It’s campaign season. That either excites you, frustrates you, or–if you’re like me–a little bit of both. On the one hand it’s fun to follow along with the political debates, columns, and commentaries. On the other hand, the over-the-top rhetoric, inconsistencies, self-congratulatory spirits, and drama can be the source of a lot of angst. I have generally tried to avoid being too political in public. To be sure, there are issues I hold to uncompromisingly and others for which I adopt a more laissez-faire attitude. There are candidates I appreciate and others who make my blood boil. I do my best to be semi-informed on domestic and foreign policy and our contemporary social issues. I try, when conscience allows, to participate in elections and maintain that a principled vote is always better than a pragmatic. But despite being an armchair political junkie, I don’t make it a habit to speak or write much about political issues. This post will be, most likely, my only exception to that.
One of the things I have found most fascinating about this election cycle is the place that has been given to character. Maybe I’m too young or haven’t been involved in the political process enough, but with the popularity of certain candidates there seems to be a lot of back-and-forth about the qualifying character of an individual. I don’t think it’s mere fear mongering to say that we run the very real risk come November of having two candidates on the ballot neither of whom are paragons of moral excellency. On one side of the ticket we may have a self-absorbed rich tycoon who perpetually lies and misleads and mistreats, has a long resume of faults and no interest in the rule of law. On the other side of the ticket we have–well to be honest–pretty much the exact same thing. If previous election cycles couldn’t get us to think through the important issue of character, I can only hope this one will force us to.
Now, I know the objections. I’ve heard them often and have even tried to make them in the past. Those objections that try to back anyone and everyone into a corner. Some will say: “A bad Republican is still better than a good Democrat” (or vice versa). Others will insist: “The primary season is when you express your approbation or objections for a specific candidate, but in the general election you need to vote party.” Still, others might suggest: “We have to vote for the lesser of two evils.” Or, “You’re not electing a pastor-in-chief, you’re electing a president.” I get it! But, if not a pastor-in-chief, who am I electing? Let me try to answer that.
I’m not electing a pastor-in chief but I am electing someone who is a “servant of God,” or as older translations put it, a “minister of God.” Despite what our founding documents may say, the just powers of the government do not come from the consent of the governed. The Apostle Paul says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God…[For] he is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:1, 4). Being Presbyterian I reject the idea that a civil leader has the right to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, or exercise church discipline. Nevertheless, in the institution of government a civil leader is first and foremost a servant of God.
I’m not electing a pastor-in-chief but I am electing someone whose responsibility is, at least in part, defined by the Bible. No, Scripture is not an executive, judicial, or legislative handbook and it won’t tell governments about the tax code, infrastructure, or detailed foreign policy. But God, by special revelation has spoken concerning the duties and role of government: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). In other words, a civil leader needs the Bible to rightly and fully understand their responsibility.
I’m not electing a pastor-in-chief but I am electing someone who is required to exercise justice. Again, as Paul wrote: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on a wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). As God’s servant our civil leaders are to maintain peace and order by means of the sword–an image that, biblically, is associated with being an instrument of execution. They are not to promote crime but use even life sacrificing means to subdue it.
I’m not electing a pastor-in-chief but I am electing someone who should show mercy. Daniel rebuked King Nebuchadnezzar and his rule threatening the end of his kingdom by saying: “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:27). The line between administering justice and showing mercy can be difficult. It requires an immense amount of wisdom–even sanctified wisdom. But a display of mercy even from our elected officials is a desirable practice.
I’m not electing a pastor-in-chief but I am electing someone who is to help the church. Again, there is a biblical distinction between the state and the church. They have separate origins, are intended for separate purposes, and have separate powers–the state is not to be over the church nor the church over the state. But they have mutual obligations to one another and civil leaders are to do all they can not to persecute the church but respect, protect, and defend it. As Isaiah prophesied: “Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers” (Isaiah 49:23).
I’m not electing a pastor-in-chief but I am electing someone who should be concerned with sin and righteousness. It was wise King Solomon who said: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). The greatness of a nation can be measured not by its legacy, founding documents, conquest, form of government, or liberty, but in its observance of what is right and its corruption is measured by what is immoral, wicked, and wrong.
I’m not electing a pastor-in-chief but I am electing someone who could follow commendable examples. Think of the wisdom displayed in the reign and rule of Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 47:13-31). Or consider the example of the king of Nineveh who, as king, repented at the preaching of Jonah and by royal proclamation declared a season of fasting and prayer (Jonah 3:6-10). Ponder Darius who decreed that in his royal dominion all people should tremble before the God of Daniel (Daniel 6:25-28) and Nebuchadnezzar who honored the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:29-30).
I’m not electing a pastor-in-chief but I am electing someone who is called to confess and submit to Jesus Christ. As the Psalmist sang: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10-12).
I may not be electing a pastor-in-chief but, if all that I’ve said has a note of truth, I should be electing someone with a spirit of submission and humility; someone who has a sense of justice and mercy and contrition; someone with the courage to do what is right and forbid what is wrong; someone who patterns themselves after others and seeks to honor and glorify Jesus Christ. There is room to debate domestic and foreign policies, tax rates and loopholes, programs, healthcare, immigration, and education. But my hope is that this campaign season will give us a great discomfort in the pragmatic principle of voting for the lesser of two evils, and think carefully through the necessary character of one who would rule well. And in their absence, may God raise up those who will exemplify such a character.