(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.