Choosing a Pastor-President

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.

So, who is the better candidate for the national president-pastor? If we look simply at the candidate who has experience in pastoral duties, then it would have to be Romney. Romney’s time serving as a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints involved activities that are pastoral in nature. Yet Obama’s tenure as a community organizer is quite similar to the activities of many African-American pastors who are active in community-oriented services, many of which are funneled through local congregations or through community organizations involving many congregations within a neighborhood. Either way, we see that the American people are choosing a candidate whose personal history involves quasi-pastoral episodes. The point of my observations, then, is not to decide who is the better pastor-president. It is to reveal that many times the extra-constitutional duties of the President ask the American people to choose a candidate that cares for the soul and the souls of this nation.


Interesting things to think about here! I have noticed that on Barack Obama's facebook page (a very thinly veiled Obama-remembering-campaign for his reelection campaign), practically every day they post another picture of the Obama family as a prototypical (and of course, perfect) American family.

Perhaps intertwined with the pastoral identity of a president is this fatherly identity...
Barton Price said…
Perhaps you are right. I have also struggled to understand the online ads to help Michelle Obama wish the President a happy Father's Day and now happy birthday.
Anonymous said…
It must be a matter of perspective. Where the poster sees caring for the souls of a nation, I see cynical pandering to the voters. It is a basic fact of life that many voters would never vote for a non-Christian no matter what the candidates position on matters relevant to the office. If you want to get elected, you better cite scripture. Consequently, I sometimes find it difficult to know whether to believe the candidate holds Christian principles or not.

I've seen a term of Obama as president, but I don't know what to expect of Romney. He doesn't talk about his faith very explicitly. Obviously he does not want to draw attention to any of the Mormon beliefs that would alarm mainstream Christians, but he could show us a little more. (I say "mainstream" to avoid getting into whether Mormons are really Christian or not.) For example, I wonder did he become a priest (a prerequisite to bishop in the Mormon church) for his faith, or because that is what ambitious Mormon men do?

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