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Last week, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, found it necessary to “distance” himself from two ultra-conservative pastors: John Hagee of Texas and Rod Parsley of Ohio. Probably, you couldn’t find an American who has not heard of the similar troubles Sen. Barack Obama has had with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

For a business often ridiculed as the best remedy to cure insomnia, it is remarkable how much attention these sermons and their preachers have received. But you have to wonder, at what costs? Like all professionals, ministers want to make a difference. They hope their words are memorable and the changes they encourage make a true difference.

Yet, in these cases, it is the virulent rhetoric of a fringe position that gathers the sought-after attention. While Revs. Hagee and Parsley sit on the far opposite side of Rev. Wright on nearly every issue, they all take extreme and polarizing positions. The very shock value that provides initial success becomes intolerable once introduced to the wider American populace.

Their messages became the victim of this cruel double sword: wildly popular and provocative because they were so political (and politically manipulated) and later discovered to be foolish because they were so extreme. At first glance, they underscore the vast relevancy of the preacher’s words to eventually and effectively prove their ultimate irrelevancy.

Meanwhile, the mainstream church drones on and on concerning the comparatively blander but truly more important priorities of reconciliation, responsibility, peacemaking, acceptance and unconditional love to dwindling congregations of heavy-eyed and patient listeners.

Striking this balance has never been more difficult. Our technologically savvy audiences have heard it all before, immersed not so much in the blood of the lamb as in the overly stimulated culture. Baffled, as any thinking and educated person would be, from the assault on faith that has characterized the last century of intellectual discourse.

What counts for legitimacy? What can awaken our slumber? Is it the hate speech of hypercritical attacks on those who are different? Is it a guilt-ridden condemnation on our moral smugness? Is there any other method possible beyond this verbal shock and awe?

Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.

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