Keith Butler is quick to point out that he is not the first minister in American history to seek public office. From Bible characters such as Melchizedek, Daniel and David to 24 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence who possessed seminary degrees, Butler is convinced that he stands in a long tradition of spiritual leaders who felt a call to public service.
Butler is part of a new wave of pastors to throw their hats in the political ring who may wind up trading a pulpit for a desk in Washington, D.C., or the nearest state capital (see "From Pulpit to Politics"). If he wins the U.S. Senate seat in Michigan later this year, Butler will become the first black Republican from Michigan elected to the Senate, and the only charismatic pastor to win a seat traditionally held by Democrats.
Butler serves as bishop and pastor of 21,000-member Word of Faith International Christian Center (WOFICC) in Southfield, Mich., as well as satellite churches throughout the United States and far-flung locations such as the Virgin Islands and the United Kingdom.
In a recent interview with Ministry Today, Butler described the increased scrutiny that he has faced as a minister with aspirations of public office—from the way news stories are written to the way his words are interpreted by his opponents. Although he is running as a conservative Republican, you won't hear Butler using a lot of the stock-in-trade religious rhetoric common when pastors are interviewed on political topics.
"For instance, I have not said that the Lord told me to run for Senate," he notes. "Certainly, I'm not going to put a statement like that into the hands of my opponents. Instead, what I have said is that I feel strongly led to do this."
Additionally, Butler is careful in the way he argues his opinion on divisive political issues such as abortion, cannily combining the economic concerns of his Democratic opponents with the moral concerns of his Republican supporters. "Moral questions have economic consequences," he states. "Of the 45 million people who've been aborted, not only is it wrong, but we killed a huge market for our economy. These are people who—if they were alive—would be working, paying taxes, buying American-made cars, contributing to our economy."
Gerald Zandstra, Butler's Republican opponent in the 2006 primary, is also a minister and director of the Grand Rapids think tank, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. Butler claims Zandstra has downplayed this aspect of his qualifications—a strategy that Butler himself finds problematic.
"As a minister, I have a street-level view of the consequences of public policy," he explains. "I deal with people as a result of what policy-makers in Washington have done. Plus, I'm a CEO of a multi million-dollar organization."
He's not bluffing: WOFICC generates $30 million annually, employs a staff of 252, includes a Christian school and pays $100,000 a month in healthcare for its employees.
However, Butler, a graduate of Rhema Bible Training Center and the University of Michigan, is cautious to encourage other church leaders to make the leap into running for public office without counting the cost. Although a vast majority of Butler's congregation supports him in his political endeavors, the 50-year-old pastor attributes this to the maturity of the church, which he has led since its founding 27 years ago.
Additionally, his role as bishop allows him to delegate responsibilities to other leaders in his absence. Among these is Butler's son, Keith II, who leads Faith Christian Center, a satellite congregation in Smyrna, Georgia.
"When you are the bishop, you are the person who gives advice, counsel, consent to other ministers," he explains. "Whether or not I am elected, the work will continue to go on here. The ministry will continue."
Butler questions whether many pastors have what it takes to endure the rigor of global politics, complex economic issues and the challenges of relating to the media.
"Are they and their families prepared? Are their ministries prepared? Do they have the knowledge base to enter into the debate? Do they have the ability to raise the funds, the acumen?"
While opponents may poke fun at the prosperity gospel popular in Word-Faith circles, some supporters have noted that Butler will actually take a cut in pay if he wins the election later this year.
"The most revealing fact is that Keith Butler will take an 80 percent decrease in pay over a six-year Senate term," Traditional Values Coalition president Lou Sheldon noted in a February Charisma magazine article.
Butler is not a newcomer to politics. In 1989 he ran for office and was elected to Detroit's city council, becoming the first Republican councilman elected to office by Democratic voters.
After serving a four-year term, he decided not to run for re-election, instead devoting his energies to his family and church. Later, in 1992 he served as deputy chairman of the Republican National Convention and was instrumental in building support for George W. Bush in Michigan in the 2000 election.
So, does Butler's candidacy point to a growing trend that may lead more high-profile pastors to aspire to political service?
Although he believes many pastors would be out of their league in navigating the challenges of a run for office, he encourages those who are called to do so to apply themselves to understanding the political landscape in America and making a difference in the culture.
"I believe it's vitally important that people of faith continue to get involved in the process, in the culture war for the soul of America, its economic future and its national survival," he says. "It's a noble profession."
Matthew Green is managing editor of Ministries Today.