A different faith look to presidential candidates

By Tom Krattenmaker

 Award-winning Portland-based writer
Recent book: The Evangelicals you Don’t Know
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Ah, the perils and pitfalls of the Christmas … er … holiday season.

And they’re off!

Now that it’s 2015, we can say it: There will be a presidential election next year. Public and news media interest will build toward the frenzied crescendo that characterizes these races. After all, in a country that loves competition, what could be more riveting than the contest for the most powerful political office in the land?

Yet for all Americans, especially people of faith and values, there’s more to this quadrennial exercise than the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.

“It is not about which candidate will win, but which candidate, if elected, will help make us a better people,” says Miroslav Volf, a theology professor at Yale Divinity School and author of the book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.

Typical of today’s environment is this advice for politically savvy voters from “The Upshot” column in The New York Times: Pay attention to which GOP contenders are jumping ahead in the quest for support from donors, party leaders and operatives.

Fine. But how about some attention to more substantive questions, too, such as which candidate is more likely to steer a course toward a just, ethical and well-functioning society? And when it comes to the always-popular faith angle, let’s hope the news media and the public can focus on more than the same-old-same-old storylines, such as which Republican contender can woo evangelical voters in Iowa

What to look for

Here are a few admittedly idealistic factors for religious Americans, and all who operate from a well-formed ethical base, to bear in mind as they engage the upcoming presidential election:

  • Look for more than a show horse. Does a given candidate demonstrate the substance of character to not only thrill the crowd — likely GOP contender Sen. Ted Cruz comes to mind, as does the 2008 candidate version of Sen. Barack Obama — but also to make the toughest ethical decisions imaginable in the Oval Office?
  • When you hear candidates play up their belief bona fides for a church crowd, remember that the most religious candidate might not be the best person for president. Do you recall the Gov. Rick Perry television ad last time around that made one wonder whether he was running for president or pastor? How much does the candidate care about the people, especially those with the least amount of wealth, power and privilege?
  • Think about how classy and moral the candidates are in the way they treat their rivals. Recall how Sen. John McCain distinguished himself in the 2008 race when he interrupted an audience member’s libelous anti-Obama screed and stuck up for his opponent. How well does a candidate live up to the truth-telling commandment of Christianity, the religion invariably being invoked in presidential elections?

What to be wary of

  • When a candidate feeds you a good stock line — tax cuts will fix everything, for example, or soaking the rich will cure all our ills (à la Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who some are urging to join the race) — ask yourself whether you are being manipulated or spoken to with respect for your intelligence. Ask that question twice if a candidate might be pandering to your faith.
  • Finally, and above all, remind yourself that a presidential election does not have the cosmic significance implied by the massive attention it receives, and that no political candidate is a savior.

As it turns out, President Obama was not able to transcend the real and bitter divides in our public life as many had hoped on the wings of his campaign rhetoric. (It’s doubtful anyone could.) This is not a call to disengage but a reminder to be realistic, and mindful of the many non-political ways in which positive change is created.

In the end, people of faith and values ought to resist getting distracted by the drama of who’s ahead in the polls, who’s sticking it to whom with the latest rhetorical volleys, and how candidate X is using such-and-such strategy to woo a given voting bloc.

If it’s competition you crave, well, that’s what sports are for.

Tom Krattenmaker is a religion-in-public-life writer, communications director at Yale Divinity School, and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. His latest book is The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.

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