Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion Politics

Of pastors and presidents

The 5th-century Ravenna, Italy, mosaic illustrates the concept of the Good Shepherd. Image by Ravenna/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Back in 2007, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour questioned the late Jerry Falwell about inviting confessed adulterer and presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich to give the commencement address at Liberty University.

“How do you resolve what looks sort of hypocritical?” she asked.

“We’re not trying to elect a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, not a pastor-in-chief,” Falwell responded. “We’re looking for a commander-in-chief.”

Two years ago, Falwell’s son Jerry Jr. explained his early endorsement of Donald Trump in the same terms. “We’re not choosing a pastor-in-chief,” he told Fox News. “We’re choosing a president of the United States.”

This Falwell meme, which evangelical leaders now habitually deploy to excuse their support for any problematic Republican presidential candidate, implies that pastors are held to a higher standard. But is that really the case?

Take Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and godfather of the megachurch movement. As alleged in recent reports in the Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today, he has a long history of sexually inappropriate behavior with women.

It’s a history that church leaders and members have been all too ready to dismiss. They have accepted Hybels’ denials over the credible claims of his accusers.

The pattern is familiar, and not only in the evangelical world. It can be found among Mormons, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, of course, Catholics. You might call it part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Some will say that while covering up for religious leaders is all too common, it’s not the same as judging them by the lower standard the Falwell meme reserves for commanders-in-chief. That, I’d say, is a distinction without a difference. Either way, the leader is allowed to skate.

The question is why?

It’s easier to explain in the case of pastors. The most beloved celebration of pastoral care, Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”), includes this gritty line: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”

The good shepherd is one who protects and nourishes his or her flock, personal flaws notwithstanding. There are so many threats, so many hostile forces out there. The Lord God of the Hebrew Bible not infrequently does things that, by conventional moral standards, are hard to stomach.

Small wonder that so many well-tended flocks — or flocks that consider themselves well-tended — stand up for their pastors when they are accused of malfeasance.

Once upon a time, we were prepared to think of the president of the United States as the universal symbol of the country. Now he’s little more than the shepherd of one or the other partisan tribe.

And if it’s our tribe he’s shepherding, we are prepared to cut him whatever slack he needs so long as he prepares that table in the presence of … the other tribe. Donald Trump has, by their policy lights, prepared a pretty good table for his evangelical flock.

On the other hand, if the president belongs to the other tribe, we call his legitimacy into question, make him #notmypresident.

This delegitimation took off with the presidency of Bill Clinton, and among those responsible was, yes, Jerry Falwell Sr. In 1994, the sometime head of the Moral Majority took to the airwaves to hawk a $43 videotape that charged Clinton with everything from sexual misconduct to complicity in the murders of “countless people.”

It was an ugly business, but not inappropriate for someone who lived in a world of good and bad shepherds. So far as Falwell was concerned, we’d elected the wrong pastor-in-chief.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • The piece should of been longer, it circles around and curls up like my dachshund without really going anywhere.

  • Trump had “Extramarital Affairs.” Hillary had “Open Marriage.” Both strongly preferred that the women involved, keep quiet about it.

    So which candidate did you forgive at the 2016 ballot box?

  • It seems too many have forgotten the rotten choices we had last election. People voted against a candidate and were happy when their anti-vote won. Perhaps an article on why the voters were given such rotten choices should be next.

  • The exercise of hypocrisy over evangelical support for Trump is simply repeating a tragic historical precedent: that of the dominant branch of the Church supporting wealth and power for gain. And religiously conservative Christians have gained more positions of influence, the appointment of activist judges who favor their causes, and the appearance of a governmental hedge against encroaching secularism. And that is what the last paragraph of the above article excellently points out in a more abstract way.

  • Let me run this through the EvangelicalSpeak Translator 3000

    “We insist on standards of biblical behavior for people….until it gets in the way of something we really really want. Then we justify our hypocrisy.”

  • One issue is…we now have more access to information about both the political and personal actions of our candidates.

    Think back to the 1980s. – if Reagan or Carter made a statement on the campaign trail, we could not easily fact check it.

    There was also a concerted effort to keep many aspects of the candidates’ private life …well private. If a candidate sexually harassed a woman, she had fewer ways to let people know.

    So perhaps a big answer is technology. Older voters expect candidates to be as sanitized as their former candidates seemed to be.

  • The one that never bragged about grabbing a vagina?

