Warnock joins select club of pastor politicians

Raphael Warnock, by winning Georgia’s U.S. Senate election against Sen. Kelly Loeffler, will join Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., as one of two ordained ministers in the Senate chamber. Only about 2 percent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives are ordained ministers.

Their numbers are scarce despite the fact that many members of the clergy possess speaking skills, have an impulse to serve and boast strong ties to their communities – all qualities that are useful in politics. Furthermore, Americans are among the most religious people in the Western world.

Each party’s recent presidents reflect their orientation: The last three Republican presidents – Donald Trump, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush – all worked in business prior to entering politics. Once Joe Biden becomes president, he’ll join Democratic predecessors Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as having graduated from law school.

Members of the clergy are far down the list of congressional occupations – behind agriculture, engineering, journalism, labor, medicine, real estate and the military.

Only one former U.S. president, James Garfield, has ties to a previous life at the pulpit – and even those are tenuous. While he’s sometimes described as an ordained minister with the Disciples of Christ – and he did preach to congregations as a young man – there don’t appear to be any clear ordination records. His primary professions before entering politics were as a Civil War general, teacher and lawyer.

The clergy has long played an active role in American politics outside of elective office, usually working to influence policy and politicians.

Prominent evangelical preachers Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, James Dobson and Kenneth Copeland all spoke out in favor of Donald Trump’s re-election.

The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have each run for the Democratic nomination for president, while the Rev. William Barber has garnered attention in recent years for leading “Moral Mondays” protests to advocate for civil rights and progressive causes in Raleigh, N.C.

Religion and government are more closely intertwined in many other Western countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, 26 bishops who are leaders in the Church of England are members of the House of Lords.

Could Warnock’s victory signal a new trend? The U.S. House of Representatives currently has more ordained ministers than at any other time since occupational statistics began to be compiled in Congress in the 1950s. It’ll be the first time in at least 55 years that the U.S. Senate has had two ordained ministers serving at the same time.

In the midst of a recession, a global pandemic, political polarization and climate change, perhaps more voters are looking for spiritual and moral leadership in Washington.

This is an updated version of an article by Robert Speel of Penn State, originally published by The Conversation on Dec. 11, 2020.

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