by Rev. John Zehring for The Christian Citizen
As the political season ramps up on its final stretch to the November election, ads package the candidates much like Hollywood might cast a character. The coronavirus pandemic, shattering new records every day, makes choosing the right person a matter of life or death. The ever-increasing reality of climate change beckons us to hope for leaders capable of long-term vision and immediate action. Growing inequalities between races demand a fairer and more equal representation of our population at every legislative table. Divisiveness at home and uncertainty abroad leads us to crave leaders who will strive to make America not so much great but to make America good.
As people of faith, what measures might we consider to evaluate candidates? After all, we are electing political leaders, not pastors, priests, or prophets. But is there a place to include the soul of candidates as we weigh what manner of women and men we desire to lead us?
One of the Apostle Paul’s great contributions was to list nine characteristics for what a person looks like when the Spirit of God dwells within him or her. He named these the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). For the person who desires to live a God-like life, these become daily goals. A woman once told me that she recites these nine fruits every morning and invites God to help her aim at these goals. These nine measures are the fruits of a person’s inner light which radiates outward as attitudes, words, and behavior.
It is not right for us to judge another’s faithfulness to God. We should use these nine marks to judge ourselves. But the time is upon us to evaluate those who campaign to lead our nation and our states. The quality of a candidate’s leadership skills ought to be our highest criterion for electing them. And yet, as people of faith who desire to elect good people, might we consider Paul’s nine measures as we seek to look past political packaging to determine the character and inner nature of a candidate?
Love. The Greek word, agape, might be translated as to desire that which is in the other’s highest and best interest. This kind of love does not mean you have to like them, enjoy their company, desire to be with them, friend them on Facebook, or invite them over for dinner. Jesus said it means to desire the highest and best interest of others, even our enemies. You might prefer people you do not like to get back what they deserve, but when God’s Spirit dwells within, it changes a person’s goal to desire what is truly best for others. We need not hold political candidates to a Christian standard, but as we evaluate them, is there any sense that they seek the highest interest, true welfare, and good for others over their own political gain?
Joy (not happiness). The root meaning of the word “happiness” is chance or luck. Happiness can be fleeting, but joy undergirds the soul’s health and nature. Jesus said, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11 KJV). Christians experience God’s gift of joy. We do not hold political candidates to a particular theology, but we do look for some sign of inner joy which represents a wholeness to their nature and an inner contentment from recognizing that they are blessed by God.
Peace. We desire leaders who seek to bring people together, to unite, to reduce conflict, and to work constantly for reconciliation. That is God-like behavior. We want peacemakers, not war-makers. The Greek word which the Apostle used, eirene, essentially refers to inner peace. It is translated “to set at one again,” as when everything is whole, good and reset to start anew. It feels like the confidence that everything is going to be okay. It is like the hymn that reminds “It is well, it is well, with my soul.” Do the candidates we consider seem to be conflicted within or even angry, or do they possess a sense of peace that keeps them upright even in turbulent waters?
Patience. This is not the kind of patience that loses its temper while waiting at an unreasonably long stop light or following behind a slow driver. This word refers to patience with people. It is like when you are trying to teach another and he or she says, “be patient with me.” It is patience that waits for people, cuts them some slack, forgives their mistakes, gives them grace, and believes the best in them. This patience does not hold unrealistic expectations or raise the bar so high that others can barely reach it. A true leader must be strong enough to be patient with others and to give others the gift of grace.
Kindness. This may be the most important fruit of all. American novelist Henry James wrote, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” Yet it seems that in our society today there is a shortage of kindness. This hard and sometimes violent world hungers and thirsts for kindness. We can cite astounding achievements in science, technology, medicine and war-making, but what does that matter if kindness is absent? Kindness is like the canary in the mine. If the canary dies, run, get out of the mine, because poison is present. If kindness dies, poison is present and poses a critical threat to the health and survival of the soul. Do candidates demonstrate kindness even in the midst of divisive campaigns?
Generosity. This word is also translated as “goodness.” More than ever, we need candidates who are trying to be good people. We want leaders to radiate a spirit of generosity, people who are givers more than takers. Look for candidates motivated to lead because of their inner commitment to serving the greater good.
Faithfulness. While we are not electing people based upon their faithfulness to a theology, creed, or religion, we do hope for leaders who will be faithful to their constituents and to the public good. The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States commits to liberty and justice for all. Politicians who wrap themselves in the flag or hug the flag in an expression of pseudo-patriotism should be distinguished from true patriots who are faithful to protecting, promoting, and pursuing liberty and justice for all, no exceptions.
Gentleness. Don’t we want politicians who are tough, rough, and ready—who will fight for us? No. We want true leaders who possess a core of gentleness. Gentleness is an attribute of the strong. Don’t let the media shape the toughness of a political candidate. Rather, favor the gentle leader and you will end up with a strong leader.
Self-Control. This word means having the ego under control. We all have an ego and desire to be valued, cherished, appreciated, or at least noticed. When we are not, sometimes we call too much attention to ourselves. That backfires. When the ego gets out of control, you cannot do anything and no one thinks highly of you. It seems that political leadership is often driven by strong ego needs, which makes it all the more important that we consider candidates who are able to manage their ego. Of course leaders possess strong egos, but the strongest are able to control their ego needs. We must have leaders who can focus more upon the needs of the people they serve than upon their own ego gratification. The tell-tale signal is to watch for their use of pronouns. Favor candidates who speak not so much about I, me, or mine but about we, us, or ours.
Religion and politics can be hot topics of dissension. And yet, as people of faith, it is important to us to consider the inner nature of the women and men we choose as leaders. And so, while we should not hold candidates to a litmus test of faith that is identical to ours, we are indebted to the Apostle Paul for giving us nine words to consider as we evaluate the inner light, character, and spiritual health of those who would lead.
The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash