One of the hallmarks of political campaigns in American history is that they are often nasty, brutish, and long. And they have been since the beginning.
The contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, for instance, was a bitter affair and resulted in a breach between the two statesmen that wasn’t healed for two decades. And virtually every campaign since has been filled with acrimony and insult and vituperation.
So the question is why? Why can’t everybody just agree to be gentlemanly about the whole business, have polite and well-mannered debates, and let the people decide? Why do campaigns so often become such nasty affairs?
There is one simple reason contests for public office become so ugly: every political campaign is a battle between sinners over who gets to hold the power of God.
The Scriptures tell us in Romans 13:1 that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Notice how comprehensive this is. “No authority except from God” means none, zip, nada, zilch. Every political authority that exists in the United States, indeed on planet earth, has been instituted by God.
All authority held by every political office in the land, from meter maid to president, has its origin in God. Every elected official uses delegated authority, authority which has been delegated to him by God.
Put another way, government is God’s idea, not man’s. Ultimate political authority does not, in fact, come from “We the People” but from God. Government has been established by God for the purpose of protecting the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property he has given to us.
The Founders recognized this when they not only identified the source of every single one of our fundamental civil rights - the Creator - but also declared clearly that the purpose of government is not to give us our rights but to secure them.
This is why, by the way, Christians ought to have a greater interest in political matters than anyone in America. We know where all political authority comes from, we know the God who established it, and we know His standards for how that power is to be used. We have more reasons to care about who becomes our next president than anyone else.
Does this mean that everything that is done with God’s delegated power is right and must be blindly accepted? Of course not. While all political authority comes from God, that authority may be used either for good purposes or for evil purposes. Hitler used authority that had its origin in God, but he used it for twisted and grotesque purposes. And he was ultimately held accountable by God and freedom-loving nations for his gross misuse of God’s power.
The authority that every king of ancient Israel possessed was from God. How he used that authority, however, was another matter entirely. The clergy of that day - the prophets - had a duty to evaluate the conduct of every political official against the standard of God’s Word. And the clergy quite publicly graded them. Kings either did what was right in the eyes of God or did what was evil. When they used God’s authority to do what was right, they received praise from the prophets. When they used that authority to do what was evil, they were condemned for it.
Whether a candidate knows it explicitly, or is only dimly aware of it, or is unaware of it altogether, what he is pursuing is not mere human authority but authority which comes from God. When a fallen man (or woman) lusts for the power of God and fights for it in the flesh and not the Spirit, things can get vile and foul in a hurry. The bigger the prize, the stronger the lust. The stronger the lust, the more tawdry the tactics.
The bottom line: whether they are conscious of it or not, every candidate for public office is grasping for the power and authority of God Himself. Campaigns quickly become intense for the simple reason that the stakes are as high as they can possibly be.
In America, we get to choose who gets to use the power of God. Let us renew our commitment to choose wisely.
(Note: this is an edited and updated version of a column that was first published in June of 2016.)
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