This week, Atlanta pastor Andy Stanley preached at President Obama's pre-inaugural worship service at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. In the course of his remarks, Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, called the President "Pastor in Chief." This caused a whirlwind of comments and criticisms, to which Stanley wanted to reply. I talked with him by phone, and asked him about the context of this remark, as well as the content of his sermon and the Christian's public responsibility toward Presidents with whom we disagree on crucial issues. —Mark Galli, editor.
How did this recent invitation to preach at the pre-inauguration service come about?
Joshua DuBois, who works for the President, called me a couple of weeks before the event and asked me if I would do the 12-minute sermon at the pre-inaugural service. They've done this for many years. It was pretty much an Episcopal service, very high church, hymns, readings. Mostly Christians were there, except for two rabbis who read portions of Scripture—I believe they were rabbis. I was very honored and surprised to be asked.
Who attends this sort of thing?
The President's family, the vice-president's family, and the cabinet and their families. I think some invited members of Congress. And then there were a lot of church members. The place was full. I would guess five hundred people.
How did you settle on a theme to preach on?
When Joshua invited me I knew immediately what I wanted to talk about, and it's something I talk a lot about at leadership conferences—the idea that people with power are called upon to leverage their power for people who don't have power. And I knew immediately that's what I wanted to talk about. Actually the easiest part of this was knowing what I wanted to talk about.
The other thing was, I wanted to teach out of the New Testament. There's the temptation in an environment like this to go Old Testament, be broad, stay away from Jesus. But they did not tell me what to talk about. They did not ask for my notes ahead of time. Everything else was scripted.
What was the hardest part about preaching?
Making sure I could actually get to the church on time! So many streets are blocked off, and there are checkpoints. Four years ago, I participated in the national prayer service the day after the inauguration at the National Cathedral, and getting there was so stressful. So my wife, Sandra, and I got a hotel room four blocks from the church, and the night before, we walked to the area where the church is to make sure we knew how to get there, where the checkpoints were going to be. To me that was the most stressful part. To make matters worse, my alarm didn't go off, and room service didn't come—we literally woke up 30 minutes before we needed to be walking out of the hotel!
So what did you say in the sermon?
John 13:3 says, "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power." So I read the verse and asked, "So what do you do when it dawns on you that you're the most powerful person in the room? You're the most powerful person, in this case, in the world?" And I just let that question hang. I'm looking at a very powerful group of people, as powerful as you can imagine.
Then the very next thing John says is that "Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist." So I talked through the narrative of Jesus washing their feet and then telling his disciples, "This is what you're supposed to do for each other." And I noted how he just took away their excuses. "If I did it for you, you have no excuse not to do it for each other."
I talked about the tension that was in the room between the disciples, because they'd just been arguing about who's going to be the greatest. Jesus removed their excuses. So those of us who follow Jesus, this is the example: You leverage your power for the sake of other people in the room.
Then I told the President at the very end, "Mr. President, you have a very big room." And he smiled. I said, "It's as big as the nation. It's as big as our world. And my prayer for you is that you continue to leverage this stewardship of power for the sake of our nation and the world."
That's good. That'll preach.
Years ago, I read Joseph Ellis's book Founding Brothers. He says that in learning that Washington intended to reject the mantle of emperor, King George III allegedly observed that if Washington did that, he would be the greatest man in the world. So King George recognized that anyone that would walk away from that much power—that's a sign of greatness. I love that little historical insight, and it seemed to fit the occasion.
In the sermon, you referred to the President as "Pastor in Chief." That phrase has caused a great deal of anxiety among people.
First, I understand the anxiety. If I had read that in isolation, it would give me concern as well. So I don't fault anyone. Apparently there was one pool reporter in the room, because they didn't allow any media. In fact, they didn't even announce who was speaking. This was as private as they could make a ceremony for the President private. The pool reporter wrote his or her story and mentioned that I said that, which I did. But of course, he or she didn't have time to give the entire context. So I don't fault anyone for the reporting or the confusion around that. But here's what happened.
In mid-December, the President went to Newtown [Connecticut], to the high school, and gave this address on television. I knew the President got there early. Each of the families who lost a child was taken to separate a classroom. So this would be 20-something classrooms. In the classrooms were the parents, siblings, in some cases grandparents. And the President got there early enough and went to every single classroom, and spent time with every single family individually.
It's still emotional for me to think about. As a pastor, I've walked into homes where people have lost children, teenagers. The grief and emotional toll it takes on a pastor to sit with a family, to listen, to be eye to eye—it's excruciating. The President had done that with every single one of those families before he walked into that auditorium to give what I thought was an incredibly appropriate and powerful message.
I'm sitting there on my couch watching this, thinking,How is he doing this? I would be exhausted after a single interaction with a family. All these classrooms. And he sits through all that, and then he gives his speech. I turned to Sandra, and said, "Tonight he is the Pastor in Chief, isn't he?"
