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Our American President: The 'Almost Pastor' of an 'Almost Chosen' Land
Image: BU Interactive News / Flickr
Our American President: The 'Almost Pastor' of an 'Almost Chosen' Land

Editor's Note: This piece is a response to "Is the President America's Pastor in Chief?"

In America, we like our presidents a certain way: tall, telegenic, and quick-witted. They should be adept at shaking hands; smart, but not too smart; wealthy, but not too wealthy. He probably is "too smart," but Paul Ryan, the latest figure to enter the maelstrom, fits the criteria.

Our expectations for said President are similarly straightforward: we want them to be good at everything and to appeal to everyone. They should unite the country, balance the budget, and generally do what's needed to save the free world.

Many Americans would add another job requirement, a more spiritual one in nature. The President, many voters believe, should be a pastor to the people, a pan-Protestant minister-at-large to the church of America. He gives succinct but powerful eulogies that offer hope while steering clear of doctrinal niceties. He speaks words of vaguely spiritual character in economically uncertain times. He ties the American future to a nondescript trajectory of moral ascent. Still, the President is not exactly a pastor. He might come close, but political-spiritual leadership is a game of inches.

So, let's amend our idea of President, citing Abraham Lincoln as we do so: If America is, in the eyes of many, an "almost chosen" land, the President is an "almost pastor."

Some would undoubtedly scoff at the idea of President as "almost pastor." Perhaps, though, it carries some merit. I prefer to locate the pastorate in the local church per 1 Timothy 3:5: There, Paul directs Timothy to raise up elders or overseers or bishops that lead their families well, for if they don't spiritually care for their families, "how will he care for God's church?" In other words, the elder or pastor is a local church office.

The Bible makes it clear that the church and the state are distinct entities, and so must be the officers or leaders of each institution, a view derived from Jesus' words on taxation. As recorded by Matthew, the Pharisees sought to paint Jesus as a Caesar-hating radical, yet another first-century insurrectionist who declared Roman rule—and therefore civil government—illegitimate. Christinstructed those listening to honor the state by paying taxes even as they honored the Lord through acceptable worship: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21).

In this declaration, we see how Jesus viewed the state and the church: they were each established authorities, and yet, they were distinct entities. Caesar was not to rule the things of God, fortunate for the people of God on many levels. If you think your least favorite American President was bad, try Nero on for size.

World-shaping theorists such as Augustine and Aquinas each argued in their own way for rulers that would honor God's church but not rule it. Echoing Romans 13, Augustine urged Christians, the members of the City of God, to obey the state, but the great theologian prescribed no bishopric for the ruler of the City of Man. Aquinas believed that the government in its best sense could stimulate virtue, but the brilliant "Dumb Ox" limited the authority of the state much as Augustine had.

Luminary theologians of the Reformation like Luther and Calvin largely upheld this distinction, though neither saw as much discontinuity between the two spheres as did the Anabaptists, who championed a thoroughgoing separation of the institutions.

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