There are numerous discussions on how one should make decisions about for whom to vote. I approach this question as a Christian and the first thing I note is what an exceptional thing in Christian history it is to be able to vote for those who serve us in government. For much of history and even today in many parts of the world, Christians have no say over who leads their government and must figure out what Christian faithfulness looks like in these circumstances, sometimes under regimes openly hostile to Christians. The U.S. recognition of the right to vote for all our citizens (with certain exceptions) is a precious right that should be vigorously protected for all as a recognition of our common humanity in the image of God.
For many Christians, their primary criteria is where their candidate lines up on the issues. My difficulty is several-fold. One is which issues? My difficulty is that when I consider biblical teaching, I find no party whose platform conforms to biblical teaching across the board. Also, there are differences among Christians about how to achieve certain aims, or whether the aim of Christian political engagement is the conformity of a pluralistic country to biblical morality specific to followers of Christ. There are many issues, for example local issues, for which there may not be a clear biblical principle.
I would contend that the Bible prioritizes character and competence, that I might summarize in the phrase, “skillful shepherds.” Psalm 78:72 pays this tribute to David: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”
First of all, the psalmist emphasizes the integrity of David’s heart. David wasn’t perfect, but when confronted with wrongdoing, he admitted his wrongdoing and the justice of God’s judgments. I grew up in Youngstown and saw the impact of a half century or more of political corruption, where political leaders would say they were serving the people when they were beholden to criminal elements and lining their own pockets. As a young voter, I saw how Richard Nixon betrayed the trust of the people in the Watergate cover-up, helping undermine confidence in those in public office.
Second, he describes his work as leading with skillful hands. I want to find not only a person of integrity, but one who has demonstrated skill in the requirements of the office to which that person aspires. I want to see that in their family life, their business affairs, or whatever prior office they have served in. Perhaps this reflects the experience of hiring people based not on their aspirations but on the basis of their deeds done. Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s skills in Team of Rivals in uniting and calling out the best from a cabinet made up of Lincoln’s political rivals.
Finally, David is described as a shepherd. Good shepherds do not drive sheep, they lead them, going ahead, interposing their own bodies between any threat and the sheep. In John 10, Jesus says that he knows sheep by name. Elsewhere, he says good shepherds care for all the sheep, going after the stray. A good shepherd does not have favorites or those they ignore. A good shepherd serves the sheep, not oneself.
One of the challenges of leadership is that one cannot know the future. No political leader in the world had a platform article or position on responding to a pandemic in 2019. The character and competence of leaders has played a significant role in the differences in outcomes in a virus that knew no distinctions of people, or state or national boundaries.
No political leader is perfect, nor are any of the rest of us for that matter. What I want to look at as best as I can determine is the basic trajectory of the person’s life up to now. Only then do I turn to issues, especially when the contest is between two people of integrity and skill, a choice to be wished for, but not always achieved. I also keep in mind the important but limited purpose of political leaders in God’s economy. At their best, they uphold justice and maintain order and pursue the flourishing of all our citizens, but they cannot bring in the new heaven and the new earth, nor can they effect the inner transformation of the gospel. They can create or abolish laws, establish programs, make policies and appoint judges. But so much of the fabric of society is sustained by how we “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” in our neighborhoods, businesses, and wider communities.
I neither think it is my place to tell you how I am voting, nor how you should (if you have not already!). But I know there are some of you, like me, who are conscientious about making these decisions and wrestle over the question of issues and campaign promises, and I hope my own discernment process is helpful. It is how I think about voting, whether for presidents or local officials. It is how I’ve made these decisions for much of my life. It’s how I will make these decisions this November. Stay well, friends.
[I have no time to respond to standard campaign slogans or tropes or gaslighting or trolls. I will just delete such comments. I’ve not advocated for or against any candidate. If you do, I will delete that. Serious questions and discussion are always welcome.]