Are We Voting for a Pastor-in-Chief or a Commander-in-Chief?

by
February 18, 2016

More than any race in recent memory, the 2016 election cycle has caused Americans to debate whether or not a presidential candidate’s moral failures should affect his or her viability for office.

In the Democratic primaries, the debate centers on Hillary Clinton in general, and her email scandal in particular. Polls tell us that a large portion of the population perceives her as dishonest and untrustworthy. In the Republican primaries, the debate centers largely on Donald Trump’s candidacy, as he has been criticized for bragging about sexual exploits with women other than his wives and for employing rhetoric that many consider demeaning and unprincipled.

Often, the debate is framed in terms of a question: “Are we supposed to be voting for a Pastor-in-Chief or a Commander-in-Chief?” When asked in that manner, the implied answer is, “Of course we are not electing a pastor-in-chief, so stop whining about a presidential candidate’s track record in matters of morality.” But this question poses a false dilemma, and its formulaic answer is simplistic and unhelpful.

The question implies a false dilemma. It assumes that there is one group of people who wish to elect a “Pastor-in-Chief.” These people, as the story goes, are religious hardliners who obsess on Christian values and want to hold Presidential candidates to the same standard to which they would hold Billy Graham or the Pope. This is ridiculous. There is no such group of religious hardliners. Christian conservatives do not hold Presidential candidates to that sort of doctrinal or moral standard. Nobody expects the President to be able to preach a sermon or distribute the Lord’s Supper.

The question also assumes that the only other available view—the view of reasonable Americans—is that we are electing a “Commander-in-Chief,” a leader and military commander whose qualifications have little to do with moral character.

So the question is a bad question, and it assumes that there are only two answers. It overlooks the real view of many Americans, which is that the role of Commander-in-Chief does, in fact, require a person of moral rectitude who can be trusted at the helm of our great country.

Those who hold this view ask a more helpful set of questions, such as, “Is this candidate a trustworthy person?” “Are there any grave misdeeds or ongoing and serious character flaws that disqualify this person from holding the highest office in the land? These are the types of questions “we the people” should continue to ask.

It is right to ask, for example, whether Hillary Clinton’s email scandal disqualifies her from office. At least two dozen of the emails on her private server were not only classified but were so sensitive that the state department won’t release even small portions of them to the public. By way of comparison, General David Petraeus lost his job and was fined $100,000 for mishandling classified information. Therefore, the question we should ask about Clinton is, “Has she committed a misdeed so grave that we should not reward her with the highest office in the land?”

The questions being raised about Donald Trump are different. Instead of centering on one grave misdeed, they center on whether he has serious and ongoing character flaws for which he is unrepentant and which therefore reveal him to be unsuitable for the Presidency. Commentators and citizens express concern that he has bragged about his serial sexual exploits with women other than his wives, publicly mocked multiple women because of their physical appearances and a man for his physical handicap, made fun of an American war hero for having been captured and made a prisoner of war, and repeatedly used demeaning language such as when he called Mexicans “rapists” and his fellow candidates “losers.” Therefore, the question we should ask about Trump, “Does his track record give us confidence that we will keep the trust of the country and lead us with wisdom and discernment?”

We should ask these sorts of questions about each Presidential candidate, and not merely about Clinton and Trump, who are the ones on the national hot seat at the moment. But we should not ask the questions judgmentally or with a “better than you” disposition. The fact is that, as humans, each of us is deeply flawed and in need of redemption. Christians, of all people, should recognize this. We should expect our Presidential candidates to be flawed just as we are, and we should not demonize them for their flaws.

Instead of demonizing candidates for their flaws, on the one hand, or ignoring their flaws, on the other hand, we should ask whether those flaws keep should keep us from trusting them with this particular office, the Presidency of the United States of America. Does the candidate have misdeeds too grave, or flaws too serious and ongoing, for us to trust him or her with the highest office of the land? American voters should give consideration to those questions as they enter the voting booth.



Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.