    I often ask a Trump voter — What if it were your daughter Trump said that about?

  • How about a more non partisan truth

    “Those in power will endorse anything that keeps them in power.”

  • I think we had an excellent choice, and the majority of the voters chose HER. My opinion is just as valid as yours and several million voters more agreed with me than with you. Perhaps now we can put away the bad mouthing of the loosing candidate, and get on with dealing with the reality we have been given. Moreover, I think character counts in leaders and the religious right does itself no favors choosing power over character.

  • Trump voters are like the drunk guy at the bar who can’t stop talking about how horrible his ex-girlfriend was. This isn’t just about the election any more.
    This is about *continued* evangelical support for someone whose deeds, when similar things were done by Democrats, were cause for impeachment. If Trump is removed from office, Hillary will not automatically become president. So why the continued fawning and fanboyism? It’s because they want something for their investment. Otherwise they look like fools.

  • I actually agree that we were given two bad choices and it was an election where we had to choose between the least worst. I voted for Clinton. She isn’t responsible for what her husband did, though she is responsible for what she said about it.

    Democrats should have realized that she was unacceptable to far too many people. The arguments against her were largely BS. BUT that said even if she had won she would have had a presidency under constant attack from Repubs for Benghazi and her emails.

  • That’s because they are fools. No one likes to admit they have been conned. Still admitting you’ve made a mistake is the way to growth and healing.

  • They can e cause anything in trump p because it is not about morals, god’s will, or faith. It’s about power, money, dominion , and most importantly with the election of Jabba the Trump…


    Or what I like to call godswill.

  • What if Juanita Broaddrick was your daughter (or mine or any of the readers)? What then?

    “You’d Better Put Some Ice On That” — what Slick Willie reportedly told Juanita after he was done with her. Of course, this was before Hillary grabbed her arm and had a little Enforcer Talk with her. Enforcers know how to make everything okay.

  • Of course, the non-conservative and/or non-evangelical Christians distinguished themselves in 2016 on an equal basis. Not one penny less, on any side.

  • So you stayed home and refused to vote at all, in order to avoid “choosing power over character” (because a vote for either Hillary or Trump, from any Christian of any flavor, was a clear vote for power in favor of flat-out liberalism or flat-out conservatism). You did stay home, right?

  • floydlee,
    But it is your last paragraph that illustrates one of the major causes for why we had such a poor choice between the nominees from the two major parties, we are locked into voting on a two-party system basis. I chose Jill Stein. She had her problems too but not to the extent that either Trump or Hillary had. And conservatives had third-party candidates to vote for too.

    For as long as we settle for the two-party system, we will be given choices that, overall, tend to get worse.

    However, the article is also talking about the reluctance on the part of evangelical supporters of Trump to criticize him and distance themselves from him after post-election revelations about Trump have come out. That is why Silk pointed to how the post-election treatment of Clinton was not the same as the current post-election treatment of Trump by evangelicals. And we can’t blame the two-party system for that.

  • So you support sexual harassment. At least have the integrity to support an issue rather than political agenda

  • While we are on the subject of pastors and presidents…

    A Houston megachurch pastor and longtime spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush was indicted in federal court Thursday on claims that he sold more than $1 million in worthless Chinese bonds to vulnerable and elderly investors, some of whom lost their life savings to the alleged scheme.

    A federal grand jury in Shreveport, La., returned a 13-count indictment accusing the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell and financial planner Gregory Alan Smith of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, prosecutors said in a news release.

    The two men were also sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the same federal court on allegations that they violated financial laws. According to prosecutors, Caldwell used his influence as the pastor of the 16,000-member Village United Methodist Church to dupe investors into buying historical Chinese bonds issued decades ago.

  • Not so. I did vote for Clinton on the basis of admirable character and practical experience. She had demonstrated both for many years. Moreover, she was a faithful Christian. But then I’m not a one issue voter. I vote for the person and not his/her promise to choose a particular sort of Supreme Court candidate. Because of the religious right’s behavior in the last election, I firmly believe they have hurt the cause of Christ; they are about to cost us another generation of young people.

  • My favorite version of that, a real bumper sticker, was…

    Christians aren’t smug. Just forgiven.

    To which a friend of mine appended a second bumper sticker…

    They say smugly.

  • Thanks – “admirable character” and “a faithful Christian” made me spit coffee on my monitor laughing.