Judging politicians by their preachers is a great temptation to which many succumb, adding more poison to the public square in at least two ways.
First, it fosters the false fear that dogmatic preachers have undue influence over politicians – when they really don’t. Even the worst politicians are not religiously robotic. They compromise doctrine and shade practices in the pursuit of power.
Second, it allows politicians to score cheap points against one another with guilt by association. Such tactics permit politicians and pundits to do dog-whistle politics, summoning faith supporters without solving problems.
Judging politicians by their preachers goes back in modern memory to when Southern Baptists judged presidential candidate John Kennedy by his preacher – the pope, wrongly warning that the Vatican would run the government.
In recent times, opponents of presidential candidate Barack Obama judged him by his preacher, Jeremiah Wright, fostering the negative narrative that Obama was really anti-white and anti-American. That narrative has surely fed the Birther frenzy.
Opponents to presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty only a few weeks ago judged him by his preacher, Leith Anderson. Why? Anderson believes global warming is real and favors immigration reform as an expression of the Bible’s call to welcome the stranger, two things that are anathema to conservatives.
Rather than judging politicians by their preachers, we need more preachers who judge politicians by their record of protecting the least among us, by their moral vision of the common good.
For that to happen, preachers would have to retain a prophetic distance from politicians, the space needed to avoid being co-opted as court prophets – the biblical image of those who were toadies to the unjust and immoral king.
Unlike court prophets, think of the prophet Nathan who spoke a word of judgment directly to King David for his sexual manipulation of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.
The preacher-as-prophet model has given way regrettably over the past 30 years to the preacher as kingmaker.
We are once again witnessing the religiousrightreconstitutingitself to defeat a president. The religious right opposes what Obama favors – health care for the poor, compassion for the undocumented, care for the environment, protection for the elderly, checks on unfettered corporate greed.
And heaven forbid that the biblical teaching of “to whom much is given much is required” should serve as an argument for why the wealthy ought to pay more in taxes.
Robison is the same evangelist who organized a religious right rally in 1980 to defeat President Jimmy Carter. At that event, Robison suggested that presidential candidate Ronald Reagan use his famous line: “I know you can’t endorse me…but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.”
Now, Robison is taking credit for having urged Perry in January 2011 to hold a prayer summit akin to the one scheduled for this August under the banner “The Response,” that is predictably endorsed by preachers known for controversial statements in the extreme.
The danger here is not so much the clerical company that politicians keep – as if they will turn dogmatic stances into public policy positions – but that vain preachers bless politicians who validate them with false praise.
Sadly, these preachers water down the moral agenda for the ideological agenda of those who favor private gain over the common good, who approve of Ayn Rand over Jesus, who prefer the Darwinian survival of the fittest over the Sermon on the Mount.
RobertParham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. This editorial appeared on July 14 on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web page.