[At the pre-inaugural service,] I knew that I didn't want to get up and just launch into a sermon. When you're in an environment where you have no personal connection with anyone in the room—and I certainly didn't—as a speaker, you want to find a personal connection. I thought,Well, here is something that I felt deeply and here we have all these clergy on this stage.
So I said something like, "Mr. President, I don't know the first thing about being President, but I know a bit about being a pastor. And during the Newtown vigil on December 16th after we heard what you did—I just want to say on behalf of all of us as clergy, thank you." And I added, "I turned to Sandra that night and said, 'Tonight he's the Pastor in Chief.'"
So that's the context. I wasn't making a declaration that he's our Pastor in Chief. But I can understand how that got reported.
Some of your critics assume that by preaching on such an occasion, you are associating yourself with the President's policies, that you are onboard with his views of gay marriage, abortion, and health policies.
I think the President should be more concerned about being associated with my policies! I've been preaching for 17 years every single Sunday; he's only been President for 4! I'm kidding, of course. The whole idea of fear by association [is a problem].
If Jesus had felt that way, he would have never come to earth—right? He would have never left heaven to become a human. So I do not make decisions based on guilt by association. I grew up in a culture that was all about that.
One time another friend of mine was asked to pray with President Obama, and he asked Billy Graham, "Dr. Graham, should I pray for the President?" And Dr. Graham looked at him and said, "You're a pastor. That's what you do; you pray for people. Yes, you can pray for the President.'"
So I felt like, Okay, they asked me to preach. That's what I do. Why wouldn't I go preach to the President?
Your friend Louie Giglio got caught in the firestorm precisely because someone in the administration was embarrassed to be associated with him. Did that affect your participation?
It impacted me in this way: Louie and I are, as you mentioned, the best of friends. We talked about this extensively, but I didn't counsel him. He did not need counsel. He's so wise, and he has great people around him. But we talked about it. I believe he made the right decision by choosing not to go. It's like if you invite me to your wedding, and suddenly I become known for something that is a concern to the guests. The right thing for me to do is to call and say, "It's your wedding. If my presence is going to be a distraction, out of respect for you, I'm choosing not to attend."
Anyone who has respect for our nation or the presidency would have done what Louie did, because at the end of the day, it was the inauguration of the President of the United States. Why would anyone want to do anything to detract from that? That was the honorable thing to do. The group that called Louie out on the message did the very opposite. Whatever you feel about their views, they leveraged their views to detract from the inauguration. They're saying, "Mr. President, how could you invite someone who doesn't believe like we do?" So I just have the utmost respect for Louie's decision. I just hate that it happened the way that it did.
Is there even theoretically in your mind a line a President could cross that would preclude you from attending a service in his honor or a service that he's going to attend?
That's a good question. If it was the signing of a bill that I was absolutely against and his people said, "Would you come pray before the signing of the bill?"—no. I think at that point, I am endorsing a specific policy or a specific bill. I think there's definitely a line there.
But to be invited to preach? I have people in my congregation who have far more disturbing views than he does. I preach to them every week!
In general, what is the Christian's public responsibility during the presidency of someone whose policies he or she finds especially troublesome?
First I would say this: We get to choose our President. So the reason President Obama is the President is because America chose him. There's really no reason to be upset with President Obama. He is who he claimed to be, and he believes what he told us all along he believes. Fifty-one percent of the American people elected him. I think he takes the blame for what the majority of our nation decided was the right thing to do. So [the criticism] is misdirected.
The fact that we have a President who has views or policies that contradict what we believe as Christians—that should drive us to our knees as a nation, not focus attention on an individual who personifies things we disagree with. That's not helpful. It's not going to make any difference. It doesn't do any good.
So you're saying, in one sense, that to be consistent, these Christians should be angry at the 51 percent who voted for him.
Exactly. But I'm not going to argue that we should be angry at anyone—but that's the issue.
I tell leaders, "Never give away influence unnecessarily." There's a time. There's a hill to die on. But for the most part, you never unnecessarily give away influence.
For the people who tweeted all those hateful things—I won't even mention names—well, I don't know why they did it. I thought, Okay, you just gave away influence.
What do you mean by that?
If I work for you, and I'm in that meeting with you and you have an idea, I don't embarrass you or criticize your idea there. Then if I come to you privately and ask you questions, you're going to listen to me. If I embarrass you in front of the whole group, I've lost leverage with you. Now, again, there are lines. There are things that you don't cross. I'm not abandoning theology.
Again, I tell leaders, "Make a difference. Don't be satisfied with making a point." It's easy to make a point. If you have a computer, a blog, a Twitter account, you can make a point. But you're not going to make a difference. We have been called to be difference makers.