How to get reporters into church

obamaatchurchI’m sure you are all as excited as I am about today’s New Hampshire Primary. However, it is interesting how the media coverage of the religious angles in the race has more or less dropped off after Iowa.

The exception to that might be Mike Huckabee who built his successful Iowa campaign on outreach to evangelicals, among others. In New Hampshire, he’s downplaying the religious themes. He’s dropped his popular Iowa adds that touted himself as a “Christian leader.”

So Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon’s account of how Huckabee spent his Sunday morning this week was interesting: he preached at a church in the Granite State.

Huckabee’s campaign did not allow cameras into the church, and the candidate did not make an appeal for votes as part of his sermon. But a church official invited members to attend an event a mile away, where Huckabee held a rally with actor Chuck Norris and where free clam chowder was served.

Huckabee mixed homespun jokes into his sermon and added a more religious tone than in his political speeches, not just quoting from the Bible but citing specific verses and talking about the serious side of faith.

Does that last paragraph make you feel like this was Bacon’s first time in a church? That’s what reader Chris Duckworth thought:

Oooo. Ahhhh. He cited specific verses? He had a religious tone? He mixed in a few jokes? Wow. Where I come from – a liberal-leaning Lutheran tradition – we call that preaching. Nothing too fancy or unique about it. Rather ordinary and typical, actually. Is this all Mr. Bacon could say about his delivery?

Duckworth also thought the fact that Huckabee spent his Sunday morning at church, rather than at a large campaign event, would have been a better hook. I appreciated Bacon’s descriptions of the worship service — praise band, songs on a projector rather than in hymnals — but they did have an anthropologist-reporting-on-the-natives vibe. I found it interesting that Huckabee prefers “contemporary” worship.

Huckabee, sitting in the front row beside his wife, Janet, seemed to know most of the songs without reading the words and praised the guitar player as being better than he is. And he said he enjoyed the upbeat service, which included tambourine and drums and children running under flags that were waved during the songs.

He knew the songs? You don’t say. Anyway, it would also be nice if we could get a few more details. What kind of flags, for instance?

Even if Barack Obama — another churchgoer — and Huckabee don’t continue as frontrunners, reporters are going to be covering a lot of church services this political cycle. What should they keep in mind when they report from inside the sanctuaries?

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  • Nancy Reyes

    I’d be more impressed if they went to church quietly to pray…

  • Chris Bolinger

    Thanks for the good laugh this morning, Mollie! Love the anthropologist bit…it’s perfect.

  • bethany

    that is kind of funny and sad. I am glad to hear that Huckabee’s sermon was a legitimate sermon – not a political appeal disguised as a sermon. The circumlocution to express that was rather funny though.

  • Chris Duckworth

    Thanks, Mollie, for the shout-out and the great anthropologist comment. I couldn’t quite figure out how to describe Bacon’s approach, but you hit it right on the head!

  • Jeff Miller

    How about this recent Obama quote from Epiphany Sunday.

    “I am going to try to be so persuasive, so that those of you who are still wavering . . . will suddenly come to the conclusion — a light beam will shine through — will light you up — and you will experience an epiphany — ‘I have to vote for Baracj!’ “

  • Rathje

    How come Protestants get away with this sort of stuff without immediate calls for the particular church’s tax-exempt status to be offered up on a platter?

    If Romney did this there’d be immediate screams that he’s been compromised and the LDS should lose their tax exemptions because they’re not keeping properly aloof.

  • Michael

    How come Protestants get away with this sort of stuff without immediate calls for the particular church’s tax-exempt status to be offered up on a platter?

    That’s the million dollar question hiding in this story. Why is a presidential candidate giving a sermon in a state about to hold an election? and how does this church keep its tax-exempt status after allowing a presidential candidate to give a sermon exhorting the crowd to join Jesus’ Army?

    And before TMatt says it, I’d ask the same question if it was Rev. Al Shartpon or Rev. Jesse Jackson.

  • Jerry

    I was going to respond differently to Michael’s comments but I remember the right wing going after a liberal church for mixing religion and politics. Saying it’s ok for both sides or not ok for both sides is fine – that’s even handedness. But what we see instead typically is ‘win at all cost, hyper-partisan’ attacks on the other side for doing what is ok if your side does it’ and that has a simple name: hypocrisy.

    There’s also a nice, grey area. It’s not OK to ask that parishoners go vote for someone. But is it OK to preach a sermon on the virtue of hope or the sanctity of life knowing that is a candidate’s message? Is it OK for a candidate to come to your service in a hotly contested state?

