Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Attending the President's Church

It's been nearly a decade since the President of the United States was a regular churchgoer.  It's not a requirement, of course, nor should it be.  But it is a change, a significant shift in the role and place of Christian faith communities in the national discourse.

Barack Obama was a regular churchgoer as a local politician.  But once he was on the national stage, where a congregation is less useful as a social and political community?  Church was no longer necessary, at least as it means participation in a gathering of other Jesus folk.  For all of Obama's unquestionable brilliance in articulating the faith, his subtle expositions on Niebuhr?  Church no longer really mattered enough to put energy into it.

As a DC area pastor who had a professional interest in where the POTUS goes to church, I paid attention to this for eight years.  Church...meaning engagement with a particular faith community...just didn't happen.

It was "inconvenient."  A "security risk for the congregations."  I never bought that.  Abraham Lincoln attended the DC congregation where I grew up.  When war was raging near enough that bodies of dead American soldiers came floating down the Potomac, he was still going to church.  At the height of the Cold War, with hostages held in Iran, Jimmy still taught Sunday School.

Honeychild, church ain't something you skip, not if it matters to you.

One might argue that it is not necessary to participate in a community of disciples to be an authentic follower of Jesus.  "You don't need church to love Jesus," one might say.

Sure.  Uh Huh.   Maybe if you're an anchorite or a desert mystic.  And no, your social isolation and the #twitter wasteland don't count towards that.  But that's another argument for another time.

Our current president is different.  Very, very different.  His Sunday mornings have never been for church.  Both before his election and after, they're for angry tweeting and golfing alone at one of his resorts.  There's not time for Jesus or sabbath, not when you're being the brand 24/7.  Fortunately, there's an alternative in this media-driven era.   So the president participates in church in the same way that he receives his actionable intelligence about the world:  by watching tee vee.

As he flips through the channels having finished shouting along with Tucker Carlson, he'll come across tee vee preachers, those televangelists who fill our cable channels with eager Jesus messages delivered before large and eager crowds.  One in particular stands out as having caught his eye and held his attention:  Pastor Paula White-Cain of Paula White Ministries.

Given our president's well known predilections, it's perhaps not surprising that he might stop for a moment and linger watching Pastor White-Cain.

His connection with her is his "in" with the evangelical community.  She's the pastor who, upon invitation to speak with him, was willing to testify that he'd found the path to Jesus.

She's front and center in this administration now, as the highest profile faith advisor to the White House.  If the president has a church, it's hers.  Not that he goes there any more often than he attends his youngest son's school events.

But he watches it, now and then.

And when he watches, what does he see?

Paula White-Cain has a fascinating, complicated backstory, one I first encountered years ago on one of those days I was feeling particularly riled about Prosperity Preachin'.  She is, of course, part of the name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel movement, and entered into ministry initially as the preaching spouse in a husband and wife pastoring team.  Think Jim and Tammy Faye, with all of the goodness that such an analogy entails.

That marriage was both doomed and complicated.  Meaning, her pastor-partner husband was both unfaithful and abusive.  The stories of his spiritual bullying and bizarre, creative abuse are genuinely horrifying.  Sweet Lord Jesus, what kind of a man does that to his wife?

But she found her strength, and pulled away, and divorced him.  She survived.  She rebuilt her own church...still very much in the "give to the church and you'll be blessed" model...and married the keyboardist/songwriter from Journey.  Honestly, one child of God to another, I'm glad for her.

Now, more than any other religious leader, she has the ear of a president.

So out of curiosity, I pulled up YouTube, and sat through four or five videos from the New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, where Pastor White preaches.

Watching her at work is...peculiar.  Here's a sample, if you're interested.

Her congregation is remarkably diverse.  I mean, it is.  It's majority minority, which probably tracks with her television and online audiences.

The service is stock standard contemporary in feel.  Meaning, screens and praise for forty minutes, followed by a message.  The musicians are competent instrumentalists and vocalists.  Things are generally well done.

Her preaching is...hmmm.  It's not quite as high energy as one might assume.   It's in the style of most contemporary prosperity preachers, meaning anecdote/scripture excerpt/anecdote, on a repeating and semi-thematic cycle.  There's not a whole bunch of exegesis or narrative flow.

But it's also a little flat.  A little distant.  In all of the broadcasts I watched, she just seems kind of tired.

And the preaching always, always, always revolves around money.  I mean, I'll preach on wealth on occasion, and remind my church folk that sharing resources for the common good is a vital part of faith.  But this is on another level.

Need and money, need and money, in an endless cycle of tithing and capital campaigns and planting a seed, all with a remarkable sense of urgency.  She's breaking the chains of financial hardship over your life, all of which will happen when you give generously to her ministry.

And like all frontline Prosperity preachers, Paula does quite well for herself.

It's hard to watch.  Not because it's a bizarre manifestation of AmeriChrist, Incorporated.  Not because it's so transparently grasping and transactional.   Not because it's strangely recursive, raising funds to raise funds to raise funds.  Not because the genuinely Christian things her church does...the front and center acts of incarnate grace and service...go mostly forgotten and unmentioned, like a faded window dressing lost in the ever brightening sparkle of mammon.

But because it''s ultimately kind of dull.  I honestly struggle to track along with the peculiar, looping, aimless requests for funds.  The praise music, while quite competent, all feels by the numbers.

I drift a bit.  I get distracted.  I feel the urge, after about five minutes, to be doing something else.

Which, if you're noodling through the channels in the Oval Office during "executive time," would be so very easy to do.   Get a couple of minutes of health and wealth preaching, and when you get bored?  Click, and you're right back to yelling at CNN.

But hey, at least the president's been to church, right?