Thoughts on Evaluating a Candidate

[1] When evaluating a political candidate, a concerned citizen should rightfully examine several of that candidate’s traits. The most obvious trait perhaps is the candidate’s position on the issues most relevant to the attentive citizen. If the citizen is deeply concerned about the environment she will evaluate candidates based on their position regarding global warming, or government regulations to ensure clean air and water, or perhaps a greater tax on fossil fuel use. If foreign policy or the war in Iraq is most important, then whether a candidate’s position is close to her own could be the determining factor. Or maybe a candidate would be evaluated on her position regarding raising taxes. These three examples represent secular issues where a politician’s or citizen’s religious viewpoint may not make any difference. I’m not saying that some don’t view the war in Iraq or threats to the environmental as ethical or moral issues; many undoubtedly do hold such beliefs. But most people would find it easier to separate out a candidate’s stand on such issues from their own religious beliefs.

[2] A citizen who is also a Christian brings an additional set of concerns to the political process. A Christian citizen has to answer the question of whether a particular candidate supports policies that align with that citizen’s view of the proper role of the state as suggested by certain passages in the Bible, including Christ’s injunction to render unto Caesar and Paul’s pronouncement to obey the governing authorities. While a candidate’s religious preference should not automatically be the deciding factor, how or if that religious preference translates into policy choices certainly must be the deciding factor. A candidate who happens to be Jewish might support political positions that are in close alignment with a Christian voter; in such a case the candidate deserves the citizen’s support. I am suggesting that evaluating a candidate solely on his or her religion is not appropriate for a Christian citizen. It is the nature of the political positions espoused that have to be considered. Judging a candidate solely on the basis of his religion can lead to sectarianism, a polity divided along religious lines that can make governing difficult, leading perhaps to instability. One does not have to look far for evidence to support that claim.

[3] The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms differentiates the earthly from the heavenly, or the material from the spiritual. Government, and therefore politics, exists in the earthly kingdom, and its aim is to secure and maintain order. While that is its primary role, in the modern world that cannot be its only role. Today there is a greater emphasis on human dignity and freedom, a greater emphasis on meeting the basic needs of human beings, a greater understanding of our shared humanity. So while the maintenance of order is certainly a required function of government, government today is expected to do much more. When this is coupled with the complexity of modern society, political candidates are expected to address a greater number of issues. Because of this citizens have a greater variety of “choices” in the marketplace of political ideas.

[4] Religious preference is certainly one of these choices, and candidates of both major political parties will often use religion to appeal to voters. In recent elections Democratic candidates have campaigned in churches as Republican candidates have made direct appeals to conservative Christians. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to connect with voters on the basis of religion. But as alluded to above, that connection should be more than just in name only. Christian citizens have a responsibility to evaluate a candidate’s position statements as carefully as her religious statements. Christians of course must be cognizant of the duplicitous nature of humanity and must be politically savvy when it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff. A politician who places too great an emphasis on his religion is perhaps seeking support for a label instead of the actual contents. It is therefore the duty of the Christian citizen to make every reasonable effort to be informed of the issues and the various policies that politicians advance.

[5] A Christian citizen has every right to evaluate political candidates by the yardstick of her religion. At the personal level there is no separation of religion and politics; that is, a person’s religious beliefs are not labeled private and kept from influencing what goes on in the public sphere. Christians realize that all that goes on is under the domain of Christ.

[6] But what is the Christian’s response when the politician is Muslim, or Hindu, or Jew; how should a Christian citizen evaluate the political positions of religious believers who are non-Christian? Given that ours is a democratic system and not a theocracy, we should not reject candidates solely on the basis of their religion. However, it is perfectly legitimate to reject those candidates if their religious beliefs lead them to espouse policies that conflict with our personal policy preferences or with our particular understanding of the nature of government. I am not saying that politicians with sincere religious beliefs should not be allowed to let those beliefs influence his or her legislative agenda, and can even be allowed to say that those beliefs have directly led to that agenda. After all, a person of sincere faith cannot compartmentalize the sacred and the secular; the perceived truth of those beliefs must necessarily inform all attitudes, certainly the political. Those who claim that religious people need to check their faith at the door before entering the public square, whether as voters or candidates, are wrong on two counts: first, that is clearly an undemocratic requirement that seeks to limit the political expression of an entire class of people; and second, a person of faith has a worldview that renders it impossible to truly separate the two. All government actions or proposed actions will get evaluated through the lens of religious belief.

[7] When evaluating the way a political candidate uses his or her religion to get elected or to further a political agenda, regardless of the religion of that candidate, the Christian citizen should apply a consistent yardstick: will or does that candidate favor legislation that conforms to my sense of what is acceptable and proper in politics or not? It may certainly be true that the worldview of a devout believer of a different faith leads that person to pursue an agenda that is antithetical to what a Christian citizen believes is appropriate; in such cases it is the Christian’s duty to oppose that candidate. (But that opposition is based not only on the label but on an actual political program.) However, it is quite possible that the opposite may happen: the politician of a different faith supports a legislative agenda that very much lines up with a Christian citizen’s preferences. In that case the politician deserves the Christian’s support. The dangers of relying only on the label include a coarsening of our politics and a self-righteous smugness that can lead to elevating one’s own supposed moral status and demonizing one’s opponents. In the political arena, it is safe to say that no single group has a monopoly on truth; it is also safe to say that on some issues there is no one right Christian position.

[8] As Christians, our responsibility to be active in the political process is a form of stewardship. Where appropriate we must assist our government in maintaining order and meeting the legitimate needs of our neighbors. We should work toward a just and fair society, and we are blessed with a form of government that allows citizens a role in achieving those ends. While it is certainly far from perfect, we are able to evaluate competing visions of the best way to reach those ends through the different candidates who contest those elections. Our means for choosing which politicians to support should be the same regardless the religious label a politician adopts: whether or not her political program is one we can support.