Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Republican Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann and Mons Venus strip club owner Joe Redner may not have much in common, but all three have made stops at Exciting Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz while they were on the campaign trail.
Such stops are not uncommon at the church. After all, with an estimated 12,000 members, who come from all over Central Pasco and Northern Hillsborough counties, it’s virtually a small city. Senior Pastor Ken Whitten sees it that way and says the church, although humbled by the attention from politicians, prefers to keeps politics out of the pulpit.
Candidates running for any office, from any party, are always welcome to come and worship, Whitten said, but they have to be respectful of the rules. Those rules include not stumping for votes during services and being prepared to not have a forum to speak – unless the visit occurs during an annual meet-the-candidates event. This takes place outside of regular worship hours and includes open invitations to anyone running for office, be it “dogcatcher” or president, Whitten said.
The Pull of Mega Churches Nothing New for Politicians
Mega churches are those with congregations of 2,000 people or more. With its estimated 12,000 Idlewild more than qualifies.
The fact that politicians at all levels make this church a stop during campaigns is not surprising, said Dr. Susuan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
“It’s been around for a long time,” MacManus said. “It always does raise in some people’s minds some concerns about meshing of politics and religion.”
MacManus said mega churches are often misunderstood in their leanings and politicians who visit them shouldn’t buy into the stereotypes. Not all mega churches are conservative, she said.
“(There’s) so much stereotyping about the voting patterns of people who attend these churches,” she said. People might believe congregants lean in one direction, but polling results might tell a very different story.
In some cases, mega churches draw Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.
“There’s not any consensus among people who attend those churches,” MacManus said.
It’s About Strategy
Stops at churches like Idlewild aren’t necessarily about making campaign speeches, pointed out Dr. Heather Parker, an associate professor of history and chair of the social sciences department at St. Leo University.
“Church visits are not about candidates making a statement of faith, these visits are about political strategy,” she said. “Candidates visit large churches because they can accomplish many ends with one appearance.”
The simple act of appearing at mega churches provides candidates with “free publicity” in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, she said. In churches where endorsements are made, a visit can also gain a candidate the valuable recommendation of the pastor.
“This is especially effective because church congregations are used to following directives from the pastor, especially if such directives are rooted in Biblical mandates – and such political endorsements almost always are,” she said. “For example, a candidate’s opposition to gay marriage is a stand that resonates with both white and black congregations.”
The Appearances Can Matter
Even in large churches like Idlewild where candidates are not permitted to speak during services, the mere act of showing up can provide politicians a bit of a boost, MacManus said.
“A lot of people of faith on both sides of the aisle believe that their faith is under attack,” she said. “Sometimes (just showing up to worship is) more important than getting up and using the pulpit. (It) confirms that faith in America is important to a politician’s life. They’re sending a message that they’re a person of faith.”
MacManus said the feeling of religion being under attack is found in just about every faith in America today.
“It’s people of faith of every religion,” she said. “You can get the same thing from a mosque or a priest or a rabbi.”
Sincerity is a Must
Even though politicians can gain a sense of common ground by attending church simply to worship, MacManus warns they should be sincere in their beliefs. Showing up on Sunday to worship and mocking people of faith on a Wednesday can be damning.
At that point, “the genuineness of their whole being is suspect. People really do see through double standards.”
Not Always Comfortable in the Spotlight
The media attention Idlewild has received through the years leaves Whitten with “mixed emotions,” he said. “I am very pleased that the people would think that I pastor a church that would have the congregation be prepared. What saddens me is that anyone might think that we are a political church.”
Although conservative leaning, Whitten said his congregation is made up of people from all walks of life and varying political backgrounds. With that in mind, he focuses on helping his congregants be “good citizens” and encourages them to vote and take part in the process.
“We endorse the process,” he said. “We do not endorse the people.”
The fact that some have said appearances at mega churches, such as Idlewild, are important for candidates also bothers Whitten.
“We’re not the road to the White House,” he said. “We’re the road to heaven.”
Land O’ Lakes resident Leah Fox attends Idlewild and said she finds the church very welcoming to a wide perspective of political beliefs.
“That’s (politics) not really talked about from the pulpit,” she said.
Fox said the attention the church receives can sometimes be uncomfortable.
“Part of it is very good (spotlight),” she said. “It shows that Christians care about the way our country is going when so many people are focused on themselves. It’s important and great to know that people still care what America is all about.”
Idlewild, Fox said, handles the spotlight well.
“We get a lot of attention,” she said. That kind of attention can sometimes take the focus off Jesus, she added, but that’s not the case at Idlewild.
“I don’t think Idlewild has messed up those priorities,” she said.
When Bachmann made her appearance, Fox didn’t even know about it until she was announced.
“She stood up and waved,” Fox said. “That was it. When we have people visiting that have served in the armed forces, he (Whitten) does the same thing. The service still goes on. We’re still focused on the Lord. We talk about what’s in the Bible.”