Like it or not, the 2020 race for the United States presidency is in full swing. With the first round of debates among Democratic presidential candidates in our rearview, and with President Trump ready to face the eventual nominee, we the people are preparing for the long road to the White House.
Now seems a fitting time to reflect on what the ideal political candidate might look like.
Granted, we will never have the opportunity to elect the ideal presidential candidate. The ideal political leader—Christ the King—endured the cross, rose from the dead in triumph, ascended to his throne in heaven, and promises to return to set the world to rights, to install a one-world-government and a one-party system in which justice will roll down like the waters.
Until that day, we live in a time “between the times,” a time between the first and second coming of Christ. Each candidate for political office is a fallen human being, a “mixed bag” of virtues and vices. No candidate will be truly ideal, but each candidate can—indeed, must—be evaluated in light of the ideal.
As we hunker down for approximately 500 days of presidential campaigning, let’s evaluate each candidate in light of five basic criteria: character and judgment, political ideology, policy stances, governing style, and ultimate commitments. By evaluating each candidate in light of these combined criteria, and by comparing the candidates to one another, we are better able to choose the best candidate for whom to vote.
1. Character and Judgment
We should take into account a candidate’s track record on matters of character. No, we are not electing a “Pastor in Chief,” but we are looking for someone who is trustworthy. Many presidential decisions are driven by political ideology, but all presidential decisions are influenced by character. We should consider the negative implications if a candidate has a long track record of breaking the trust of those who depend upon them or those who they lead. We should consider whether the candidate’s words and actions reveal wisdom and sound judgment. The best presidential candidates are the ones who keep the trust of those who they are close to, make reasoned judgments, and show concern for moral principles.
2. Political Ideology
We should take into account a candidate’s political ideology. For some candidates, this criterion is clear: Kamala Harris is a progressive. Joe Biden is a liberal. Bernie Sanders is a socialist. William Weld is a libertarian. Donald Trump is a nationalist. As political scientist David Koyzis has argued, modern political ideologies have idolatrous tendencies. Each ideology (including liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, libertarianism, nationalism, and socialism) tends to elevate some aspect of reality to the level of a “god” and then uses that god as a cudgel to beat back other aspects of God’s good creation.
Each candidate governs within a framework of thought of some sort, and that framework affects the way he or she governs. As a Christian, my preferred candidate is one who can affirm the good intentions and insights found in each ideology, while at the same time rejecting the corruption and misdirection found in each.
3. Policy Stances
We should take into account a candidate’s stances on major public policy issues. Although it is unlikely that any candidate will share all of our views, we’d like them to be as close to us as possible on the most important issues. The most important political issues, both globally and in the United States, are those of human dignity. Thus, we should seek a president who is pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-marriage. We should seek a president whose stated policy positions show concern for the poor and for religious and ethnic minorities. In short—and as I tried to articulate in Letters to an American Christian—we should vote for a presidential candidate who will seek the common good through justice, equality, and liberty for all.
4. Governing Style
We should consider a candidate’s governing style. Take, for example, the closely-related questions of authority and strength. On the one hand, we want to avoid voting for a candidate who is feckless and weak, easily pushed around by Super PACs, special interest groups, corporations, or foreign leaders. On the other hand, we want to avoid voting for a candidate who comes unhinged when challenged or uses government power to silence his or her opponents. Instead, we want a president who combines personal humility with professional resolve, who possesses the ability to reason and persuade, and who can govern with wisdom and strength even in the face of opposition.
5. Ultimate Commitments
When people say that there should not be a religious test for office, they usually are defining religion as “the private worship of a supernatural deity.” The problem with this kind of statement is that all human beings are incurably religious, whether we admit it or not. We all have some sort of ultimate commitment. And that commitment radiates out into all that we say, think, and do.
The Christian word for this commitment is “worship,” but it is not always directed toward a supernatural deity. In fact, human beings often ascribe ultimacy to things that are not deities—sex, money, power, or success. When we ascribe ultimacy to something, when it occupies the commanding heights of our hearts, we are worshiping it. As Scripture reminds us, those who worship idols become like them. And leaders who worship idols lead others to that same end.
Insofar as we are able, therefore, we should take into account a candidate’s ultimate commitments, religious or otherwise.
There exists a significant challenge for American Christians who wish to give an honest evaluation of the candidates. The problem is that many of us have sat in our homes for hours per day, watching and listening to our favorite political talk show hosts and clicking mindlessly the links on our favorite news and opinion outlets. Even though we’re Christians, we have been more profoundly discipled by secular pundits and secular narratives than we have by Christ and the Scriptures.
Therefore, we must be determined not only to make an honest evaluation of the presidential candidates, but also to extend that honesty to our ongoing evaluation of the eventual winner. In other words, if our chosen candidate wins the presidency, we must be willing to call “balls and strikes,” rather than engaging in sycophantic wheedling; conversely, if the opposing candidate wins the presidency, we must be willing to recognize the good in that candidate rather than engaging in systematic verbal assassinations.
By so doing, we will not only see a bit more clearly but will also declare that the ideal presidential candidate will not emerge until Someone greater returns to take the throne.