Coffin, 5-26-2019

Guest Column: When I vote for a president, I’m seeking a pastor 

Jim Coffin 2018-1(Orlando Sentinel, May 26, 2019)

By James Coffin

When President Donald Trump is faulted — as happens at times — for behavior that fails to comport with the values many of us had instilled during our upbringing, the response from Republican legislators and conservative Christian leaders often goes like this: “We didn’t elect him to be our pastor. We elected him to be our president.”

Au contraire,” I mutter. “When I vote for a president, I’m seeking a pastor.”

You see, I argue that many — perhaps most — Americans simultaneously adhere to two religions. The first, let’s call it Religion 1, is divinity-based and often involves the hope of a positive God-provided experience throughout an eternity yet to come. The second, let’s call it Religion 2, is human-based, secular and all about government. It seeks to create the best possible collective existence in the here and now. This religion isn’t predicated on belief in God.

Each religion has its sacred writings. In Religion 1 (which in my case is Christianity), the Bible plays that role. In Religion 2, the sacred writings are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other commentaries written by the visionaries who’ve fostered this radical social experiment we call the United States of America.

Both religions have their heroes. In my version of Religion 1, the heroes are Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul and an array of other biblical characters. In Religion 2, we have Roger Williams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and a long list of others who helped shape our unique system of government and the philosophy that undergirds and safeguards it.

Both religions have their holy days. My version of Religion 1 has two: Christmas and Easter. Religion 2 likewise has two: Independence Day and Thanksgiving. And In both religions, the holy days are designed to be a perpetual reminder of what the religion is all about.

Both religions have many codified behavioral expectations and many more that are commonly understood but not formalized. There’s considerable overlap in the expectations of both religions when it comes to the obligations individuals have toward each other—such as honesty, integrity, fairness, civility.

Religion 1 typically includes rituals related to God and eternal concerns. Religion 2 focuses on everyday individual-to-government concerns (such as obeying laws) and government-to-individual concerns (such as ensuring security for all, liberty for all, justice for all, due process for all and equal access for all).

In both religions, credibility erodes quickly when behavioral expectations are ignored — especially if ignored by the pastors. Which brings me to the idea of the U.S. president being a pastor.

The word pastor simply means shepherd. When used figuratively, the terms shepherd or pastor apply to anyone who leads others. The president should be our pastor, to shepherd us through times of crisis, through the intricate processes of international relations, through our shared experience as a nation and when we need a national consoler and uniter.

I don’t expect the president to be my Religion 1 pastor. In fact, I don’t want the president to be involved in the promotion and oversight of my Religion 1 — or anyone else’s. But I very much expect him or her to be my Religion 2 pastor.

Whether Democrat or Republican, whether female or male, I expect the president of the United States to lead by example; to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as called for in the presidential oath of office; to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” as civil-service or uniformed-services personnel declare in their oath; to respect the institutions, processes and time-tested traditions of government; to promote and live by those universal moral and ethical values that are equally shared by believer and non-believer alike; to foster values that advance justice, domestic tranquility and world peace; to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

That’s why, when I vote for a president, I’m seeking a pastor.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.