Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What Americans Really Want in a President...and Televangelists

As Sarah Palin reemerges in preparation for her run at the presidency in 2012, she has shown herself to be wonderfully transparent. Contrasted to the cool and calculating President Obama who rarely speaks sans script, Mrs. Palin is good at speaking off the cuff and in a folksy manner. Too folksy, for many. In separate interviews, I was reminded why she will almost certainly not be a viable candidate in 2012. She's folksy to the point of sounding crude or ignorant at worst or as having poor political instincts at best. I'm willing to ignore some of her less impressive moments during the presidential run of 2008, as it was her first time in the national spotlight. One gets the impression the McCain campaign didn't exactly support her and the media was clearly in the Obama camp.

By now, though, she should know better. Two moments in particular have not impressed me. First was an interview on talk radio, in which she used the phrase "screwed up" at least three times. Presidents should not speak that way. Governors should not speak that way. I'm pretty sure I will not want my daughter speaking that way. A few weeks later, she used the phrase "B.S." True, she didn't say the word, and even Dick Cheney famously uttered a far more graphic word, on the Senate floor no less, not to mention Rahm Emmanuel's latest foray into course language. But there's a difference in a Vice President or even President using salty language and a candidate who needs to woo voters. Something about that just seems undignified.

Her appeal for many, though, is not in her brains but in her transparency. Transparency goes a long way with the public, who regularly feel shut out of the political process and who want to know who politicians "really are". They want, or they think they want, people just like them to represent them. It's basic psychology, I suppose. Someone who looks like me and speaks like me, even crassly from time to time, will share my values and fight for the things I also want.

That works for a while, until the person "just like us" reveals the things about ourselves we don't particularly like, like crass language and a lack of intellect. The appeal of the "Everyman" diminishes, and we begin to look for transcendence and vision in a leader. We stop wanting a mirror, and we start wanting a window into a better future than we could envision on our own. President Obama excelled at that during his own campaign, perfectly combining the humble origin routine with the promise of visionary leadership. His biography spoke the "Everyman" story but his language was eloquent and full of promise. Perhaps Mrs. Palin can take some advice and start speaking presidentially. Transparency only goes so far in politics.

I am starting to wonder if that is also part of the appeal of the megachurch preacher. Whereas the churchman of the past followed the political model and never revealed too much for fear that it may diminish his moral or pastoral authority, the megachurch preacher has no such worries. As part of a larger effort to redefine church and remake the image of the traditional pastor, megachurch preachers carve out their own version of the Everyman. They eschew clerical collars and even suits for casual attire of blue jeans and polo shirts. They don't use a theological vocabulary, and some speak of God only in the most generic of terms. There is often little mention of Jesus Christ, there are no lofty words like justification or sanctification. They're unafraid to talk about their personal lives, even their sex lives. Joel Osteen must speak about his wife and children in every sermon.

Like the folksy politician, they earn the trust of the congregation through transparency. They reveal who they are outside of the pulpit. They tell family stories. They're never afraid to be the butt of the joke, an absolute no-no for the preacher trying to maintain an authoritative image. These preachers find, like the politician, that there is easy cache in being transparent. They quickly realize that there is a benefit when the folks in the pews think that their pastor is just like them. It's exactly what the postmodern ethos demands as icons and institutions are remade into a counterintuitive image.

But just like the politician, the preacher who strives to remake the traditional image of the pastor into a folksy storyteller who everyone thinks they know, there are sacrifices. When the charm wears off, people want and need substance. Mr. Obama has found this out, and I think Mrs. Palin will as well. The reason pastors and politicians are stodgy at times is because laws and theology are necessarily complex. Newspaper articles are great, but sometimes only a book will do. Being transparent is a quick way to receive relational deposits, because people always like it when someone else lays it all on the line first. But that cannot possibly last. Eventually, people will trade a little transparency for a lot of effectiveness.

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