Religion and politics are two of the most important forces that shape a society and America’s founding fathers were well aware of this fact. Thus, it is not a surprise that they went to great lengths to ensure that church and state will remain separate institutions in America. Like any other institutions, there are leaders in religious and political arena, too. A comparative analysis reveals that even though there are some differences between religious and political leaders, the similarities outnumber the differences.
One of the major functions performed by religious and political leaders is to provide hope to the masses. Religious leaders provide hope to the masses that they will be rewarded for their troubles in the life hereafter and god doesn’t abandon them during difficult times. Similarly, political leaders also provide hope to the masses that difficult times will be over soon and the nation is capable of dealing with the crisis. In fact, times of crisis often create conditions for the emergence of new religious and political leaders. Examples include the recent election of Pope Francis as well as unexpected triumph of Barack Obama over hugely popular Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries. Another similarity between religious and political leaders is the blind trust they enjoy among their followers which often exalt them to cult-leader like status. The degree of trust and admiration is often so huge that political and religious leaders are almost perceived to be infallible and any personal failings come as a huge shock to the followers. Ted Haggard was a powerful evangelical leader and his admission to drug use and hiring a gay prostitute could not have been more shocking to his admirers. Similarly, President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern also shocked the nation.
Another similarity between religious and political leaders is that they often derive their legitimacy from the beliefs already held by the followers. Religious and political leaders present themselves as the champion of those believes and pledge to protect them against all opponents and competing ideas. Pope Francis has been readily embraced by those from Catholic faith, even those who had never heard about him before or still know little about him. Similarly, one observes that President Obama enjoys greater support among those who subscribe to Democratic principles than those who subscribe to Republican principles. If President Obama were a Republican, the reverse would have been true.
One of the major differences between religious and political leaders is that religious leaders are held to stricter standards of character and morality than political leaders. As a result, it is much more difficult for religious leaders to recover their reputation after personal failings. It is hard to think of a religious leader who was able to return successfully to the public life no matter how powerful he might have been before the scandal but there are numerous examples of political leaders including President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Another difference between religious and political leaders is that for most political leaders, the bulk of the power is due to the formal position they hold while for most religious leaders, the number of followers determine the degree of power.