January 3, 2007
In a recent radio interview I was asked the hypothetical question “If you had to choose between candidate A who did not profess to be a Christian but had extensive political experience and candidate B who was a devout Christian but only had limited political experience, who would you vote for?” I replied that I would consider both the experience and stated convictions of the two candidates, but I would also take into account the policies they advocated and the underlying philosophical basis for these policies.
As the 2008 presidential campaign continues to heat up, as both Republican and Democratic candidates discuss their personal faith and appeal to religious voters, and as Mitt Romney explains why his Mormonism should not disqualify him from serving as president, this question led me to reflect on what Christians are looking for in a potential president. I cannot speak for all Christians, of course, but for many of us several considerations stand out as especially important.
Christians want a president with outstanding character. Our presidents have never been saints. Even the ones best known for their character have had significant flaws. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Dwight Eisenhower all engaged in ethically questionable activities while president. Nevertheless, sterling character is a very desirable quality. Christians value a president who is trustworthy and morally exemplary. Integrity, consistency, and keeping promises are all very important.
Christians also want a president who is devoted to prayer, Bible study, and public worship. These activities will enable him or her to develop a deep understanding of the Scriptures and a robust faith and to seek God’s guidance and strength. Moreover, by engaging in these activities, presidents provide a good role model for the American people. Presidents face extraordinary challenges and make many critical decisions. Christians draw comfort from knowing that in addition to reading intelligence reports and soliciting the advice of the cabinet and Congress, a president also seeks God’s help and counsel in performing his role.
Christians desire a president who diligently studies the scripture and tries to apply biblical teaching to his philosophy of governing and policy decisions. Christians disagree significantly on how the teachings of scripture apply to many contemporary issues. Most of us agree, however, that biblical principles are relevant to current policy debates and want our nation’s leaders to try to implement policies that are consistent with scriptural injunctions and tenets. We especially want a president who supports policies that promote the welfare of all Americans and strives to insure that our nation treats all citizens fairly and equally. Although few of our presidents have had extensive theological or biblical education, many of them have tried to base their policies on their understanding of scriptural principles.
Because of the complexity of today’s world , many Christians focus on one particular political issue—preventing abortion, protecting marriage, safeguarding the environment, reducing poverty, eliminating hunger, fighting AIDS, decreasing crime and delinquency and helping those who are incarcerated readjust to society, ending sex trafficking, or insuring religious freedom. Concentrating on alleviating a particular social problem makes sense given our limited time, energy, money, and knowledge. Our life experience, opportunities, and the burden God lays on our hearts influence which problem we choose to combat. Many Christians, however, want a president who cares deeply about all these social ills and seeks to devise policies to help remedy them. Although we believe that congregations, voluntary organizations, mission agencies, and individuals have vital roles to play in assuaging these problems, we also believe that our government must wage war against them.
Finally, given God’s concern for all nations, not simply the United States, many Christians want a president who pursues policies designed to benefit the entire world. We desire a president who will make our nation an ambassador of peace, good will, justice, and compassion in the world. It would be refreshing to hear a president end his or her speeches not with “God bless America,” but with “God bless the world.” It would be wonderful to have a president who makes one of his chief priorities improving the well-being of the world’s sick and poor. Obviously, our government has limited resources and there is much we can and should do through the private sector to help these groups. But many Christians would like to see our political leaders use their political and moral capital to help reduce hunger, disease, and poverty.
It is unlikely that we will find a candidate in 2008 or in any other presidential election who meets all these qualifications. It is more unlikely we will ever find such a candidate if we do not challenge prospective presidents to think about these issues. In the meantime, these factors provide a good set of criteria for Christians to consider as they go to the polls.
Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College and is the author of ”Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2006).