Clergy should not compromise ministry

Published 10:41 am Monday, June 2, 2008

Dueling banjoes may be fun in country music fests, but I’m not amused by the dueling preachers in the current political campaign, which distract from issues. First, there was Obama’s Jeremiah Wright and, then, McCain’s John Hagee. I have other concerns. I am less concerned about clergy embarrassing politicians than I am about their political statements compromising their own ministries.

Jeremiah Wright has been pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and Barack Obama’s pastor. John Hagree is pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and said to be John McCain’s pastor.

When I wrote about the racist position of Wright’s church several weeks ago, I was working from the church’s website. I was not then aware of his characteristic preaching about such as the government having created AIDS in order to wipe out black people or that 9/11 was a punishment this country deserves. Wondering how this might influence Obama’s social and political thinking. I asked the Obama people before writing. Although they never responded. I have since heard his public statements and am satisfied that however Wright may have influenced him, Obama would not act upon the preacher’s charges if he became president. (I still do wonder about his judgment in the associations he makes and how this might affect appointments.)

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The general news media have tried to equate the two preachers and say McCain is as much to be faulted for Hagee as Obama is for Wright. However, little similarity can be recognized beyond the obvious fact both Wright and Hagee are masters at making shocking statements and getting attention for themselves. But this says less about the politicians than it does about the preachers.

John Hagee has been criticized for questionable statements on a wide range of issues, e.g., Nazism, Catholicism, Islam, homosexuality, Jews, and Hurricane Katrina. Videos of Wright preaching are quite sufficient to document what he said, but little documentation has been offered on Hagee, even though his national television preaching is an item of public record.

If I must go on the Associated Press’ release, I must conclude he has been seriously misrepresented. The lead has it: Hagee “…once said God sent Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land.” The body of the release, in contrast, has “God allowed it to happen.” There is a world of difference between “sent” and “allowed,” and at least this charge is invalid.

Moreover, although Senator Obama is currently and has remained a member of Wright’s church for over twenty years, Senator McCain is not nor has he ever been a member of Hagee’s church. Wright pastored Obama, but Hagee only endorsed McCain. There is as much difference between pastoring and endorsing as there is between sending and allowing.

On balance, my judgment is both Wright and Hagee made rash statements, quite worthy of being ignored. They seem to have inflated their own importance and were carried away by their own rhetoric (sometimes this seems to be an occupational hazard).

The American requirement of church-state separation does not disenfranchise clergy from citizenship or deny them freedom of speech. Indeed, it guarantees them. However, professional discretion and personal wisdom sometimes suggests restraint as to how these rights are exercised.

I want clergy to have political voices when they can speak prophetically to public morals, but their credibility must come from the soundness of their thinking and the effectiveness of their pastoral ministries. Every clergy person needs to minister to every member of the congregation, and nothing should compromise the effectiveness of ministry. We don’t have a First Republican Church or a Main Street Democrat Church, and none should sound as if they were.

Pastoral credibility is too sacred to sacrifice on the altar of political partisanship.