Today's post comes from Barton Price, assistant professor of history at Grand Valley State University and one of the many terrific PhDs from Florida State University. He has an article coming out in Methodist History titled "The.Cental Christian Advocate and the Quest for a Heartland Identity in American Methodism, 1852-1900."
Choosing a Pastor-President to Care for the Soul and Souls of the Nation
In the aftermath of the tragic shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, both President Barack Obama and Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney suspended their presidential campaigns for a few days. In that time, President Obama visited with surviving victims and the families of the deceased. I suggest that this action offers a different timbre to the presidential race of 2012, one that adds a religious dimension to the election. What the action represents is the nation’s selection of a president-pastor.
President Obama’s visitation with survivors is not an unwelcomed action. It shows his compassion for these families and for his constituents. As he stated, he came not as the President but as “a father and as a husband.” This illustrates Obama’s populism. But it is, on one level, an act akin to the pastoral offices of many American clergy. Following the visitation, Obama offered biblical verses as consoling axioms to heal the nation’s wounds. His speech was a sermon of sorts. What intrigues me about Obama’s activities in response to the Aurora shooting is that they are peripheral to his presidential duties, but they have become integral to the extra-constitutional job description for the President of the United States of America. These duties often involve activities that mirror those of a pastor. If these duties are now part of the unwritten role of the President, then they prompt us to ask who is the better president-pastor.
Presidential elections often involve issues that have little to do with public policy and the administration thereof. While the Constitution prescribes that the President’s job is to execute the laws written by Congress, the American electorate is also interested in the character of the candidates. This has been the case since the election of 1800. In that election, Federalists pointed to the heterodoxy of Thomas Jefferson. Since 1828, when the popular vote had greater influence after the extension of universal white male suffrage, the character of the presidential candidate has continued to be of greater importance, sometimes more than the pressing issues themselves. This year’s election is no different, and it pits the two main candidates—Obama and Romney—in ethical and moral terms.
Likewise, for many denominations in the United States—particularly those with a congregational model—the selection of pastors is an electoral process. In many denominational parlances, persons being considered for a pastoral position are referred to as “candidates” who “campaign” for a job. This should come as no surprise since many of the congregational style denominations developed denominational and local congregational “constitutions” that include a legislative branch (i.e. church board, or general denominational convention) and an executive branch (i.e. local pastor, or denominational governing board). So, denominations act very much the local and national electoral processes. It should come as no surprise, then, that many Americans approach governmental elections with similar ideas and values as they do when choosing who leads their congregations and their denominations.