I don’t ever recall a presidential race as fascinating and historic as the Democratic and Republican National Conventions over the past 2 weeks. Barak Obama is the first African-American to be nominated by his party for president. Joe Biden, his running mate, has been a presidential candidate twice. John McCain will be the oldest elected President if he wins. And Sarah Palin, emerged from relative obscurity to become the first woman ever nominated by the Republican party for vice-president.
Obama and McCain both campaigned in Michigan immediately after their respective conventions since we are considered to be a swing state. Even West Michigan is getting into the act, with Grand Rapids publisher Zondervan rushing to put into print a new book, Sarah Palin: A New Kind of Leader.
Hearing so much conversation about the election everywhere I go, including the church, causes me to ponder, “What are the criteria that people of faith use in deciding how to vote in the November presidential election?” People of faith naturally make important decisions based on their religious beliefs. If we are going to meet the needs of people and bring in God’s kingdom on his earth, we must be involved politically because that is where corporate change can best take place. We have a responsibility to look beyond what government can do for “me” to how our country can care for the least among us. Stephan Carter has written, “When we divorce religion from politics, we marginalize religion to the point that values guiding society to behave with reason and compassion are lost to current and prevailing values of the culture.”
Some people evaluate a candidate’s religious affiliation as a criterion for how they vote. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for candidates to speak of their own faith without it being exploited, scrutinized, twisted or even ridiculed. We would do well to remember that a separation between church and state is built into our Constitution. In the United States, clear distinctions between religion and civil authority preserve the freedoms we hold so dear.
As historian and theologian Martin E. Marty stressed in a lecture in Grand Rapids on Saturday, the essence of politics is compromise, give and take. Politicians represent the entire country and must carefully distinguish between personal religious feelings and good public policy. I don’t need a president who talks incessantly about religion. Rather, I hope for a president who understands the role of religion in America, respects diversity of thought and belief, acknowledges the importance of both private and public morality, and lives out his faith.
Some people will vote for a candidate based solely on age, gender, race or experience. The media seems especially focused right now on concerns about the candidates’ background, experience, health issues, and family responsibilities. We have to be careful in making assumptions about the ability of candidates to govern based on our own biases. I admit that I tend to value experience highly. There is little time for on-the-job training for a president or vice-president. There is also a greater trust and comfort level with someone who is experienced and has an outstanding track record. On the other hand, Jeremiah’s protest that he was just a boy didn’t seem to matter to God. God called him anyway. Young, inexperienced people who are exceptionally skilled learn very quickly and can bring enormous energy and enthusiasm to their jobs.
Another criterion people of faith use in voting is a candidate’s stand on issues. How will they improve the economy? What are their plans to preserve the environment and conserve energy? What is their stance on abortion? How do they feel about stem cell research? How will they provide health care for all citizens? How will they fix our broken immigration system?
As voters, we should be aware of our own tendency to select issues that are most important to us. It has often been said that Republicans are more concerned about personal moral issues, and Democrats are more concerned about social issues. The truth is that personal and social holiness are woven together to create the fabric of faith and also create a strong and compassionate nation. My hope is that our next President will not pander to the rich or bow to special interest groups, but will focus on the best interests of all Americans, especially the poor.
To me, the most important quality for our President is character. Skills can be taught, and knowledge can be learned, but the ability to lead with integrity is grounded in an integrated personality and an awareness of one’s limitations. It is faith development that forms our character and informs our decision-making because of the understanding that we are very human instruments of a God who calls and guides.
While charisma is a highly attractive quality to those who want to be led, other qualities prove to be stronger indicators of trustworthy leadership: good judgment, compassion, openness, perseverance, honesty, imagination, a willingness to risk, tolerance and flexibility. Great leaders do not surround themselves with “yes” people but continually seek to learn, improve, change and be held accountable. Is there evidence in our candidates of careful thought, a willingness to change one’s mind, if necessary, and a desire to seek out other viewpoints?
Unfortunately, political power is seductive. John Edwards, candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, revealed this summer that he had an affair in 2006 with a filmmaker hired by his political action committee, an affair he hid for several years. In an ABC Network interview, Edwards said that his rise “from a small town boy in North Carolina” who “came from nothing” to a successful lawyer, U.S. senator and national public figure “fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want.”
Just a few days ago, Kwame Kilpatrick, the youngest person ever elected to be the mayor of Detroit, finally resigned after pleading guilty to felony charges in a sex scandal. He was ordered jailed for 4 months and fined $1 million. “I lied under oath,” Kilpatrick said in court. How do we, by our excessive adulation of public figures, contribute to their temptation to succumb to inappropriate behavior?
Our founding fathers based this new republic on virtue. It all hinges on character. I pray that virtues such as balance, depth, temperament, humility, fair-mindedness and moral courage will characterize our next President.
Over the next 2 months, I hope that you will listen carefully to the candidates, ignore the negative advertising, find ways for church members to respectfully discuss issues from a faith perspective, pray for discernment, then get out and vote!