Of the four great stone faces that gaze out from Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the one most of us know least about is Theodore Roosevelt’s. Situated between Lincoln, whom he loved, and Jefferson, whom he did not, Roosevelt is the only 20th century president deemed worthy to join his famous predecessors. Ironically, the Rushmore figure closest to us in time, and the one who did more to shape the modern presidency than almost anyone else, is the one who seems most remote.
Edmund Morris’s biography Theodore Rex (New York: Random House, 2001) is a major effort to fill in the blanks. Published just a year ago, this book (the second in a projected series of three volumes) focuses exclusively on TR as president. Morris tells the story of a vital leader, a man who filled any room he entered. Roosevelt was a “dynamo” who overwhelmed his staff, his colleagues, his enemies, and at times the entire nation. During his presidential tenure (1901–09) Roosevelt reshaped our nation by opposing the great corporate trusts that threatened to monopolize America. He dramatically enlarged the role of federal government in civil service reform, labor relations, and food and drug laws. He established great national parks and monuments and was the first to make conservation a presidential priority. He instigated the building of the Panama Canal, forever altering the flow of ships, trade, and military forces around the world. Repeatedly he led the United States from the safety of provincialism into uncharted international ventures, being among the first to attempt to realize America’s “manifest destiny.” The first chief executive who understood how to manipulate the modern press, TR was a genius at spin and leaks, two staples of our own time. The first U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, he made it seem that the fine arts of diplomacy and legislative politics were not notably difficult. By the time he left the White House, he had transformed the office of the presidency, the nation, and the relationships of nations around the world.
Even the challenges of high office could not absorb all his energies. When confined to Washington, Roosevelt could be spotted galloping through Rock Creek Park waving a revolver over his head, as beleaguered colleagues scrambled to keep up. The author of more than 150,000 letters, 38 books, and countless magazine articles, he was also one of the most literate of presidents. During his first three years in the White House, he read 114 authors—the lightest being Mark Twain. Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Shakespeare were his regular fare.
A Rushmore for Clergy?
In graduate school as I prepared for doctoral exams, Martin E. Marty, the University of Chicago’s renowned historian of American religion, once asked me if I had a Mount Rushmore of religious leaders. I did not. But I have played the Mount Rushmore game ever since, chiseling faces into imaginary rock, erasing some, and chiseling again. A special form of that question puts the searchlight on pastoral leaders. If we were to carve a Mount Rushmore of great contemporary pastors, who would make the cut?
Oddly, when I ask people for their lists, few can name clergy equivalents of the Rushmore quartet. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that comparing presidents and clergy puts us in the apples-and-oranges trap. But more is going on here. Why do clergy seem to be background figures in current national leadership circles? Many believe that clergy have lost their public voice and influence. Our culture seems to have devalued clergy as leaders. We could spend much time and ink trying to explain why.
Rather than obsess on this puzzle, I want to cut against the grain. If we began looking for signs of vital congregational leaders, what might we turn up? Vigorous leaders like Roosevelt move people, for good and for ill. They fill their followers with energy and vision. They help people see themselves and their world differently. They alter the landscape.
Pastoral Sources of Vitality
Almost a decade ago, a group of journalists sought to offer portraits of vital congregational leaders. Their essay-length portraits were gathered into Sources of Inspiration: 15 Modern Religious Leaders, edited by Gene I. Maeroff (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1992). Despite its noble purpose, the book made little impact. I have heard few people refer to it.
For a moment, I want to resurrect the book and to use it as both evidence and challenge. The hard-nosed journalists who wrote the stories clearly found important evidence. The 15 individuals portrayed in Sources were viewed by their contemporaries as sources of vitality. Male and female; Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, and Jew; white, Latino, and African American—they made the institutions they served into vital places. While they may not have become national Rushmore figures, they were seen by parishioners, colleagues, and candidates for ministry as local ones.
The challenge for us is to find more of them and to set off a debate about candidates for a new religious Rushmore. Above all, it is to ask, What made them so?
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.