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The Pastor Problem '08 Revisited

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2008-07-28-bnet_logo_white.gifI 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 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. Cross-posted from Beliefnet's Progressive Revival blog