What are the proper criteria for evaluating a candidate’s fitness for office? Are there principles that can be compromised at the ballot box? Does a vote imply absolute subscription to every view and opinion of its recipient? At the risk of being untimely, I would like to reflect on these questions, partly to help soothe electoral tensions, and partly to delineate the concepts that many voters acted upon instinctively in this election but had trouble sorting out in their minds.
The general principle that governs a person’s suitability for a particular job is his ability to accomplish the objectives of the position he is filling. Suppose I want to leave for vacation and decide to hire someone to watch my house while I am gone. How would I go about choosing someone to do that? First I make a list of things I want done: (1) keep the plants and animals alive; (2) bring in the mail every day; (3) turn lights on and off to keep the house from looking vacant. I then consider several candidates for the job and eventually choose one.
As it turns out, my neighbor has previously interacted with my new housesitter, so he comes over to caution me: “You shouldn’t have hired him. He’s terrible at math.”
Now, does that matter to me? If I wanted him to balance my checkbook, I might be concerned, but I just need him to do a couple things around the house for a few days. No math is involved.
The same idea applies to political office. Such-and-such a candidate has the wrong stance on, say, abortion. Should that eliminate him from consideration? It depends. Will the scope of his responsibilities have anything to do with adjudicating the issue of abortion? Or, alternatively, does he intend to usurp powers while in office to further some pro-abortion agenda? If not, his erroneous stance on that subject is immaterial, as it will not come before him in his official capacity. Granted, there might be cause for concern in that he lacks discernment on such an issue, but that amounts only to a circumstantial objection (more on that below).
As another example, the U.S. Constitution stipulates that no religious test may be made a legal prerequisite to holding federal office. The president’s religion is irrelevant to his function because the Constitution invests him with specific and limited powers, and as a condition for assuming the office, he swears to uphold the Constitution. Or, to put it another way, his oath of office is itself the religious test.
In that context, is it morally acceptable to elect a president who is a Catholic? a Quaker? a Mormon? an atheist? The answer is yes, at least potentially. Consider the likely objections to such candidates: Will the Catholic turn into a puppet for the Vatican? Will the Quaker’s pacifism make him hesitant to repel an invader? Will the Mormon show favoritism to the state of Utah to the detriment of other states? Will the atheist abuse his powers because he fears no final judgment? These are valid but merely circumstantial concerns, as they boil down to the more general question: will he execute the duties of his office faithfully? If so, then he qualifies for the office, both legally and morally, whatever his spiritual state.
Perhaps the opposing viewpoint would offer the words of Noah Webster as a rebuttal:
It is alleged by men of loose principles, or defective views of the subject, that religion and morality are not necessary or important qualifications for political stations. But the scriptures teach a different doctrine. They direct that rulers should be men who rule in the fear of God, men of truth, hating covetousness. It is to the neglect of this rule that we must ascribe the multiplied frauds, breaches of trust, speculations and embezzlements of public property which astonish even ourselves; which tarnish the character of our country and which disgrace our government. When a citizen gives his vote to a man of known immorality, he abuses his civic responsibility; he not only sacrifices his own responsibility; he sacrifices not only his own interest, but that of his neighbor; he betrays the interest of his country.
Notice that Webster does not dangle religion and morality as objectives in themselves, but anchors their absence to some tangible injury to the country. In other words, an irreligious ruler is problematic only to the extent that he actually harms the populace.
Conversely, ruling in the fear of God means being faithful to your charge — the covenant you have made with your constituents. Which is better: a magistrate who personally confesses Christ but abuses his powers? or one who is unregenerate yet satisfies his covenant obligations? Christ posed a similar question:
What think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.
Given the gangrenous condition of the church at this point in history, we would be wise to put aside our sanctimonious platitudes — as if we actually wished that the leaders of the Reformed community would pause from their racial-reconciliation overtures and reparations payments long enough to run for office — and consider the value of the publicans and harlots. It is true they lack our pharisaical credentials; they were not raised in our truth-hating, do-nothing churches; no one has ever taught them how to use the proper religiosity when saying, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”; and they are much too transparent about their faults. But they are the ones doing real work in the (political) vineyard instead of kowtowing to our enemies.
In summary, a candidate for political office should be evaluated according to his capacity for the actual functions of the office he seeks, and in light of any abuses he might be prone to commit. A ruler need not be regenerate to serve his country well or to satisfy his magisterial duties before God — unsaved men are as capable of being good rulers as they are of being good husbands, good fathers, good teachers, good employers, and good neighbors. Moreover, in an age of overt ecclesiastical apostasy, a man’s lifelong detachment from the cesspool of churchianity might even qualify as a virtue.