Sunday, May 20, 2018

Bully Pulpit

The sanctuary and pulpit at Trinity Church, Cheadle.

When Teddy Roosevelt referred to the Presidency as a "bully pulpit," he meant it was a wonderful place from which to preach. He was speaking with a minister at the time, comparing the preacher's pulpit to his own position, and he could not help thinking that being President granted him more moral authority than any member of the clergy. In late-Victorian parlance, "bully" meant "wonderful," rather than small-mindedly abusive. It was a different world then, a world of manners and righteousness, of keeping one's harsher opinions to oneself. This was a different nation then, a nation eager to welcome immigrants to fuel the vast industrial engines driving its economy as it took its first hesitant yet forceful steps onto the world stage. The Presidency had yet to claim anything approaching the power it has today, though Roosevelt was laying the groundwork for it.

I put a photo at the top of this post that contains a pulpit I occupied for two years, from 1988-1990. I was a young pastor, naive, idealistic, inexperienced, desperate to be taken seriously. My one year of church work before arriving in Cheadle was spent in rural southern Illinois, where I had worked out a manuscript-free, extemporaneous style of narrative preaching that dazzled congregations so much they could easily overlook my obvious deficiencies as a small talker and socialite (both essential skills to successful ministry). 

People listened to those sermons. They had a hand in writing them: my first wife and co-pastor hosted a weekly Bible study, and our preaching was influenced and shaped by what we and our parishioners discussed in those sessions. It was not uncommon for a parishioner to engage me in dialogue over what I had said from the pulpit in the days after it was delivered. I came to realize I had an enormous responsibility to take the concerns and needs of the whole congregation into account whenever I stood before them.

That responsibility, more than anything else, is why I left the ministry in 2000. Dating back all the way to those days in Cheadle, I had found myself frequently arguing with Biblical texts. Looking through the Lectionary, I would often choose to preach on the text that made me the most uncomfortable. When that was not the case, when I was preaching on something familiar and popular, I would worry at it until I could find an unusual angle, a twist in the story that I thought was too often neglected. And if there was anything in the text about doubt, or that led me to ask hard questions about my own faith, I would seize on it, blow it up, and make it the central focus of my sermon.

The most important congregation any preacher has is the one that looks back from a mirror. I had been struggling with doubt since high school, had gone to seminary in large part to address that doubt, and had instead found it reinforced by the methods of theological inquiry and Biblical criticism I had been exposed to by my professors. 

As much affirmation as I received for my personal, improvisational preaching style, I know I was not giving my congregation what they most needed: comfort, reassurance, inspiration, and not so much the motivation to make better moral choices as the pastoral ratification of those they'd already made. As their pastor, I was imbued with an authority I had no right to claim for myself: I was too young, too green, and far too skeptical of the faith it was my job to profess. And yet, simply because I was their pastor, they chose to overlook all those weaknesses.

There is authority in any pulpit. Those who step into pulpits take on that authority, and because they occupy them, they are guaranteed a trusting audience. Those who do not care for their message, who doubt that they deserve the authority of their office, are free to leave, as a number of my parishioners did over the years, sometimes because of disagreements with the denomination or its officers, but also sometimes, I know, because of something I said from my undeserved power as occupant of that pulpit.

I don't want any approbation for that decision. If anything, it took me far too long to make it. What I'm realizing today is that this gives me a frame of reference for understanding the flaws of the current occupant of the bully pulpit, the best place in the world to be a moral exemplar, a position the greatest Presidents have held with fear and trembling. The words of a President can cause the stock market to soar or tank. They can lead people on the other side of the world to rise up in protest, to rebel against their government, to go to war or sue for peace. It's an awesome place from which to speak, and I would not trust any holder of it--or any other pulpit, for that matter--who believes his or her authority is deserved.

In the hands of a narcissist, any pulpit becomes a weapon for manipulating the people who hold the office in high regard. I've known ministers who manipulated their congregations into accepting or denying the existence of behavior that should have led--and in most cases, eventually did lead--to defrocking. Pulpits across America are used to aggrandize corrupt clergy. Demagogues use them to transform well-meaning people into rabid nationalists, domestic terrorists, and patsies.

This country has had its share of narcissist Presidents. It takes at least some measure of narcissism to want such a job. All but the worst of them, though, have hung onto the fear and trembling modeled by the first President. And even the most corrupt did not see fit to use the bully pulpit as a cudgel against the democracy they had been elected to lead.

Until now. Now we have finally put a bully in the bully pulpit. Whether he is blasting his own Justice Department on Twitter or bombastically calling for the deportation of law-abiding Americans in front of cheering crowds of his most devoted parishioners, President Trump unprecedentedly exploits his office every day he holds it. His personality, his methods, his plans for both the Presidency and the nation have been compared to those of authoritarian dictators. 

When I came to the conclusion I should no longer occupy the pulpit, I was helped by administrators and colleagues who, while they were not always artful in the way they communicated their questions about my fitness, did their best to be gentle and compassionate. It took me longer than it should have to finally hear what they were saying, to see myself from their perspective and realize how I was coming up short, but in the end, I could no longer resist. Looking back on my career, probing the roots of my vocation, praying, meditating, journaling, I could draw no other conclusion but that it was time to leave.

I wish we could look to our President to choose as wisely as I finally did for myself, but that's never going to happen. Admitting he makes mistakes? Apologizing for errors? Being honest with himself and the nation? Listening to advisers who speak truth to his power? He refuses to do any of these things. He may be incapable of them.

If he is to leave the bully pulpit, it will not be by choice. That means it is up to Congress, the one body in America that can put an end to his pulpit bullying prior to the 2020 election, to act on whatever information Robert Mueller shares with them by impeaching and removing him from office. If they will not, it falls to voters to turn him out of office.

That's a tall order for a populace who are not known for their enthusiasm for the ballot box. And many of the states that narrowly put him over the top with electoral votes are still largely populated with Trump believers. But there's also far less complacency on the left than there was in 2016. We know now that there were vast differences between the two major party candidates, and that we got stuck with the incompetent, corrupt one who just wants to blow everything up. That's probably exactly what his followers were hoping he'd do, and he has not disappointed them. It falls to the rest of us, then, to make sure these right-wing anarchists are outnumbered this November, and again in 2020. If ever there was a preacher who deserved to lose his pulpit, it's this one.

More than that, though, it's time we took some of the oomph out of that pulpit. This nation is not a monarchy, and how ever much Trump likes to joke about being President for life, we're not going to let that happen. But there is still far too much power in the Oval Office, too much authority in every word that issues from the Resolute desk. And it's been that way for awhile: Congress began granting the President greater executive authority in the wake of 9-11, and Obama did nothing to turn back the tide. Trump stepped into a White House that is more powerful than it has ever been at any point in the history of the United States.

Seeing what that can mean when enough anarchists living in the right places vote for a ruthless narcissist, it's time we moved away from the unitary authority of the executive branch. It's time Congress and the judiciary reclaimed their role as a check on Presidential power.

More than that, it's time we Americans took back Congress--and, yes, the Presidency. Our representatives need to hear--especially in the red counties--that we do not want a dictator. We want a President. And we want the bully out of the pulpit--both the one occupying it, and the wonderful power it possesses to sway the opinions, and shape the actions, of people around the world. No one human should have that much power: not an angel, not a saint, and certainly not a self-aggrandizing bigot whose moral sense extends no farther than his bottom line.

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