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So Help Me God: Faith, the Presidency, and my Doctor of Ministry: a Reflection by Dr. Robert W. Lee, IV (DMin ’24)

In the midst of a presidential election, this seems like the perfect time to tell this story. I’m a preacher from North Carolina, after all, and we tend to take pride in our stories. My name is the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Lee, IV a recent graduate of PSR’s Doctor of Ministry program. But before all that, when I was a child, I wanted to be president of the United States. I didn’t take this lightly. I immersed myself in reading everything from comic books to coffee table books on each and every president. To this day I can tell you weird facts about every one of our presidents and how their work has directly or indirectly impacted American life then and now. I know the Oath of Office by heart should I ever be called to take it, down to the fact that “so help me God” in the Presidential Oath is not officially part of the constitutionally prescribed oath but was first uttered by President Washington. I have loved every facet of the office. In 2021, I had the opportunity to offer a prayer at the Inaugural Prayer Service for President Joe Biden, I wish I could tell my younger self about that! I continue to work in the field of public theology to this day.

I am a little young to be in the running for President of the United States this cycle, and I mean that by the constitutional requirement of 35, not the fact that our candidates are 77 and 81. Even still, I have found myself thinking about the ways that God’s work in the world has been enacted and hindered by the office of the President of the United States.

That’s why when last summer I was “hem-hawing,” as we say in the South about my dissertation project, Professor Jim Lawrence, Director of the Doctor of Ministry program, looked at me and said, “Rob, what have you always wanted to study but never had the tools and resources to do so?” I immediately blurted out the American presidency and theology. This led to the development of a podcast, a written work, and interviews for the capstone project of my doctor of ministry. It was a gift that continues to bear fruit. In fact, the day I defended my dissertation I received an incredibly generous letter from the President Biden congratulating me on my efforts and work in public theology, as some of my colleagues that I partner with at the White House had clued the President of the United States into my defense of my dissertation. They even gave directions that I should open it upon a successful defense, as someone wanted to be the first to congratulate me. I may not ever be president, but that was a full-circle moment.

This love of the presidency runs deep and even finds its way into my other hobbies. I collect autographs from celebrities, athletes, authors, thinkers, and politicians. One of my more unique autographs is a pocket-Bible signed by then-President Richard M. Nixon, our nation’s 37th and second most-disgraced President. The provenance that was afforded to me when I collected this item says that the woman who originally owned it had President Nixon sign the Bible during a campaign stop in her town. She cherished the Bible and kept it close even after President Nixon resigned. I tell you this because history may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. We live in a current age where former Presidents sign Bibles and sell Bibles like they are commodities to be parceled out for profit. Pacific School of Religion stands as a rebuttal to “that type” of religiosity and faith. We say we may not have it all figured out, but together, we know that the reign of God is as diverse as it is beautiful. There are no places for snake oil or Bible salesmen who peddle cheap grace.

Part of the letter Dr. Lee received from President Biden.
Dr. Lee's pocket-Bible signed by former President Richard M. Nixon

I say this because Pacific School of Religion continues to enable students to ask the deep and probing questions of our existence—why things matter and why things look the way they do. Deeper than that, the faculty beg us to ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask but never had the courage to face or even whisper in the quiet moments when we’re trying to get to the heart of the matter. Then, alongside us, the seminary community enables us to enact change in our context. This school is unique in a landscape of seminary education bent toward Christian nationalism, it remains a bastion of progress mixed with the value of the traditions of the Church. It should be valued, cherished, and protected, as there are few other places quite like this one. It is my prayer that God will continue to richly bless the faculty, students, trustees, and institution that brought us this far and, by God’s grace, will lead us onward into tomorrow.

So help us. God.

The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Lee (DMin ’24) is a pastor, author, and public theologian. He has preached from small rural churches to large cathedrals across the world. His work has also taken him to the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards, ABC’s The View, and an appearance before a United States House of Representatives Committee. Dr. Lee is the author of five books and has a successful podcast, Beloved Journal. He makes his home in Statesville, North Carolina, with his wife Stephanie, their two daughters, and their two dogs.

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