There’s something interesting brewing in Chicago that just might change things on the political front across the nation. I can’t say that I am surprised; we’ve gained a reputation as of late for being in the center of the political with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And I think Chicago is about to be on the center stage of American politics again.

You see, now that the big midterm elections are history, the campaign to replace retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley will kick into high gear. And there’s been no shortage of candidates jumping in for the Feb. 22, 2011, election. This historic race to replace a man who is not only a mayor, but also represents a dynasty almost 60 years old, has all the makings of a national story and a national conversation.

One strand of that conversation will undoubtedly focus on the evangelical pastors that are lining up to make a run. To this point, at least three pastors have tossed their hats into the ring: Rev. Patricia Watkins of Ambassadors for Christ Church, Rev. Wilfredo De Jesús of New Life Covenant Church, and Rev. James T. Meeks, senior pastor of the 20,000-member Salem Baptist Church and an early front runner. The fun thing about this is that all three of these pastors have credible resumes as church leaders and social/political leaders in this city. Their candidacies will surely challenge the establishment on either side of the equation.

So, how will they handle themselves? In a time in which the divide between conservatives and liberals in politics couldn’t be much wider, these pastors will be seeking election in a city that historically supports liberal Democrats for every office from the presidency to the lower house of the state legislature, the last election notwithstanding.

Each one of these individuals seeking to go from the pulpit to the 5th floor at City Hall already knows something about living the integrated public life as an evangelical minister and social/political leader in the community. But by entering this race, they are all stepping into another level of scrutiny both locally and nationally. Every word they’ve uttered publicly, every relationship, every opinion will be sifted through and used by others to build a case against them. To say the least, it could be a disaster. Will they leave off their conviction to pursue the office (after all, there is no conservative base to please like there is in national elections)? Will their convictions and faith sink their campaigns? Or will one of them emerge as a model for how an evangelical can win a big city?

And how will they be handled? I already alluded to fact that these pastor/candidates will be heavily scrutinized and severely criticized over the course of the campaign. But this is politics; that’s par for the course.

But what is fair game and what’s off limits? For instance, early on there were calls for Meeks to pledge to give up his position as pastor of his Southside megachurch if elected. Though Meeks initially refused, he recently announced that he would be relinquishing his day-to-day pastoral duties to his senior staff so that he could devote his full attention to the campaign and that he would pass full-time ministerial duties on to a colleague if elected.

The whole call for a pastor who runs for office to give up his ministry role seems unfair to me because there are several elected officials serving in important offices who have been able to maintain demanding leadership positions in secular jobs. In fact, since 2003, when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate, Meeks has been among the untold number of bi-vocational pastors who serve their congregations while working in other capacities. This is not an endorsement of Meeks, more a defense of the right that he, and any other pastor, has to seek elective office. As a bi-vocational minister myself, I must say that (by God’s grace) my full participation in the world of politics and community organizing and the life of my local Christian assembly are not mutually exclusive.

A more pressing issue, however, will be how Meeks and the others navigate social issues that would seem to collide with their beliefs as conservative Christian ministers. Meeks has already met with leaders of Chicago’s gay and lesbian community in an effort to overcome the perception that he’s anti-gay, and De Jesús had a similar meeting a couple years back when he considered a run for a city alderman position. Simply put, activist evangelical preachers probably say lots of things that will not play too well with a massive, diverse, and fragmented electorate like the one found in Chi-Town. But, on the other hand, only cities like Chicago can produce activist Christian leaders with the kind of street sense and mammoth constituencies that would allow them to consider running for top political positions.

All said, Chicago is likely about to treat the nation to yet another compelling political drama. And this one will be especially interesting for the Christian community — real-life evangelicals, running real-life campaigns, in a real-life metropolis. Get ready to tune in.

Campaign websites for: Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins and Wilfredo De Jesús.

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