This sad truth is nowhere more apparent than in our politics, especially as we look back, through Christian eyes, at the difficult and divisive battle that followed the November 7 presidential election.
During the course of the campaign, both major party candidates told voters they were Christians serious about their faith. George W. Bush said his favorite philosopher was Jesus. Al Gore informed us that at difficult moments he asks, "What would Jesus do?"
Presumably, neither man was pandering; each was sincere. But what were we voters expected to make of their statements? Were the candidates telling us something important about their character—that they exemplified the Christian virtues? Were they telling us something about how they would govern—that Holy Scripture would be an important source of moral knowledge for the next presidency? Or were they delivering merely demographic information—letting us know which box they would check on a census form?
The answer matters, not only for the sake of politics but also for the sake of Christianity. It matters for politics because, when a candidate implies that his beliefs are relevant, he has a responsibility to tell us how they are relevant. It matters for Christianity because of the Third Commandment, which warns us against misusing the name of God.
Candidates for public office in recent decades have often been cagey on the religion issue. On the one hand, they rush to assure us that they do indeed believe in God. On the other, they grow remarkably coy when it comes to linking their professions of faith to anything they would actually do in office. Highly partisan voter guides distributed in many churches before Election Day sometimes imply that one candidate is a better Christian than the other because of his position on the issues. But if we truly wish to assess a candidate's faith, we should look to what he does, not what he says.
The depressing month-long postelection legal battle allowed us to watch the deeds—rather than the words—of both candidates and their supporters. It quickly became clear that neither side was prepared to approach the controversy in a sacrificial spirit. Some argue that a candidate, even a Christian candidate, should follow every legally available avenue that might lead to victory. But the 2000 election actually provides a counter-example. Missouri senator John Ashcroft, a Christian, lost his bid for reelection when a majority of voters cast their ballots for Governor Mel Carnahan, who had died not long before Election Day. Carnahan's widow had agreed to serve in her husband's stead if he won, and, indeed, she is now a Senator.
Ashcroft had legal grounds to challenge the results. It is not at all clear under Missouri law that votes for a dead candidate may legally be counted. Moreover, the polls in heavily Democratic St. Louis remained open late, in defiance of a judge's order. But Re publican Ashcroft (now Bush's nominee for Attorney General) refused to challenge the result. Instead, he gracefully conceded defeat, providing a model for the presidential candidates—and for all of us.
We learn from Christ's example that an apparent defeat can lead to future triumph. Caught up in the passion of an election campaign, it's easy to fall victim to the belief that, at such a decisive moment, winning is everything. But in elections, as in the rest of life, the temptation is one that Christians must resist.
I am not impugning the faith of either candidate. In nationally televised addresses after the postelection ordeal, both men sounded the right note of grace, acknowledging that faith in God should raise us above our earthly struggles. The message is one that Christians—including those who run for public office—must remember in the midst of crises, not just after their resolution: Sometimes our faith requires us to accept something less than victory in order to show the world Christ's sacrificial love.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See Terry Mattingly's review of Carter's God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics: "The Culture of Co-Opted Belief? | A Yale law professor—and fellow evangelical—warns about the costs of politics" (Jan. 16, 2001).
Stephen L. Carter has also written "The Freedom to Resist | The African-American experience teaches us that political activity is essential to the church's identity" for Christianity Today (June 12, 2000).
More on elections and political issues around the country and around the world is available in our Politics area.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the 2000 election includes:
Religious Right Loses Power | A few victories, but more losses for conservatives. (Dec. 18, 2000)
The Bush Agenda | Will the White House be user-friendly for religious organizations? (Dec. 15, 2000)
Bush's Call to Prayer | After Al Gore's concession, evangelical leaders unify around faith-based initiatives, morality, and prayer as the incoming Bush administration gears up. (Dec. 14, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: Election Eve | Why isn't anyone focusing on those who simply won't bother to vote? (Nov. 6, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)
Anniversary of Church Shootings Serves as Reminder for Bush | Presidential candidate promises to battle religious bigotry in wake of Texas tragedy. (Sept. 15, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: Pencils Down, the Election's Over | According to political scientists, Al Gore has already won. (Sept. 11, 2000)
A Presidential Hopeful's Progress | The spiritual journey of George W. Bush starts in hardscrabble west Texas. Will the White House be his next stop? (Sept. 5, 2000)
A Jew for Vice-President? | Joseph Lieberman's Torah observance could renew America's moral debate. (Aug. 9, 2000)
Bush and Gore Size Up Prolife Running Mates | Will abortion stances play an influential role in Vice Presidential selection? (July 17, 2000)
Gary Bauer Can't Go Home Again | Internal survey at Family Research Council says 'partisan' leader unwelcome. (Feb. 8, 2000)
Might for Right? | As presidential primaries get under way, Christian conservatives aim to win. (Feb. 3, 2000)
God Bless America's Candidates | What the religious and mainstream presses are saying about religion on the campaign trail and other issues. (Dec. 10, 1999)
Conservatives Voice Support for Bauer (Nov. 15, 1999)
Bush's Faith-Based Plans | Bush argues that private religious organizations can partner successfully with government. (October 25, 1999)
Can I get a Witness? | Candidate testimonies must move beyond piety to policy. (August 9, 1999)
Republican Candidates Court Conservatives Early, Often (Apr. 4, 1999)
Reconnecting with the Poor | If people are hurting, it's our business. (Jan. 11, 1999)
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