As Americans, we are blessed with the privilege and responsibility to choose our leaders from among ourselves. Our leaders come from our neighborhoods, cities and states. Before they were our governors, senators or presidents, these individuals were our neighbors and our friends.
This makes the American election experience uniquely personal. Kings inherit and prime ministers are chosen by their peers, but presidents must shake their neighbors’ hands, and look voters in the eye.
This close connection between the governor and the governed can be stabilizing for the country, but it can also be dangerous. A president is destined to reflect values of his/her time in a way that is unlike other positions of leadership.
Christians are called to be in the world, but not of the world. That calling is full of complexity and tension as we straddle two different kingdoms. The eternal heavenly kingdom has our hearts, the earthly kingdom our bodies. And where one kingdom begins and the other ends has been debated pretty much constantly during the last 2,000 years.
As our nation changes, as we become more and more secular, candidates begin to reflect this reality. For the first time in living memory, we’re facing a diversity of beliefs represented among the candidates running for president. Some are broadly Protestant, some Baptist, some Seventh Day Adventist, some Jewish, some Catholic, and at least one had no perceptible religious affiliation until he decided to run for office.
As Christians who are called to follow a heavenly Lord but also called on to vote for earthly leaders, how much should we demand of our candidates? To put it another way, does the faith of a presidential candidate matter?
Practically speaking the answer is, Yes. Poll after poll, election after election, the apparent presence of genuine faith among candidates has been consistently rewarded by the voters. A majority of Americans claim belief in God or a god, and contend that faith in that higher power is important to them, so any candidate who ignores this reality often does so at great risk to his or her national ambitions.
But beyond the practical and the political value, the faith a presidential candidate does matter. Now, this doesn’t mean you should vote for a candidate simply because he or she claims to follow a similar faith tradition to yours. But you should pay attention to what they believe—and how they live it out.
Here are three reasons the faith of a candidate matters:
Faith Matters Because of the Past
Whether you like to admit it or not, religious faith and specifically the Christian faith has played an indispensable role in the life of the United States from before its inception. I am not trying to paint the image that the founders were all Sunday school teachers, or that the first continental Congress was some kind of church meeting. But woven into the fabric of our laws and history are the threads of Christian virtue and providence.
The presidency is by intention, happenstance and providence a mold into which men and women of varying beliefs must conform, a heritage they must respect. Those who choose to break that mold have done so at great cost to their careers and great peril to the nation. Winston Churchill once said, “First of all, we need to learn that a nation that does not know its roots will die. Just like a tree. … And secondly, leaders who will not affirm that foundation will not properly serve their nation.”
We should care about a candidate’s/president’s faith because the presence of faith has almost always been important.
Faith Matters Because of Power
Regardless of cultural changes and social shifts, one thing stays the same: The presence of real power exercised by the president. The president wields immense influence on the direction of the country and the mood of the people. This powerful position demands wisdom.
As Christians, we know that true wisdom is not found in an appreciation of history or an application of political talent. Wisdom begins with a fear of the Lord, an appreciation of His power and our place beneath it. Our founding fathers designed a government to check and balance power, which mirrored the reality all leaders must recognize; that earthly power is temporary and limited.
Christian faith teaches that, according to Romans 13, leaders rise and fall only due to God’s permission. Presidents that fail to see their limited influence in relation to God’s power often abuse what little power they truly possess. It’s telling that regardless of a president’s faith going into the oval office, almost inevitably, he emerges oddly humbled and more deferential to the presence of God than when he started.
Faith Matters Because of the Person
Christians must recognize that candidates are not ideological abstractions to support or oppose, they are people who deserve our love and prayers. We should not hate candidates simply because they do not possess our faith. Knowing the joy and peace that faith in Christ brings should make us all the more compassionate to see those who profess no belief come to faith in Christ.
Believers may increasingly face the prospect of candidates who do not share their values, who may possess little to no indication of true faith in God or Christ. But we do little to affirm our own faith in Jesus Christ when we decry and ridicule His apparent absence in the lives of others. We may not always have a say in the faith of our candidates, and we may have little control over the faith of our leaders in the future. All we can do is affirm the worth of the faith we profess, by demonstrating its values of love, faith and hope to a watching world.