Thought I’d make that as clear as possible. I’ve been getting a lot of calls since I released a letter to fellow evangelicals in Iowa. Christian leaders, reporters, columnists are now asking me, “Are you for or against a particular candidate?” My unequivocal answer to this question is, “No.” I have not yet decided who I will personally support as a nominee for president in 2012. There are a lot of would-be candidates–and they include Barack Obama! I am not a single-party voter. In fact, I am a registered independent–for many reasons. I started out a Democrat when I first voted in 1976 for Jimmy Carter–(because he was “born again”), and changed to Republican when Ronald Reagan came to the fore. (I heard him speak at a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals and was very impressed.) All that to say, I am about as neutral as I’ve ever been when it comes to presidential candidates.
What I’m not neutral about is the principles at issue in this race. For me, they are very different from the issues last time around. I’m convinced that if our country continues is downward slide economically, it will soon lose its position as the leading moral force among nations. In order for America to remain a leader on the paramount moral questions–the sanctity of life, marriage and the family–it must remain a strong economic force. One of the reasons we have been able to advance human rights and religious freedom is because we have the economic strength to do it. The reason we have been able to lead the world in global security against terrorism is because we have had the economic strength to do it.
I remember my trip to the new Russia only months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was on a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow that was like something out of the 19th Century–it was even heated by coal-fired furnaces stoked at every stop! On that train I thought about my landing at the St. Petersburg airport, and the numbers of airplane carcasses along the runway that had obviously been canabalized for parts. I thought about the empty counters at the food stores and the sparse, mouldering meats in the butcher shops. I realized then that the Soviet empire was a farce. It could not survive because it was really an underdeveloped country disguised as a super-power.
Evangelicals are not used to thinking of the economy as a moral issue (unlike Catholics), but talk to any pastor and you will soon discover it is. Financial problems are the number one contributor to marital problems. Divorce is the number one family crisis in our culture. Parents who cannot properly provide for their children understandbly experience enormous distress.(Two of the reasons so many young people live together rather than get married is because of the failure of their own parents’ marriages and their own economic uncertainties.) As is true with missionaries, you can’t preach to hungry people; you must feed them first. Jesus fed the five thousand before He preached his most important sermon to them. We must do the same. We must now address the most acute felt needs of the American people. Only after we do that can we get them to re-focus on the bigger moral issues.
All this to say the times have changed. The challenges facing the next president will be very different from the ones faced by the current or last president. The would-be candidates must speak to our times. As I say in my letter to Evangelicals in Iowa, religious labels have very little to do with this. The most popular president among Evangelicals, George W. Bush, never carried his Bible to the liberal Episcopal church he attended, while Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist who carried a big leather King James Bible with him to church every Sunday, disappointed and even disgusted many Evangelicals. The same is true of Ronald Reagan, who attended a liberally affilliated Presbyterian church; and Jimmy Carter, a life-long Southern Baptist.
In my letter I suggest a series of questions we need to ask about the candidates. Of course, as with every one of life’s decisions, we must pray about this enormously consequential responsibility, and do our best to discern God’s will in it. Is it possible that God will direct two people to vote for two different candidates? I think it is. Why? Because even the losers in a contest contribute to the crafting of the winner’s policies, and, in our system, can continue to be an important influence in the legislative process.
Now, after having said all this, there is a different question that has also been asked of me lately. Do you favor a particular candidate? That’s a different question, and I have a different answer. I actually favor a number of the candidates–for different reasons and to different degrees. I have enormous respect for Rick Santorum’s courageous voice and history in defense of the sanctity and dignity of every human person–especially the pre-born. I admire Michelle Bachman for her bold Christian testimony and uncompromising stand on so many critical issues. I even appreciate deeply President Obama’s commitment to his marriage and to his children. In a recent face-to-face sit-down with Jon Huntsman, I was moved by his transparency and honesty. As with all the candidates, though, I must balance their appeal with my estimation of their ability to lead the country in the right direction, resolve its most acute crises, strengthen its moral and spiritual fabric–and win.
On balance, I start looking toward Mitt Romney, as I did last time. I traveled with him and saw him up close and personally. I saw him with his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. I saw the strength of his private life and how it informed his public life. And, because I was raised a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and grew up in a liberal state (New York), I even understand why he took some of the positions he did as governor of Massachusetts. But I also saw during the last campaign that Gov. Romney is not a stubborn and hard-headed person. He’s willing to listen and to change–and change is a good thing when it’s a change for the better. Uncompromising ideology can cut both ways–as we are seeing with the current president.
On the other hand, there are some things that make me reluctant to support some of the candidates: I think Ron Paul is much too narrow and unrealistic to lead the country, and Newt Gingrich carries too much personal baggage to be electable. (And I’m not simply referring to his marital history or ethics charges, but other personality traits I saw up close when he was here on Capitol Hill.) He may be able to allay concerns about this, but that will take more frank conversations between Mr. Gingrich, church leaders, and with the public.
Having said this, I still have not personally selected a candidate, and probably won’t do so until after Christmas or maybe into the New Year. Of course, when I do, it will be only a personal choice. The organizations I lead never endorse candidates and never will. I expect our leadership, staff and supporters will vote for a number of different candidates.
This is where I stand now, but the race is still quite dynamic and will remain so for some time. More than anything else, I’m praying for our country and its future–as I trust you are, too.
Back with more on all, this,