of faith and ‘hope in the seen’ is the stuff of government.