Many ministers do their best to stay away from politics when they preach, but hundreds of conservative pastors around the country are so upset about what they see as a moral crisis in government that they are preparing to run for public office themselves, with the goal of bringing "biblical values" to the political arena.
The initiative is led by David Lane, a born-again Christian and self-described "political operative" who has organized four large-scale training sessions in which evangelical pastors are tutored in the practical aspects of running a political campaign.
"Our goal is to get men and women who know the Bible to move into the public square," Lane said. "They'll know what to do when they get there." Lane calls his effort "Issachar Training," after one of the 12 tribes of Israel, a tribe that, according to the Bible (I Chronicles 12:32), was led by men who "understood the times and knew what Israel should do." With his extensive contacts in the conservative movement, Lane has gotten a Republican presidential candidate to keynote each of his training sessions. The latest, launched this week in Orlando, Fla., features former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, himself a former Baptist pastor.
"Somebody's values are going to reign supreme," Lane said, an observation he made repeatedly in talking about his project. "We want people with our values to be elected to office and to represent our interests there. That's what we're doing." Lane claims to have the email addresses of 100,000 pastors in his database. He notes that if just 1 percent of them choose to run for office, he'll have an "army" of 1,000 politicized pastors prepared to change the country.
Lane opened an Isaachar training session last month in Charleston, S.C., with a prayer citing what he regarded as the nation's sins, from deficit spending to abortion. "Fifty-five million babies dead," he said. "Red ink as far as the eye can see. Homosexuals praying at the inauguration. ... Lord, have mercy." He told the assembled pastors that the decision of whether they should run for office is theirs alone to make.
"Our goal is for them to discern whether God is calling them," Lane said in an interview. "We actually have no interest in them running unless they have a calling from God." But he and others urge the pastors at a minimum to mobilize their congregants politically. Among the speakers at the South Carolina meeting was Chad Connelly, a former state Republican chairman in South Carolina and currently director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee.
"My No. 1 ask is, can you register 100 percent in your pews?" he said. "No. 2, can you preach biblical values and make sure people connect the dots? They don't understand. They don't know how to ascertain the facts and understand the issues of the day as God talks about them. ... No. 3, make sure they go vote those biblical values every single time," he said.
Connelly came equipped with polling data that show, he said, that if conservative ideas don't have enough traction in the nation, it's because conservatives are not voting in the numbers they should.
"[With] 5 percent more Christian evangelical people who are serious about the word of God and voting biblical values, we change the nation," Connelly said. "We change the nation forever."
At the Issachar training in South Carolina, experienced field organizers coached the assembled clergy on such practical issues as how to establish a finance committee, how and why to target certain voter precincts, and how to arrange photo opportunities. Pastors who were considering a run for political office were encouraged to start at the local level, aiming at a seat on their local school board, city council or zoning board.
Some Christian denominations discourage clergy from participating in political activities, and the Catholic Church prohibits it altogether. Under canon law, "Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power." A 1994 advisory on the "Ministry and Life of Priests" stipulates that "the priest, as servant of the universal Church, cannot tie himself to any historical contingency, and therefore must be above any political party."
Most evangelical congregations, however, operate with more autonomy, and the effort to build a nationwide movement of pastor-politicians is gaining momentum. Among those drawn to the training is Gary Click, who presides over the Fremont Baptist Temple in Fremont, Ohio. Pastor Click this month announced from his pulpit that he is considering a run to be county commissioner.
"There were some people after church who said, 'Well, we're behind you all the way,' " Click said in an interview. "There are others who seem a little hesitant and wondering how that's going to affect my time in the church and so forth, so it's something we'll have to walk through."
Like other conservatives, Click was upset by the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, an issue that is at the forefront for many evangelical pastors. Anger over the ruling could prompt more conservative ministers to pursue political office. Click said he realizes local government is not necessarily a place where the culture war is fought, but that does not deter him.
"You can't overturn the Supreme Court from the county commissioner's desk," he said. "[But] it's a starting place. ... You can get some things done, and you can create a movement, and you can certainly educate people a lot more from that position."
Lane plans at least two more Isaachar Training sessions this summer, one in Atlanta, Ga., and one in Austin, Texas. The workshops are organized and funded through the American Renewal Project, an organization Lane founded with the assistance of the conservative Christian group American Family Association.