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From Politics to the Pulpit: Why Washington’s Key Players Seek the Seminary

Between political attack ads and an unsettling House of Cards depiction of Washington, it’s a challenging concept that politicians initially got in the game to change the world for the better. Clinton’s former Press Secretary Mike McCurry—“spin doctor” during the Lewinsky years—traded the White House for the seminary for this reason, and others have followed suit.

Now a professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, McCurry received a master’s of arts degree from Wesley last year, and has since been “a shepherd to peers interested in making the transition from state to church,” writes the National Journal.

“I think a lot of people inquire just because the culture of Washington is so broken right now,” he said. “They didn’t come here just to get in angry political fights every day. They want to do something positive, and they’re looking for avenues to make that happen.”

McCurry isn’t alone: Former adviser to Mitt Romney and longtime political operative Eric Fehrnstrom announced last spring that he’ll be pursuing a master’s in theological studies at Boston College (for academic credentials rather than ordainment into the priesthood, like McCurry). Matt Rhodes, former spokesman for the House Budget Committee, left his position at the American Hotel and Lodging Association to join the seminary and become an ordained priest for the Episcopal Church. Wesley’s former students also include Kentucky Representative Ed Whitfield, former Democratic National Committee’s Chief of Staff Leah Daughtry, and NPR’s Michael Martin. Former Senate staffers Donna Claycomb Sokol and Adam Briddell both left their jobs to pursue seminarian training, as well, becoming pastor and associate pastor respectively at area Methodist churches.

McCurry’s fellow Wesley professor Shaun Casey, currently on leave to serve in the Secretary of State’s office, said his classes are often filled with both retired federal employees and young Hill staffers who are looking to make a bigger impact. “The Hill can be a place where joy and hope go to die. A lot of people came to D.C. wanting to change the world, and they find it to be a particularly tough environment.”

Another motive, the National Journal notes, could be the element of penance. In the late 1970s, former White House Deputy Communications Director Jeb Magruder followed up his prison sentence from the Watergate Scandal by earning a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, eventually being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. And fellow Watergate figure Charles Colson had similar post-prison endeavors, becoming an evangelical leader and founding a ministry for prisoners.

With classes in the seminary sharing topics often addressed in the Capitol, an enlightened overlap could have mutual benefits. “It’s a two-way street,” Casey said. “They can, in their best lights, help the Church be more effective in the things that the Church should be about … fighting for racial justice, fighting extreme poverty … and the Church can help them, too, in the sense that it can transcend some of the partisan gridlock that has this town in a stranglehold.”

The irony of transitioning from the podium to the pulpit isn’t lost on McCurry, who, as press secretary, bore the brunt of Clinton’s scandals in 1998.

“A lot of my friends from politics tease me about it—‘Oh, do we have to call you Reverend now?’—And, you know, I was thoroughly a spin doctor, as politically charged as the next guy, so a lot of them find it mildly amusing that I am where I am now, using this for loving one another.”

Image by Sarah Stierch, licensed under Creative Commons