In a state where most consider themselves to be strong Christians, it's no surprise that religion finds its way into the state Capitol during the legislative session. A number of groups, like the Family Council on the right and the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance on the left, advocate certain issues based on the religious outlook of their constituent communities. One group, the Capitol Commission, is doing something a little different: offering "biblical counseling" to political leaders, trusting "God to use His Word to help government leaders grow in the grace and knowledge of God," according to the group's website.
Jason Palermo, a licensed minister and pastor, has been offering similar services to political leaders in Arkansas since 2006. In 2009, Palermo became the state director of the Capitol Commission, a national organization with an Arkansas chapter. The group hosts Bible study groups at the Capitol during legislative sessions and will counsel individual members when invited to do so. Palermo is currently going on twice-weekly jogging sessions with Secretary of State Mark Martin.
"It's based on his availability," Palermo says. "It's a way that we can both work out and maintain some level of fitness, but also a time where I could give him any spiritual — whether it's prayer for him or any questions that would be of a spiritual nature."
The hardest part of the job, Palermo says, is accommodating busy schedules.
"We'll use any means available. With political leaders their schedules are normally pretty packed. A lot of times, one of my biggest challenges is overcoming their own scheduling. That's one of their biggest problems too. A lot of times that's how marriages fall apart. They feel they've got so much on their plate, so much is important. We have one guy, for example, who goes on 100-mile bike rides with senators and folks like that."
Palermo does not charge a fee for his services. Funding for the state chapter comes from donations.
Palermo shies away from saying his organization is conservative.
"We are truly a non-partisan organization, and not politically motivated, but we are ministry motivated," he says. "Because we are a biblically-based ministry we may, on a biblical basis, arrive at 'conservative' conclusions pertaining to issues that find clear biblical support. I am seldom asked political questions, and when I am I usually remind folks that we are not involved with political advocacy. But if they want to know what the Bible teaches either explicitly or implicitly on a particular subject I can help them think through some of the issues."
Religion plays a big part in Arkansas politics. Each representative or senator's "member profile" on the general assembly website lists their "church affiliation" along with their occupation, seniority number and bio.
Although Palermo says his group stays out of political advocacy and refrains from taking a stance on certain issues, other groups, like the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance, do. Steven Copley, chair of the AIA, says his organization practices what he likes to call "public witness."
"We work with the faith community to get people to call their legislators on issues that fall within our priority area," Copley says. "We look at each issue in the faith context and judge it on its merits. That's why I don't like the terms [liberal or conservative], but in reality we tend to come down more on the progressive side."
Copley says his group doesn't give biblical counsel to legislators, but meets with individual lawmakers on particular issues. Religion, he says, is just a way of life in Southern politics.
"I think legislators, and ordinary citizens, still make decisions based on their religious backgrounds," he says. "That's anywhere in the United States but maybe not quite as predominant as in Arkansas or the South. It might not be your first point of analysis on any issue but in Arkansas many people's faith values still play a major part in their decision making. Therefore it lends itself to the development of groups like ours and other groups that you're talking about."
"The question is, what's a proper relationship of the church to the state?" Palermo says. "The scriptures really call the church to pray for their political leaders in 1Timothy 2: 1-4 — to care, to pray for them, to love them. We're called to love politicians. A lot of people in the church are too politically minded I think. There's nothing wrong with being involved in politics, but when it confuses the mission of the church for politicizing or moralizing the government, rather than loving those within it and caring for their souls, they get off from their mission."