God and the ballot box: Why candidates should be careful about claiming divine backing

Republican presidential candidate and former Governor Jeb Bush (L) speaks as Senator Marco Rubio (2nd L), businessman Donald Trump and Dr Ben Carson (R) listen during a debate.Reuters

Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson has always been upfront about his faith and his belief in God's guidance, leading to some commentators assuming that he believes God wants him in the White House. However, while Carson's got the headlines, other candidates are claiming a divine mandate for their candidacy too. Scott Walker said: "This is God's plan for me and I am humbled to be a candidate for President of the United States"; Rick Perry told CNN: "I'm getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I've been called to do. This is what America needs." Carson himself said: "I certainly wouldn't want to do something like this if I didn't feel that the Lord was behind it."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm struggling to see how they can all be right.

A point not lost on America's secular press, which has enjoyed mocking what it sees as their pretensions to divine favour. But it's not quite as simple as that. The candidates have not exactly said that they believe God wants them to be the next US President, just that they think He wants them to run. In principle, He could have other plans for them.

What, like losing?

The argument might be that He wants them to learn from the experience, or for the weakness of their arguments to be revealed, or for the voting arithmetic to benefit the candidate He actually prefers.

That doesn't sound like a very rousing stump speech.

No. The problem is one of two different discourses which can tie people up in terrible intellectual knots when they get mixed up.

You'll have to explain that.

People who don't really "get" religion assume that when someone says they believe God called them to do something they're saying they think they heard a voice in their head. Mostly that isn't true, and when it is it's very alarming. For most people it's that they pray about things, talk to people, come to a conclusion and have a sense that God is OK with it. So when people talk about God "calling" them, it's very important to know exactly what they mean.

So God doesn't fix the election result?

An interesting question. The sort of language used by some politicians and pastors about this and other elections implies that God does take an interest in these things. Ted Cruz, for instance, has said: "Since the very beginning...our nation's people have found comfort in prayer. We are a people of faith who see God's hand in our lives and in our history."

I thought it was biblical to believe that God appoints governments?

You are thinking of Bible verses like Daniel 2:21, "He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others" and Romans 13:1, "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God." It is quite a big leap from there to say that God gets involved in party politics, and a particular problem for white conservative evangelicals, who are almost universally horrified by the presidency of Barack Obama.

I thought God was involved in everything.

Yes, but that doesn't mean that he overrides human freedom. We need to be very careful about taking language used of salvation-history in the Bible and warping it to fit our own political prejudices today.

So God doesn't care who the US President is?

Not really, no. He does care that he or she is a person of principle, courage and competence. Good government is one of his gifts, which is what Paul was getting at in Romans. It means people can be safe, prosperous, educated and healthy, which are all good things.

I sense you are wanting to dial down the rhetoric a little.

You're right. Casting this election as a titanic battle between the forces of good and evil, as some conservatives do, is not very helpful, and thinking you can enlist God on your side is a terrible mistake. When Joshua asked the angel "Are you for us or for our enemies?" (Joshua 5:13), the answer was, "Neither." The question isn't whether God is on our side, but whether we're on His.  

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