This happens every four years. The presidential election builds steam. Those who announced their candidacy early find themselves struggling in the polls and begin to fall off as debates are scheduled, endorsements lack and reality sets in that they have no real chance of gaining their party's nomination.
The frontrunners are identified and even before the final two (or three if there's a legitimate independent in the race) are crowned and the stress levels increase as Americans worry about what will happen if the "wrong" person is elected President.
The Iowa caucus will occur soon and the the Democrats and Republicans will have their official frontrunners as polling numbers mean less and less.
However, it should be noted that an Iowa win does not mean the nomination is secured. Here are a few of the past winners in Iowa:
- 2008 - Mike Huckabee (R). Mitt Romney came in second.
- 1992 - Tom Harkin (D). Bill Clinton came in fourth with 2.8%
- 1988 - Richard Gephardt (D). Michael Dukakis came in third with 22.2%
- 1988 - Robert Dole (R). George H.W. Bush came in third, behind Dole and Pat Robertson.
- 1980 - George H.W. Bush (R). Ronald Reagan came in second.
- 1976 - Uncommitted (D) won! Eventual nominee Jimmy Carter came in second.
There are times the eventual nominee won, such as in 2008 with Barack Obama, 2004 with John Kerry and 2000 with George W. Bush, but the reality is clear here. A win in Iowa is good, but doesn't guarantee a nomination.
Nevertheless, the field is fighting to gain this starting line win, as they should. It is at this time endorsements begin to come in from various sources such as business leaders, other politicians, celebrities and even religious leaders and pastors.
It is always a slippery slope when a pastor endorses political candidates. To be clear, pastors have the right to do so. Now, the church they serve cannot, but the individual leader may. This has been clearly determined by the courts even though some throw the bogus "separation of church and state" argument at pastors who make such endorsements. There are always the threats of losing tax-exempt status as well. While the tax-exempt status of churches in America will likely be lost in the near future, it won't be for pastoral endorsements. But...that's a topic for another day.
Why all the talk about pastoral endorsements?
It's not a new phenomena. Pastors have been endorsing candidates either overtly or subtly for years. In most cases, these endorsements do not make the news because they are offered to smaller congregations and in many cases center around local elections. To be clear, pastoral endorsements come from all denominations and faith expressions and members of each party benefit (or are harmed) by these.
Recently, a well-known Christian leader has been taken to task on this by many who know him and disagree with his candidate of choice.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, made headlines with his glowing introduction of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump at a recent chapel convocation. Trump attracts all forms of media regardless where he speaks. He thrives on this and according to polling data, his strategy is working.
The issue is not that Trump spoke at Liberty. It may cause many to question, but in fairness, Liberty also hosted Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as well. Liberty also hosted the launch of Senator Ted Cruz's bid for the presidency.
What does an endorsement really mean?
Well, not much. It is more symbolic than anything. However, it cannot be ignored that when a pastor or ministry leader (or business leader, politician or any other person in a leadership position) endorses a candidate, the presumption is that the organization, institution, church, or business has also endorsed said candidate. This is not true, but perception is reality and this perception causes problems.
Liberty alumni are now speaking out, mostly in winsome tones, against the official endorsement of Trump. Many would rather have their alma mater's president not endorse anyone. Nevertheless, here are some of the voices coming from the LU faithful:
"I love and respect Jerry Falwell, Jr. and consider Jerry and Becki friends, but I strongly disagree with his endorsement of Donald Trump." - Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America
"For a school that focuses on loving God and loving other people, it's odd to endorse someone who only seems to love himself and other people who love him." - Janet Kelly, former Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth
"The goal of Liberty University is not to defeat Democrats. A populist nationalism has become the chief religion of the day at Liberty. This is a tangible example of what it looks like to gain the whole world and lose your soul." - Dean Inserra, Pastor of City Church, Tallahassee
"When Jerry Falwell, Jr. makes a personal endorsement of Donald Trump, there are tens of thousands of us in our workplaces and stations who have to explain the rationale for it. It's not just a decision that impacts one person or one family." - Rep. Jeff Coleman
I am not a graduate of Liberty. I have friends who are and others who are students or have sent their children there as students. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has the right to endorse or not endorse whomever he likes. The trustees of Liberty have the right to manage and lead their institution as they see fit. The question that is being pushed to the front burner here is the viability, wisdom, and need for pastors and religious leaders (Falwell is not a pastor, but a president of an overtly Christian, evangelical university) to endorse politicians.
I have heard arguments for endorsing and engagement as well as for stepping aside and doing nothing. I'm not sure either response is wise.
I have been accused of being too political because I urge members of my church to register, engage, and vote in each election and educated constituents. I have, in the past, put signs for local and national elections in my yard. (I likely will not be doing that in the future.) When I was in college, I would loudly endorse the candidate of my choice. Of course, I was twenty-years-old and had little or no influence on anyone else, so there were no press conferences declaring my endorsements.
I still love the political process and enjoy watching the debates, dissecting them, researching candidates and all that comes with this season.
However, I have also been accused of not being political enough. One angry former church member (he was angry at everything, it seemed) left to join another church in our county and as a parting shot emailed me and made it clear that I was not political enough from the pulpit. He meant it as a jab. I took it as a compliment.
Nevertheless, these are trying times. It seems that it may be "worse than ever" and some declare that they see no candidates worthy of electing into office. It should be noted that those comments have been stated by the voting public for decades, if not centuries.
I believe this to be true.
The wise pastor or religious leader must take this to heart. Recently in a blog post on The Gospel Coalition site, Mike Edmondson posted an articled titled "5 Reasons to Keep Politicians Out of Your Pulpit." While not specifically focused on endorsements, the emphasis is the same. To allow a politician to speak from the pulpit during a worship gathering is akin to a public endorsement. Here are Edmondson's points:
- The social activism agenda will be presented as equal to the gospel.
- The presumed image that the politician agrees with the doctrines of the church.
- The public service announcement becomes a pseudo-sermon.
- Quid Pro Quo - the "pimping" out of the pulpit.
- Pastor/Politician identity crisis results.
Edmondson breaks all this down well and in more detail in the post. Check it out here.
Falwell and other leaders have every right to endorse or not endorse whomever they choose. For me, I will steer clear of this dangerous step.