Now that our governing system has evolved into a constant election cycle, where the thinking of our collective leadership has moved from the good of the commonwealth to how best to get elected, we have become a community of political shoppers, watching the “ads” and making our choices on the basis of what appeals to us.
In campaigns past, “voter guides” produced by various groups would rate candidates on the issues of the season (defense, abortion, marriage, gun control, taxes); they were designed to create and highlight a profile. Add up the rating, and – voila – the right choice would be obvious.
It is probably naïve to think we will get beyond this litmus-test approach to evaluating candidates for public leadership on all levels, but maybe we could use a new set of litmus tests. May I suggest a few?
The First Amendment Test
Would it be reasonable to expect that a leadership candidate reflect a thorough understanding of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, with its guarantee of religious liberty and the protection for all from the establishment of any one religious perspective?
If a candidate uses his or her platform to endorse and perpetuate the notion that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation, one might wonder what other ideas he or she might find useful.
If a candidate affirms the work of any of the current Christian nationalist “dominionist” groups in exchange for the support of those voters who yearn for school-sanctioned prayer to be returned to public school classrooms and for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in courtrooms, one might wonder how well he or she understands the rest of the Constitution.
The Science/Religion Test
Would it be reasonable to expect that a candidate for public leadership reflect a basic understanding of the difference between a scientific description of the content and processes of the natural world and a religious affirmation about the relation of that world to a God who transcends it?
The controversy ignited by Copernicus and Galileo over the structure of the universe, and renewed by Darwin with the concept of evolution, has persisted through the 20th century and into the 21st.
While many have come to understand that there is no essential conflict between science and religion, as distinct and separate responses to the world we live in, many have found it useful to be perceived as a champion of faith over against the “assault” of science.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is reported to have said recently in response to a New Hampshire boy’s question: “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our schools because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.”
Granted that on-the-spot questions and off-the-cuff answers often don’t bring forth our best thinking, but they also often reflect what our basic thinking is.
This boy deserved better than that from a leader (actual and would-be) who suggested that he would need to choose between science and religion on the matter of the natural world’s origin and development.
The “Truth vs. Misinformation” Test
Would it be reasonable to expect that candidates for leadership be as concerned about the truth of statements as they are about their effectiveness in garnering support?
It was a refreshingmoment in the last presidential campaign when U.S. Sen. John McCain gently but firmly corrected a woman in a public forum who was voicing some of the nonsense about McCain’s rival for the presidency, then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, that had been fostered by certain media currents.
McCain could have let the comments slide – they were intended to support him – and they probably reflected the thinking of many in the audience.
But McCain chose to respond with what he knew to be the truth, reflecting his long-standing reputation for integrity. Unfortunately, such displays of integrity often take a second seat to efforts to gain political advantage.
If a candidate is willing to sanction misinformation in a campaign contest, why would we expect a commitment to truth in crucial matters once elected?
The Complexity Test
Would it be reasonable to expect that candidates for leadership embrace a responsibility for helping people understand the complexity of modern problems rather than championing polarized simplifications of them?
On defense, the environment, taxes, fuel costs and more, oversimplified solutions have hampered the public’s understanding to the point that responsible progress tends to yield to vested interest.
Opting for a political tonic that makes us feel better, rather than embracing a thorough diagnosis and long-term treatment plan, will ensure continued problems.
I’m sure these tests aren’t in the “Top Ten Tips” for getting elected, but it would surely be nice if there were a general move to expect something along these lines from those who would seek the mantle of leadership.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).