    Personally when we get into the grey area, I think we should ladle out a lot of slack and just be concerned about obvious line-crossing.

  • gfe

    Mollie — Thanks for sharing Bacon’s story. It really is kind of unintentionally funny.

    Rathje said:

    If Romney did this there’d be immediate screams that he’s been compromised …

    This is beside the point you’re making, but of course, Romney wouldn’t do any such thing. It’s not in the LDS tradition to give nonmembers of the congregation — other than visiting church leaders acting in the role of their callings — a platform to speak. That doesn’t mean it’s never happened, but I would be extremely suprised to hear about Romney giving a sermon (the LDS word is “talk”) in an election state. Of course, these days, the church is being even more scrupulous than usual about avoiding partisan politics, and such a Romney talk just isn’t going to happen, at least outside his own church in Massachusetts.

    But when I read this article, the thought immediately came to me: What would reporters following Romney write about attending an LDS service (aka sacrament meeting)? They’re not all all like the contemporary worship of many Protestants, like the service Huckabee spoke at. The reporter would probably find it more boring than Huckabee’s service (although perhaps more like what the nonchurched reporter would expect a church service to be like). And unless they are familiar with theology, they would probably wouldn’t notice much said that’s not distinctly Mormon (other than references to prophets past and present).

    That said, I don’t expect reporters attending church services of any of the candidates writing much about them — unless there’s some sort of a political angle in the sermon.

  • Mollie

    I think churches should be free to practice however they want and I also think the reporter didn’t have to broach the topic of the political significance of the event, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that Huckabee didn’t just attend church, he preached.

  • C. Wingate

    It seems to me that the reporter was trying to contrast the rhetoric of his sermon with that of his more typical campaign appearances, and I do get some reading of that. But I also read that the reported didn’t really listen to the sermon except to troll it for “money quotes” (e.g. that “army of God” bit, which in reality is a perfectly orthodox epistle reference without any civil significance). I mean, I expect a reporter to be able to produce a couple sentence synopsis of the sermon, and I think it would have been more revealing than People profile points about what kind of service style he likes.

  • Chris Duckworth

    Governor Huckabee is still a pastor, no? So is it impossible for someone to act both as a pastor/preacher and a presidential candidate? Or are they mutually exclusive?

    If there were direct political overtures in Governor/Reverend Huckabee’s sermon, surely Perry Bacon would have mentioned it. But rather, Mr. Bacon seemed to indicate that the sermon was truly “religious” rather than political.

    but then again, the Black Church has a tradition of inviting politicians to speak in the midst of the worship service, and The Rev. Jesse Jackson once ran for office on the Democrat side . . .

    From what I can tell Huckabee was fairly careful about defining his various roles that day – the role of pastor/preacher while at church, and the role of candidate for President that afternoon. I’m a strong advocate for the separation of church and state, but I see no problem with Huckabee’s actions yesterday.

  • FrGregACCA

    As one who intentionally approaches life as a participant-observer, I have no problem with the “anthropologist vibe”. While the description of the service may seem obvious to those who are familiar with contemporary worship in Evangelical (and other Christian) circles, for those who are not, it would seem to be a fairly clear description of the service, while at the same time making it clear that Huckabee, for good or ill, prefers such worship. At the same time, and in the same vein, more detail would have enriched the story, particularly concerning Huck’s sermon.

  • Pastor K

    Governor Huckabee is still a pastor, no? So is it impossible for someone to act both as a pastor/preacher and a presidential candidate? Or are they mutually exclusive?

    What an excellent question!! Media coverage seems focused on when he plays the “religion card” and when he doesn’t. This story is case-in-point. What’s most newsworthy is the use of specific Biblical quotes in a sermon???

    Given our secularist-dominant media, I am surprised Huckabee would preach on the “army of God” at all, much less in a NH church on the eve of that state’s primary!

    Although “Onward Christian Soldiers” is a hymn written in 1864, its theme is not too popular these days. It almost did not make it into the revised 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. The rhetoric and implied associations of being a “soldier for Christ” does not play well in politically correct religious or political circles.

    Given the confusion that such a sermon topic would bring to the larger community, the reporter should have told more about what Huckabee actually said. Instead, it becomes easy fodder for Huckabee opposition to point fingers: “See, I TOLD you he is a closet fascist trying to secretly make a Christian theocracy – he’s even recruiting an army!”