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I don’t remember
hearing the exact term before – but it is clear that the Pastor Problem is here to stay.
There were three
categories of pastor problems in the 08 elections. The most closely watched
and problematic were the personal pastors
of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.
Compliments of Barack
Obama, the American voter was introduced to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity
United Church of Christ, whose famous post 9/11 phrase “God Damn America” almost
brought down the Obama campaign.
Compliments of Sarah
Palin, the American voter was introduced to Rev. Larry Kroon of Wassila Bible
Church who brought in a pastor who prayed over Gov. Palin against witchcraft
and introduced David Brickner, the head of Jews for Jesus, who suggested that
Palestinian attacks might be God’s judgment on the Jewish people for their
rejection of Christ.
The second category
of pastor problem was represented by the sought after, received and then
rejected endorsement of John McCain by public
pastors who, it was hoped, would rally the base of the Republican Party. Compliments of John McCain the American
voter was introduced to John Hagee, who called the Catholic Church the Great
Whore; and Rod Parsely who called Islam the greatest religious enemy of our
civilization and the world.
The third pastor problem
was the oppositional pastor in which
a candidate’s own religious leader rallied in opposition to his candidacy. So compliments
of Joe Biden the American voter was introduced to Bishop Joseph F. Martino, of
the Diocese of Scranton who said that Biden was not eligible to receive communion
in his diocese because of the candidate’s pro-choice stance.
All three Pastor
Problems – the personal, the public, and the oppositional were major story lines
for the campaign. Why?
Voters were faced
with an election that had no incumbent and so understanding the candidate’s character
and worldview became even more important in the voter’s decision. This was
coupled with the internet and cable TV’s hunger to fill their blank screens in
a 24/7 news market. Most importantly, advances in technology produced easily
carried cameras to record, and YouTube to broadcast, footage of pastors in action directly to voters around the country beyond the power of campaigns to contain or explain.
The result was that within the heightened emotions of an election campaign, voters were introduced to the
worldview of traditions that were foreign to them without context or history. The most politically dangerous for the
candidates proved to be the Jeremiad where the pastor proclaims that God is
damning this country or that people for their sins. This is pretty common among the prophets of the Bible (it is
named after the prophet Jeremiah), and if there is one thing that Wright,
Hagee, and Kroon had in common is that they appear to understand themselves as prophets
lifting their voice in the wilderness of sinful America.
The reason why this
was particularly lethal for the candidates was that the Jeremiads of their
pastors were perceived to be directed against entire voting demographics:
Brickner aganst the Jews, Hagee against the Catholic Church, Pasley against
Islam, and Wright, against White America. This perception of attack was then exploited by the
opposition for full effect.
Religion is very
complicated and full of symbols that mean something from within a community but
don’t always translate to those outside.
A house of worship is much more than just the pastor and many of us
spend half our time in the pews silently disagreeing with what is said from the
pulpit. Evaluating a candidate through their pastor is, at best, an imperfect
mechanism for understanding what a candidate believes or how a candidate will
act. Pastors can and should have
political views. Religion is about
many things but ethics and values, both private and public, are intrinsic to the project. If there is a lesson for pastors it is
that rants against entire segments of the population ultimately are rejected by
the American people and do not have a place in our collective politic.
The question remains
how aspiring political figures will respond to the pastor problem of election
08. The bar has been raised. It is
not enough to attend a place of worship – you have to vet it. My worry is that our future political
leaders will begin to choose houses of worship that do not challenge them, but
whose innocuous message week after week can be boiled down to Love is Good, God
is Good, America is Good – Amen.