On Sunday morning, Doug Sauder sounded chagrined. The pastor of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, in Florida, has an 18-year-old son who can vote this year for the first time, but he’s not sure he will.
“I want my son to know what’s happening, so we start to watch the debates, and after every debate I’m like, I’m so sorry,” Sauder said to his congregation, which the Hartford Institute for Religion Research says runs 18,500 strong.
“You know what I’m talking about?” Sauder continued, as attendees laughed. “My son looks at me and says, ‘I don’t even know what’s the point, I might as well not even vote.’ And that’s one of typical responses when you look at the mess, because this whole political season is probably the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s been described as a dumpster fire: The more it burns, the more it stinks.”
Sauder isn’t alone in that view.
Though this campaign season has left the nation unprecedentedly divided, everyone—door-knockers, campaign staffers, radio talk show hosts, union organizers, people who just want to watch football without getting a million 30-second ads about Benghazi—can agree it’s been horrible. And no one may understand that better than mega-church pastors, as was evident from watching the livestreams of three church services in swing states the Sunday before the election.
On the surface, they couldn’t be more different.
Sauder sported a red v-neck sweater and a conversational, even-toned style. And Rod Parsley, who pastors World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio (12,000 members, according to its website), is a flashy prosperity-gospel, faith-healing preacher whose Sunday morning program featured lengthy pleas with the Lord for the alleviation of joint pain. And at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina (1,000 weekly attendees according to its pastor), Mark Harris led a service that was buttoned-up and theologically sober.
So the three of them represent decidedly different approaches to American Evangelical Christianity. Though evangelical Christians are often described in monolithic terms, the differences between congregations—as in the case of these three—can be massive. But the pastors of all three had one thing very much in common: they hate this election, and they want it to be done.
In Columbus, Parsley’s service opened with a lengthy praise-and-worship session.
“And all the free people in the building give the Lord a shout of praise!” cried a blonde worship leader as the service was kicking off. “Hallelujah!”
Congregants swayed and bopped to the music, and Parsley led them in prayers for miraculous healing.
“God’s healing joints, joints, joints, wrists, fingers, elbows, knees, ankles,” cried Parsley, whose purple plaid shirt matched the purple-blue lights that filled the auditorium. “God’s healing joints, hips. Somebody dance! Necks! Shout in the name of Jesus, lay your hands on your head and shout in the name of Jesus be healed now!”
That last syllable came out as a warbling, guttural shout, ringing through the auditorium as the band and singers played on.
“Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus we have the victory!” they sang.
“Gall bladders are being healed right now,” Parsley bellowed over them. “Everybody shout. Lymph nodes are being healed right now, swollen glands are being healed. Everybody take another drink and come up shouting!”
By the end of the service, though—which ran for more than two hours—Parsley took on a drastically subdued tone. It was unavoidable: It was time to talk politics.
“Some folks just need a little help understanding what the most important issue facing us is,” he said, viewing the crowd somberly as the music died. “It’s a very simple one: Whether we want to continue the senseless barbaric horror of abortion and the assault on the elderly, the unborn, the infirm and those to whom we should be the most benevolent and loving and protective. That’s a very clear issue, and nothing else is above that. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Because if one’s heart can find room to legislate murder it’s very difficult for me to find any other common ground.”
There was a spattering of applause.
“That’s a hard issue,” he continued. “I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you that you should pray, that you should open your heart, but you should allow God’s word to dictate your actions, that’s all, that’s it.”
He then asked congregants to donate to the church’s crisis pregnancy center, which he said is across the street from one of the few remaining Planned Parenthoods in Columbus. For $52, they could pay for an ultrasound, he said, and save a life.
“That would be $1 a week for a year,” he said. “How many of you believe you could find a dollar a week, a dollar, a week, every 7 days you could find a dollar—well if you could do that you’d save a life.”
Parsley hasn’t formally endorsed Trump, though many prosperity gospel preachers like him—most notably televangelists Paula White and Darrell Scott—flocked to the mogul as soon as he rolled out his candidacy. But politics aren’t foreign to Parsley; in 2008 he endorsed John McCain, who subsequently disavowed the endorsement after reports surfaced that Parsley had preached that Islam was “a conspiracy of spiritual evil.” Unlike Parsley, Harris and Sauders didn’t use the election to make a pitch for donations. But Harris urged attendees to vote, and to hand out voter guides (available in the back of the church) to 10 of their friends and relatives who “believe like we believe” but might not vote. And, he said, everyone needed to be praying for America.
Harris, who has run for office in North Carolina, initially endorsed Ted Cruz in the Republican primary. He’s now part of Trump’s North Carolina spiritual advisory group, he told The Daily Beast, and he spoke at a Trump rally in Charlotte.
His text for the morning was Matthew 12:43-50. In that passage, Jesus says that after an evil spirit leaves a person, the spirit sometimes returns with seven additional spirits “more wicked than itself.” Just because you clean house after being purged of one demon doesn’t mean you’re safe—rather, Harris said, confidence in one’s righteousness makes you more vulnerable than ever.
“That self-righteous individual, they’re pleased with their clean, empty house—he thinks he’s fine just fine,” Harris said, speaking very slowly and almost whispering. “And yet, there is a truth: Where Christ Jesus does not live, mark it down, demons are free to live.”
So America needs prayer, he continued.
“Regardless of what happens Tuesday night, as followers of Christ, we better get our minds wrapped around this, and I mean wrapped around strongly,” he said. “Outer reformation without inner transformation is deadly. And that’s gonna be key. America better be careful what we celebrate on Tuesday evening, because Jesus said the truth is what sets you free.”
Sauder, meanwhile, was a little less ominous, a little more flabbergasted. His text was from the book of Philippians, and he preached on what it means for Christians to be citizens of Heaven. It doesn’t mean Christians should withdraw from politics, he said, but rather that they should have some gosh-darned perspective. Including on social media.
“If the Christians in our world would spend more time praying than posting, then this might be a different season, it might be a different place,” he said, as the crowd clapped. “Amen? Amen.”
Christians should vote, he said, and they should stand against abortion. But that isn’t enough.
“Here’s my question, just to consider: Is the only time you think about a culture of life every four years in an election? Because if it is, you’re missing a huge opportunity. There are young girls who get pregnant who are desperately lonely and scared and afraid, who need somebody to say God has a plan, God can redeem this. You can volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center. You can take in a foster child.”
And if you’re angry about police brutality of racial tension, he continued, you should get coffee with someone who doesn’t look like you and listen to them and ask questions. And while you’re at it, you should try to be more like Jesus.
“Jesus had no problem entering into the tension having a conversation, because Jesus spoke the truth in a loving way,” he said. “Jesus was right about everything, but he was never a jerk about it.”
There are now less than 72 hours left in this election cycle—less than 72 hours for people to yell at each other on Facebook about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And by Wednesday morning, God willing, people won’t feel quite as compelled to be jerks. At least, that’s what swing state pastors are praying.