Like many of us, I’ve watched with a little interest as the 2016 presidential campaign season unfolds and gathers some steam. And, like most folks who pay close attention, I suspect, my reactions to what I’ve seen could at various times be characterized as amusement, disappointment, anger, incredulity, admiration, revulsion, astonishment, and, to be honest, not just a little bit of sadness. The combined slate of candidates who have announced thus far seems to offer a little something for everyone, regardless of his or her politics—though probably not a “perfect” candidate for any of us.
Cumberland Presbyterians, perhaps more so than many denominations, comprise a diverse bunch of folks when it comes to politics. And as I see it, we’re a better people for it. I’m quite sure that among us can be found passionate people from almost every point on the political sphere. I do believe, however, that in the end, there are some basic principles that few if any of us would deny, among them being the right of every member of the human family to God’s unqualified love and acceptance, to adequate portions of the basic necessities of life, and to the freedom to become all that God created them to be. They’re principles that are foundational to who we are as Christians.
So it disappoints me when I hear so many of our candidates for public office who claim to be guided in their politics by faith in Christ tout policies and positions that would be almost impossible to support from a biblical perspective. I am incredulous when our candidates seem unable to tell the truth about mistakes they’ve made (and they’ve all made them), preferring instead to blame someone else or simply to obscure those mistakes with convoluted logic or double-talk. It amuses me at times, then makes me sad that our candidates resort to name-calling when they have nothing substantive to say about a particular issue themselves—or worse, even when they do.
More than anything, though, it makes me very sad—and frankly, a bit angry—when I hear so many of our candidates trying to out-do their opponents in how much they can demonize and marginalize people who, in many cases, are simply trying to actualize for themselves the rights that those candidates would surely embrace as sacred for themselves. The way some candidates spew derisive, blanket accusations toward people they’ve never met and with whom they have no contact (except, perhaps, as servants, or subjects of the five o’clock news) in an effort to win our support is often astonishing.
And yet, many if not most of those candidates are pulling in record amounts of money and other support—particularly from extremely wealthy individuals and corporate entities—in seemingly desperate efforts to get them elected. It doesn’t take a political genius to know the debts being created now through the money being lavished on those candidates will eventually come due, and history suggests there’s little chance that the repayment will have anything to do with serving the “greater good.”
What has happened to us? What has become of the nation that for so many decades valued—or said it valued—it’s reputation as a melting pot, as a place where all its citizens pull together for the common good, as a haven for the “wretched masses yearning to breathe free”? When did greed and aggressive self-interest become societal values to be admired and emulated? When did we forget that fear itself is a thing greatly to be feared?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know that there is something deeply troubling about the direction in which our national psyche seems to have been gradually turning over the last 70 years or so. As I see it, we have become, among other things, a nation of people consumed by our fears. And our politicians, peddlers of a fool’s paradise that they’ve become, have discovered the potential gold mine that lies beneath a successful exploitation of those fears.
In the midst of all the screamed insults, the boorish hatefulness, and the xenophobic hyperbole, we recently heard news of former President Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis. The quiet and graceful way he revealed his condition to the world was, paradoxically, a breath of fresh air. As he did throughout his term as our first evangelical Christian president, Carter is still relying on his faith for the strength and wisdom he will need to navigate the days of uncertainty that lie ahead of him.
Never persons to seek the limelight, President Carter and his wife Rosalynn have dedicated their post-White House years to working tirelessly for peace, social and economic justice, and dignity for every one of God’s children. They have done so without regard for race, creed, ethnicity, physical abilities, gender, gender orientation, religion, or any of the other differences upon which we members of the one human family often base our decisions to vilify, discriminate against, kill, and otherwise marginalize our brothers and sisters. They have provided us with clear examples of what it is to live as Christ would have us live, and we should be thankful for their service.
As I’ve pondered the life of President Carter—both his arguably less-than-stellar public service and his exemplary private service to humankind—against the backdrop of the political circus we’ve witnessed for the last few months, it has left me wondering… Is it possible for a person to be a good president and a faithful emulator of Christ at the same time? Could Christ himself be elected if he were on the ticket? Judging from the enthusiasm we’ve seen showered on candidates whose rhetoric and behavior, as I see it, lie about as far from being Christ-like as one can imagine, I’m not so sure.
This campaign season is bound to be full of ugliness, springing from every side of the contest. It is, unfortunately, what we have come to expect. I hope, though, that as voters, we will look beneath the bluster and posturing for evidences of that value that above all defined Christ’s life—love. Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians would be a good litmus test for our candidates: “Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of the truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, [and] always looks for the best.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 —The Message) Is it naïve to think we could elect someone who exemplifies such qualities? Well, in addition to love, to paraphrase Paul’s summation, faith and hope do abide…