By Mark DeMoss
I am an evangelical Southern Baptist who worked for a Mormon candidate in the primaries and voted yesterday for John McCain. According to exit polls some 72 percent of white evangelicals joined me in a losing effort. While there is much we can learn from this historic election–I’ll propose just four lessons.
First, a positive, inspiring, uplifting campaign can actually lead directly to the White House. I have frankly been waiting since 1984 (“Morning in America”) for a presidential candidate to run the kind of positive campaign Barack Obama did–I only wish the party I’m more closely aligned with politically (I’m a conservative first, Republican second) could have been the one to furnish such a candidate.
I have two problems with the negative campaigning that is now the rule rather than the exception in American politics. Political candidates are the only product or service in this country which we market by tearing down the competition. Then, the candidate whose primary rationale for support is “the other guy’s a bum,” says more about himself than the other guy.
I have an idea for a new project for evangelicals: we could lead the charge to get rid of negative political advertising, irritating “push” calling, and generally mean-spirited, petty campaign behavior–such as the so-called robo-calls that intruded into Cuban-American homes in south Florida in the final hours of the campaign, telling those who answered the phone that Fidel Castro had endorsed Barack Obama.
Whether or not we had anything to do with such low tactics we should reject, denounce, repudiate and condemn them and those who employ them. We simply should not tolerate it and should begin demanding better of those who seek our support.
Too many conservatives, religious and otherwise, increasingly equate civility with compromise or weakness. I would argue that incivility will generally characterize the weaker candidate or party. We can be respectful and kind and civil without compromising any of our core convictions.
I thought John McCain gave the most effective, graceful and sincere speech of his life last night in conceding the race to his opponent. Sadly, it was marred by the repeated booing from some of his rude partisans who sounded as if they wanted no part of a unified and civil country. I hope I didn’t know any of those people.
Second, no candidate or party is always right, and none is always wrong. We lose credibility and legitimacy when we claim perfection in our candidate and denounce every characteristic and statement of our opponent. I have some news for my fellow believers: John McCain was not our savior and Barack Obama is not the antichrist. I always try to learn something from everyone I can, and believe everyone has qualities and ideas I can respect, even admire.
Incidentally, Fox News is not infallible and MSNBC is not heretical. I’m amazed at the number of evangelicals who only watch one network or news show, or listen to one talk show host or commentator. I watch and listen to all of them. Why would I want to deliberately limit my sources of information, particularly about something as important and complex as the future of our country and those who would lead it? Let’s broaden our learning base. I read authors I don’t necessarily agree with (I read both of Barack Obama’s books), and always learn something as a result. Intellectual curiosity is not a bad thing.
Then, evangelicals must accept and embrace the reality that money is the fuel which drives campaign machines. One year ago I challenged evangelicals, some of whom were supporting woefully under-funded primary candidates that the Republican nominee would likely be competing against a $500 million Hillary Clinton campaign.
I was wrong on two counts: Barack Obama raised $649 million (not counting last month’s receipts), nearly twice John McCain’s total. We evangelicals raise billions for missionary endeavors, new church facilities, television ministries and other worthy outreach efforts; but then hope to elect a president on the cheap. I was amazed at the number of prominent religious leaders serving on “Faith & Values Steering Committees” of various campaigns who had not contributed a nickel to the one they were trying to put in the White House. What would a pastor think of one of his deacons who gave nothing to his church?
Finally, I’d like to see evangelicals look for competent, qualified candidates who share our values, whether or not they share our faith or theology. I believe it’s wrong to oppose a candidate because of his faith (Mitt Romney), and equally wrong to support a candidate primarily based on common faith (Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin).
Along the campaign trail I met so many people, including pastors and religious leaders, who could tell me only that their choice for president was a “good Christian,” or “one of us.” This, in my view, is a dangerously inadequate approach to choosing our highest leaders. We don’t choose people for any other positions using this test; why would we apply it to one of the most important positions on the planet?
Now, we must pray for president-elect Obama whether we voted for him or not. Scripture demands no less. He faces terrific challenges of a complex and delicate world and will soon lead the country we call home. Who knows, maybe we’ll all learn something.
Mark DeMoss is president of The DeMoss Group, an Atlanta-based public relations firm working primarily with faith-based organizations and causes. He is author of The Little Red Book of Wisdom (Thomas Nelson, 2007).