Jesus of Nazareth, Feeder of the 5000 and Mega-Church Leader

In a ceremony calculated to gain maximum exposure in both the local, national, and imperial press Jesus of Nazareth publicly endorsed Gaius Aelius Agrippa in his run for Provincial Quaestor. This comes as something of a surprise since observers expected Jesus to remain neutral in the race. Pundits are speculating that Gaius Aelius Agrippa may have offered Jesus a seat in the Sanhedrin or on his proposed Jubilee Year Taskforce. The two appeared on stage together today at a rally in Damascus sponsored by the Carpenter’s Union Local 316.

Jesus doesn’t have much of a political organization, with only twelve paid staffers, but his moral influence and name recognition as a member of the Holy Trinity is expected to swing large blocks of voter’s Agrippa’s way. The Carpenters Union’s political machine is now poised to work on Agrippa’s behalf to get out the vote come election day. Jesus and Agrippa shook hands for a brief photo-op, but did not take reporter’s questions. Mary Magdalene, spokeswoman for Jesus, released a statement to the press calling Gaius Aelius Agrippa “one of us, a real Galilean who knows what it will take to bring real change to the region.” The two are expected to appear together tonight at a private fundraiser.

Is this really what we expect of Jesus? Does this seem at all in character? I don’t intend to be rude or offensive in this piece, but lately it seems like there are a lot of Christian leaders who are openly endorsing candidates for public office and I am finding it difficult to imagine Jesus doing the same.

In Presidential elections since the late 1970s it has become so common for us to see conservative ministers endorsing Republican candidates that it rarely makes news anymore. The present Presidential election is interesting because the phenomenon of religious leaders publicly endorsing candidates has “crossed over” and now includes notable endorsements of Democrats as well.  

The United Church of Christ has faced (and since overcome) lawsuits regarding their non-profit status and their perceived endorsement of Sen. Obama, long time member of a UCC church. Liberal and even liberal evangelical ministers and editorialists are publicly musing on the merits of Obama and considering what was almost inconceivable ten years ago, an official endorsement. Meanwhile, Sen. McCain continues to garner endorsements from conservative ministers and evangelical fundraisers.  

I mention all of this only by way of preface to the real issue I want to raise. Note please that ecclesiastic endorsement is as often a liability as it is an advantage, if not more often. Who had heard of Rev. Wright or Rev. Hegge before the controversial nature of some of their sermons became headlines. If these ministers had endorsed their respective candidates and had relatively banal things to say from their pulpits, would these endorsement have made even a ripple?  

Several questions are frequently raised when this topic is broached. Beyond the issue of whether or not we as Christians might agree or disagree with a particular minister’s endorsement, there is the issue of whether endorsements are appropriate at all. I don’t happen to think so and maybe that’s a topic I’ll treat here later. However, for now I want to look more closely at the response that occurs…WHEN AN ENDORSEMENT GOES BAD. I capitalize that phrase to call attention to the media frenzy and blood-lust that ensues when a minister who has endorsed a candidate says or does something that the candidate would not have said or done. It sounds like one of those Friday night “documentaries” FOX used to specialize in: “WHEN ZOO ANIMALS GET LOOSE,” “BLOOD IN THE WATER: WHEN SHARKS ATTACK,” “NATURE’S FURY: WHEN TORNADOES ATTACK.” I have a hunch that interns at the cable news shows have a special room with stacks of old VHS tapes of sermons from the 1970s and 80s from every minister who might potentially endorse a candidate. (Imagine for a moment what would have happened if Huckabee or Romney had won the GOP’s nomination—every kooky Mormon theory and Southern Baptist preacher, no matter how far from the center of their tradition, would suddenly have been fair game.)

We seem to operate with the tacit assumption that listening to a sermon equals agreeing with it. We act as if worshipping next to a person amounts to a full-throated approval of everything they say or do. We pretend that religious association entails endorsement. These assumptions drive the media feeding frenzy that ensues when old sermons are resurrected and submitted to candidates for comment. How completely wrongheaded these assumptions are!

Do you agree with every sermon you’ve ever heard? Do you endorse the behavior and opinions of everyone in your congregation? Have you ever fully examined the official faith statements or doctrines of you local church or your church’s governing body in order to know whether or not you actually agree with everything found therein? Of course you don’t, or at least you shouldn’t.

Beneath oblique claims of “guilt by association” and requests for candidates to either endorse or denounce the words of some preacher or other, lurks the horribly insidious ideal that most of us would reject if it were voiced. So let’s voice it:

Ideally, we should only worship with and hear sermons from those who are like us, and with whom we know in advance we will agree. In other words, Christian sanctuaries should be purified spaces where ideologically, politically, and philosophically identical people gather to affirm together those beliefs that they already know and share.

Just seeing it there in black and white is striking. Is this what we expect of our churches? Is this what we expect of candidates that attend churches or ever in any way associate with ministers or churchgoers?  

I shudder to think of the harm that conceiving of worship and church in such a way would do to the larger body of Christ. It would shatter it into a million pieces. Such a homogeneous conception of church would do away with the need for and experience of the binding power of the Holy Spirit. It would destroy any chance of reconciliation across economic, racial, ideological, ethnic, doctrinal, or linguistic lines. If we are completely honest, we should admit that this conception of church would completely destroy the church community and the notion of Christians gathering for worship and support because the only ideologically, politically, and philosophically pure church is a church of one. Far from asking Christians to join hands across divides and differences for the sake of the larger communion, this conception would elevate the lone individual and make of her or him both congregation and minister. This notion of church would rid us of the question, “Senator, do you agree with or denounce what was said in the pulpit today?” because the pulpit and the parishioner would always speak with one and the same voice.

I have no desire to belong to such a church. I’m not wise enough nor tuned into God enough to be my own pastor. Most of us aren’t, and so we gather with one another to learn from each other, to draw strength from each other. That is what church means, and of necessity we worship beside, minister to, and are ministered by others with whom we sometimes differ. We do this because we must, and to hold candidates to some other standards begs them either to lie to us, or to make of themselves churches of one.

As for the question, “Who Would Jesus Vote For?” that appears on so many bumper stickers…I have it on good authority that he’s a Bob Barr man.