The List: The World’s Top Religious Power Brokers
Meet five powerful preachers who can put the fear of God into any politician.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
Pastor Rick Warren
Country: United States
Religion: Southern Baptist
Who is he? As founding pastor of one of Americas largest churches, with a congregation 23,000 strong in Orange County, Calif., Rick Warren enjoys moral and political clout in the United States and around the world. His 2002 book, The Purpose Driven Life, is the bestselling hardback in U.S. history and has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. Powerful preachers are nothing new in American politicsBilly Graham advised U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bushand Warren seems perfectly positioned to take up the mantle for a new generation of evangelical voters.
Warren stayed neutral in the 2004 presidential race, but his reminder that certain issues were nonnegotiableabortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasiamade his tacit support for Bush clear. Yet Warrens moderate message, emphasizing personal fulfillment and even traditionally liberal issues such as poverty, climate change, and HIV/AIDS, gives him appeal well beyond his conservative base. A televised forum at his Saddleback Church in August was the first time both candidates agreed to share the stage since becoming presumptive nominees. Warrens close relationship with Barack Obamathe two have appeared together to speak on AIDShas drawn ire from the right, but Pastor Rick sees the long game. Whichever candidate wins in November, hell likely be making a regular pilgrimage to Orange County for counsel and support.
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Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Religion: Shiite Islam
Who is he? One of the worlds most influential Shiite clerics, Sistani has also been called the most important leader in post-invasion Iraq. His followers, concentrated in Iraq and Iran, range in the millions and refer to him as their marja al-taqlid or object of emulation. Emerging from isolation after Saddam Husseins ouster, he fast became a hugely powerful figure, presiding over Iraqs devoted Shiite majority and expanding his international network through offices in 15 countries. Sistani is also wired. His media center runs the most influential Web site in the Shiite world and answers nearly 1,000 questions a day from followers.
Sistani displayed his reach in January 2004 when he effortlessly orchestrated massive nonviolent protests demanding democratic elections and insisted on involving the United Nations. Images of Sistani are ubiquitous at Shiite rallies, and political parties have used them to drum up support in their campaigns, a practice now banned under Iraqi law. Today, with the deadline fast approaching for an agreement on U.S. troop withdrawal, Prime Minister Nuri al-Malikis government is intensely lobbying the ayatollah to support a deal.
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Pope Benedict XVI
Religion: Roman Catholic
Who is he? Dubbed Gods Rottweiler for his strict adherence to conservative Catholic doctrine, the man once known as Joseph Ratzinger was putting the fear of God into politicians before he even became the pontiff. Former U.S. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, felt his bite in 2004 when the then cardinal told U.S. bishops to refuse communion to pro-choice Catholics. Kerry wound up losing the traditionally Democratic Catholic vote to Bush.
The popes reach may be global, but Italian politics is where his influence is most keenly felt. His first big power play was in 2005, when he openly opposed efforts to overturn a law restricting medically assisted fertility procedures. The referendum failed by a large margin. Frustrated by Italys culture of materialism, Benedict called in September for the country to put forth a new generation of Catholic politicians, saying that Italian politics was in dire need of committed lay Christians capable of seeking solutions of sustainable development with competence and moral rigor. Then when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pushed for unprecedentedly harsh punishments for illegal immigration, the Vatican publically criticized the measure, and Berlusconi had to meet with the pope to allay his concerns.
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Archbishop Peter Akinola
Religion: Anglican Christian
Who is he? Through his strident opposition to homosexuality, Akinola has made himself into a central figure in the global culture wars. Although the Anglican Church as a whole has moved toward greater tolerance of gays and lesbians, the head of the African Anglican Church has held to a strict traditionalist line, making himself the chief villain of liberal Western Anglicans but also earning himself millions of conservative fans worldwide. A number of American churches have even joined Akinolas revolt, seceding from the United States gay-friendly Episcopal Church.
Akinola is also a major political player at home in Nigeria, a deeply religious country with almost 18 million active Anglicans. Politicians constantly inject God and religion into Nigerias politics, make a big show of donating money to churches, and benefit from the support of religious leaders. In his regular travels around the country, Akinola is known to pay visits to everyone from state governors to the president, urging them to put God first. In 2006, the government enacted a countrywide same-sex marriage ban at Akinolas urging. Akinolas policy advice can be remarkably specific, such as his recent demands for political leaders to prioritize the supply of electrical power, but his millions of devoted followers ensure that Nigerian politicians must continue to curry his favor.
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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Religion: Ultra-Orthodox Judaism
Who is he? Yosef is the spiritual leader of Shas, the haredi or ultra-Orthodox party that has become a key swing player in Israeli politics. One of the most powerful religious figures in Israel, Yosef has made it his mission to gain political clout for haredi Jews. He is known for his controversial sermons, incendiary remarks about Arabs, and sweeping damnations, such as when he called Hurricane Katrina God’s retribution. Yosef, in other words, doesnt seem like a figure who mainstream politicians would want to associate with. But Shas uses its 12 Knesset seats to exert disproportionate influence on Israeli politicsand, by extension, the Middle East peace process. The party has almost no support outside the ultra-Orthodox community, but maintains a loyal and vocal base of support within it.
Shas is notoriously fickle in its political associations. Its generally considered conservative but has joined with politicians ranging in ideology from Yitzhak Rabin to Benjamin Netanyahu to advance the interests of its constituents, including state support for its religious schools and an undivided Jerusalem. In recent weeks, Shas held Israel in suspense as it deliberated whether to join a government led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. She grudgingly promised the party 1 billion shekel increase in child welfare, but was ultimately rebuffed by Yosef, forcing new elections.
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