GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio has had a rough weekend. Even before his dismal showing in Saturday’s polls, he had to slog through a taxing debate on Friday while battling a very hoarse, sore throat. After the debate, he broke tradition by giving the other candidates a fist bump instead of a handshake, to avoid spreading his cold. (Though it’s debatable that anybody would have minded had he given Donald Trump a handful of cold germs.)
It just so happened that the next day, I was chatting with my good friend Michael Booth before going to see a Booth Brothers concert. Michael told me that he had almost canceled the trio’s weekend dates, because he, too, had come down with the flu.
This coincidence led me to reflect on some of the ways that the business of politics can resemble the business of singing gospel music. Before I get attacked by ardent gospel music fans, rest assured that the comparison is not meant cynically! These are just my observations of the enormous physical and mental demands that are made on politicians and gospel music singers alike, and of how people of good will in both professions can rise to the occasion.
The first obvious similarity is the crucial importance of the voice. Particularly in the heat of campaign season, a politician cannot afford to miss opportunities to speak and connect with potential voters. Had Rubio been forced to skip the debate or cancel rallies because of a complete voice loss, this would have been a major blow. The future of his political career likely hangs on his performance in this presidential primary, which hangs on his ability to communicate effectively. Similarly, southern gospel singers hesitate to cancel concert appearances even for illness. That’s because in a small business like southern gospel, every date on the calendar counts, a calendar that’s many times as full as that of a more mainstream artist.
Also, both professions take men far away from the families they support. This can have a dark side, even for ostensibly conservative Christians. We saw this in the case of Republican politicians Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, who were exposed to be having an affair with each other. Sadly, even gospel music singers have not been immune to such temptations. But, putting aside that issue, the simple drain of separation from family is still relentless and taxing. And just as those (few) politicians who sincerely desire to do the right thing in Washington are driven to make that sacrifice for the American people, so singers who bear the gospel are driven to make it for souls who need to hear that message.
Another similarity is the importance of mingling with one’s fans. Southern gospel singers, unlike pop, country, or even more popular CCM artists, are typically not afforded the luxury of private meet and greets with a select group of fans. They’re expected to get in the trenches and interact personally with concertgoers at the product table come intermission time. Similarly, politicians on the campaign trail are expected to answer questions, shake hands and connect tangibly with potential voters, particularly in smaller rally settings.
Consider, for example, this highly up-close and personal video of Ted Cruz responding to an Iowa farmer’s confrontational questions about ethanol subsidies. The TL;DR background for this conversation is that this farmer believes Cruz only opposes ethanol subsidies because he’s disproportionately biased towards oil. As Cruz explains, he believes in creating a level playing field in the energy market, with no special treatment for anybody. (Clearly, as we all know, the free market would take care of the rest. No need to force anything.) He also explains the myriad ways in which he is actually on the side of this farmer and many others like him. A seven-minute video discussion of ethanol subsidies may seem like a tedious watch, but it’s worth it to see how patiently Cruz interacts with and eventually wins over this single cantankerous voter:
There’s even more expectation of a personal connection from fans of a political candidate who professes to be a committed Christian. This is true for Cruz as well as several other candidates in the GOP race. Some of them have appeared at churches as well as stadiums and town halls. But with their open professions of faith comes the uncomfortable fact that their fans may share not only policy concerns, but emotional/spiritual baggage as well. In the case of Governor John Kasich, this has prompted him to go perhaps a little too far in doling out hugs to especially emotional fans, causing some to question whether it’s appropriate for a politician to take on a role that’s rightly reserved for spiritual counselors or pastors. (One college student clearly saw Kasich as a surrogate father figure, sharing how his parents’ marriage had recently fallen apart and how another man who was like a father to him had committed suicide.)
Marco Rubio speaks naturally and freely about his own Catholic faith on the campaign trail, and some of his rallies have taken detours that felt more like a sermon than a stump speech. Watch how he responds to this man’s tearful expression of support at a South Carolina town hall:
To sum up, you can tell a lot about a person with a large public following by how they treat the people who follow them. I find it difficult to imagine the outpouring of energy it must require to be this responsive and attentive to complete strangers. Not only is the steady demand to (literally) touch people a physical drain, but it takes a special gift to look somebody in the eye whom you don’t know from Adam and convince them that you care about him as an individual. Not as a number, not as a warm body in the polls or a consumer of your product, but an individual. My hat is off to those who can meet that challenge in a genuine way, whether their profession is explicitly centered on Christianity, or whether it is woven into their profession as a natural extension of who they are.