24 January 2013



So it seems that a prominent Christian pastor, Andy Stanley, was reported to have told U.S. president Barack Obama that, in the words of the report, "he should be called the 'Pastor-in-Chief' for the way he has handled some of America's most tragic events." Todd Rhoades adds that Stanley has come in for criticism for this comment.

The apparent praise may have kicked up more of a reaction because it became public in the stormy wake of another celebrity pastor's controversial inauguration-day tweet--Mark Driscoll's acid comment, "Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know."

The controversies themselves are only interesting to me insofar as they reveal how far the religion industry can drift from actual attention to holiness and true religion. But they did make me think a bit about the very concept of a "pastor-in-chief."

After all, in the U.S. version of republican democracy, the president is not a monarch, not in any sense the personification of the state. The president is simply the chief executive, the head of the executive department of the tripartite executive/legislature/judiciary government structure. The president is the chief steward of the government's resources in carrying out its constitutional responsibilities. And he or she must account for this stewardship every year in a state of the union address to the legislature, and (after having served a first term) in running for reelection. The president can be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors, and is bound to obey laws, treaties, and court decisions.

No religious test can be applied to the president's candidacy; therefore the president cannot be required to fulfill any obligation a specific religion might want to impose on the office, other than those already imposed by law. The president claims no role in our spiritual formation beyond exhortations from his or her "bully pulpit" to fulfill our civil obligations.

If over the last half-century anyone has been the U.S. pastor-in-chief, maybe it's been Billy Graham, with varying degrees of success depending on his ability to steer a path between familiarity with presidents and politicians, and independence from them; also, between his specifically Christian calling and his evident love for the nation as a whole. These abilities were vividly on display in his leadership of Richard Nixon's funeral, which I commented on here.

In crises, the president may have the opportunity and, arguably, the responsibility to comfort devastated families and communities, to advocate worthy responses ... in short, to give voice to the nation's best heart at that moment. I hope we always elect presidents who have decency and awareness to rise to such occasions.

But I can't imagine how any president could become my pastor or my hero in any spiritual sense, no matter how decent they may seem personally. Just as they are heads of the executive branch, they are also its prisoners. No matter how much Obama abhors the spiritually repugnant practice of torture, he does not demand an accounting for its use by our forces, mercenaries, and proxies. He may shed tears for the victims of Sandy Hook, but he is certainly not the pastor-in-chief for innocent victims of drones or for Palestinian children caught in deadly crossfires.

I honestly believe that Obama personally regrets torture and the death of innocents, but as he chooses his battles within the structures of power, he has evidently calculated that he gets more from pandering to the military than he would get from insisting on a vision more in keeping with the Gospel of peace.

As a Christian citizen of the USA, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have an enthusiastic and consistent evangelical man or woman serving as president, committed to nonviolence, social justice, acceptance of immigrants, and environmental stewardship. I think the powers that be would arrange an impeachment on about day two. Realistically, in most of our presidential elections, we're probably trying simply to discern who has the combination of broad empathy and executive competence that might help us get through the next four years. Competence is, of course, an ethically mixed blessing: in Obama's case, he helped save our economy, and on the other hand, he pursues al-Qaeda with a refined, extraterritorial ruthlessness that puts Cheney to shame.

His reward? As one of my own relatives puts it, "I believe that b.o. hates this country and wants it to be a sitting duck for his terrorist associates.... I believe he is an evil dictating tyrant. The sight and sound of him almost makes me nauseous."

I guess she doesn't see him as pastor-in-chief.

"The scandal of the evangelical heart." Read the comments, too. It puts all those Christian celebrities and their twitter-tantrums in perspective, and reminds me that I put all my eggs in the Jesus basket, not in theirs.

"The situation is dangerous, unpredictable, and usual."

"Help for students." Ghost-
writing ad in our mailbox.
"Will Russia pivot east or west?" ... a strangely narrow and amoral set of choices, and one that seemingly ignores the "both-and" component that has defined the country's uniqueness. But maybe corruption has sucked away the resources needed for that costly and honorable third way.

"Academic 'ghostwriting' still going strong in Russia."

In the meantime, the "President's Council discusses religious feelings law."

"Google defies law enforcement, demands warrants for user data."

"How Islamophobia is manifest in our political culture."

"The pun conundrum." "The lowest form of wordplay, or an ancient art form embraced by the likes of Jesus and Shakespeare..."?

Tina Turner sings a song that sounds sad and ironic in light of her own life. But, oh, what a rocker. (I featured a more recent performance by Angela Strehli and Marcia Ball here.)

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