“When you vote for president you are not electing a pastor in chief.” Christian minded voters hear that every four years or so. It’s a simple way of reminding people that standards for presidents are different than standards for pastors. And on the surface I can fully agree with the point. In my lifetime we’ve never had a president, or anyone running for president to my knowledge, that I would gladly have as a pastor. That’s mainly because belief in God, even faith in Jesus, is not the standard for a pastor, it is the beginning point. A man can be a genuine follower of Jesus and still not meet the qualifications of a pastor. There’s particular standards of character and detailed issues of theology that have to be met for me to support a man as a pastor. So I’m completely on board with the idea that when I vote for a president I’m not voting for a pastor.
Does Character matter?
More often than not, however, people mean something different, or at least more, when they say, “We’re not electing a pastor in chief.” All to often it’s an attempt to cover over poor choices and actions in the life of a candidate. It’s a way of saying, “The morals, values, and character you expect in a pastor are not necessary in a president.” Family life doesn’t matter, crudeness doesn’t matter, pride doesn’t matter, drunkenness doesn’t matter, sexuality doesn’t matter, [insert anything you like here] doesn’t matter, because we’re not electing a pastor. That, I have a problem with. There are no strengths of a presidential candidate that outweigh the weakness of bad character. Here’s why:
As voters we know somewhere between 30 to 40 policy positions of a given candidate. Most often candidates will be very clear about their positions on issues that are dominating our society. But what about the hundreds of decisions a president will make that he or she has no official position on, or is yet to even think about? In the 2000 election no candidate was talking about how they would respond to a devastating terrorist attack. No one had a position on the ethical implications of drone strikes or the (permanent?) detaining of enemy combatants. I don’t remember any candidate talking about the role the Federal Reserve should play in the event of a financial crisis. In the 2012 election no one shared their views on ISIS, or who Antonin Scalia’s replacement should be. And all of that is understandable, because we don’t expect presidents to know the future. The point I’m trying to make is that all we have to do is briefly consider the past to realize that presidents are going to make hundreds of decisions about things on which they have no official position.
And this is where character comes in. Our best indicator of how a person will act on unknown future events is how they have acted in the past. In short, their character. It can be helpful to draw a comparison here between a pastor and a president. When Paul gives Timothy the qualifications of an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1 – 7 he largely focuses on issues of character. Of the thirteen qualifications Paul gives, eleven are about character—the only job specifics being ‘able to teach,’ and ‘not a recent convert.’ Everything else Paul mentions provides a window into the character of a potential pastor. I think the reason Paul takes this approach is simple: there’s no way you can sit down and ask a potential pastor what he would do in every situation he may face. We don’t know the future, so we don’t know the questions we should be asking. But we can know a man’s character. And the implication is clear: if a man has good character, is above reproach, then you can trust him to work through future issues with wisdom, humility, and grace. You can trust him to lead well.
When the President is like a Pastor
It’s at this point that voting for a president is exactly like voting for a pastor. In both cases character matters. If a candidate has not shown faithfulness and wisdom in his or her previous actions what makes us think they will do so going forward? Take marriage as an example: if a candidate is not faithful to a spouse, a person whom they love and have made serious, lifelong vows to, what makes you think they will be faithful to the American people, most of whom they have never met? Or take being a lover of money. If a candidate has consistently put personal gain over the well being of others what makes you think they won’t do the same as president? Or how about being someone who lives on the opinion of others? If a candidate has said whatever its takes to gain the approval of the masses can you trust him or her to speak the truth when it is unpopular? If I’m going to stand and support a presidential candidate going into the future I need a solid record of character to put my feet on.
No, our presidents are not pastors, and we should not expect them to be. But we should expect every president to be of the highest character. So when you vote for president don’t look for a pastor. But by all means, look for a man or woman of character.