This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

It used to be that watching two 80-year-old men argue about what to do in the Middle East might happen accidentally at McDonald’s at seven on a Saturday morning. Now, the whole world is watching because one of those two men will get the nuclear codes.

The presidential debates this year will have all sorts of implications for the country, but Christians should especially pay attention to what these events don’t do. The most important factors in choosing a leader aren’t the ones being debated.

The problem is not simply that presidential debates—and, increasingly, debates for lower offices—are entertainment driven, in ways that Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman warned us about. The moments most people look for in a debate are more like pro wrestling than rational discussion of qualifications and issues.

Plenty of people—from all over the political spectrum—are nervous about this year’s debates, but they’re not nervous that their candidate won’t have the right policy response. They are nervous that one candidate or the other might walk to the microphone and order the value meal with extra fries or fall down the steps of the platform. But there’s a deeper reason why debates—even in the best of situations—don’t help us as much as we think.

Debates tend to reinforce a fundamental problem with what we think we’re doing when we choose leaders. The problem is not that the debates aren’t focused enough on issues; it’s that we are choosing a leader to deal with issues that can’t possibly be asked about in a debate. That’s because the most critical questions facing any leader usually aren’t all that foreseeable.

Debate moderators asked John F. Kennedy about the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union and about Cuba, but they couldn’t peer into how he would deal with a crisis about offensive weapons in Cuba that might spark a nuclear war. Richard Nixon didn’t debate anyone in 1968 when running for president, but if he had, nobody would’ve thought to ask him if he would try to use the CIA to pressure the FBI to drop an investigation.

A debate stage couldn’t show how George W. Bush or Al Gore would respond to an attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Even if pandemic preparedness policy had been a question in the debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it would have been an abstract hypothetical, nothing like how decisions are really made about infected Americans on cruise ships or spurring on a fast development of a vaccine.

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Many things in debates are more evident in hindsight than at the time. Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” line with Jimmy Carter in 1980 was a preplanned talking point, but it really did demonstrate a basic leadership approach that characterized his presidency—an approach that his critics would dismiss as reading from cue cards but that most Americans would come to see as a genial steadiness. Donald Trump’s message from the debate stage to the white nationalist militia the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” was stunning at the time, but it takes on an entirely different vibe watching it after January 6, 2021.

In any given election, you aren’t voting for a set of abstract issues. From a Christian perspective, the role of the state is, ultimately, to “bear the sword” of maintaining justice and order (Rom. 13:4). In a democratic republic, the people are entrusting that sword to someone to wield it on their behalf.

That means electing leaders who are not just bundles of issues but rather those with the kind of character and temperament to be entrusted with nuclear codes, with the stability to make prudent decisions about sudden matters we can’t even predict right now.

Since that’s the case, sometimes it’s more important to see how candidates arrive at positions than what boxes they check off on a list of policy options. Sometimes it is as important to see how candidates articulate positions than to know what those positions actually are.

Even those who disagreed strongly with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal could see that his articulation of his vision—“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—was a benefit to the country when something happened that no one was asking about in 1932: how a commander in chief would rally a nation to respond to an attack by imperial Japan.

This has implications beyond the presidency, to the general question of how and on what basis we choose our leaders.

Despite the caricatures, we who believe character matters for, say, the presidency do not mistake a president for a pastor. The qualifications for any church office are different than those of a civic office—starting with the necessity of a living faith in Christ and an ability to teach doctrine and discipleship to others.

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What’s held in common, though, is that any position of leadership—whether church ministry director or county supervisor—rests on more than just the ability to parrot the “right positions” on whatever issues are being argued about at the moment. In instructing the church how to choose leaders, the Holy Spirit devotes far more time to the needed character of a leader than to the things for which we fallen human beings typically look.

We are to look to the past and to the present of the potential leader’s life: Is this person quarrelsome? Does this person have a good reputation with outsiders? Does this person lead well in his own household? Is it someone demonstrated to be sober-minded and self-controlled, able to teach, gentle, not violent or argumentative or given to drunkenness or love of money? (1 Tim. 3:1–13). These things are not boxes to check off.

The requirements of secular leadership are different spiritually from those of a pastor, but that does not mean that only issues matter and character or temperament do not. Centurions and tax collectors could not excuse extortion or fraud because their work was “secular” (Luke 3:12–14). The biblical civil law does not apply to those outside the covenant of Old Testament Israel, but the Proverbs apply to everyone. What one can tell by private characteristics as well as how a person talks can reveal much about whether one is wise or a fool (Prov. 6:12–15).

Sometimes, in the ecclesial or civil realm, we are deceived. Someone seems to have the necessary integrity but fools us. That’s an awful situation, but it’s not nearly as awful as not even asking the important questions—much less not caring about them.

Presidential debates are of some value, but the real question is a much longer game, extending to the past—to the honesty, integrity, and gravity shown in candidates’ lives—and to the future—to how we might best predict the character traits, intuitions, and wisdom of this person in dealing with matters we can’t even imagine now.

Debates and forums can show us a little bit of that sometimes, but they can’t get at the most important things. Those things can’t be scripted out in a practice session or shared on TikTok. The most important matters just aren’t up for debate.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.