They fight, they argue, they bicker, they posture for favorable opinion. The nation watches. Yet few think about how the Author of the Bible sees televised arguments between politicians.
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Everyone loves a good debate, or so it seems. Watching a political candidate verbally clash with his opponent using biting quips and well-timed barbs makes for good drama, even for anxious onlookers who have already made up their minds.
In the modern age of political campaigns, debates are akin to verbal jousting. The winner is determined by which candidate can do the most damage to his opponent’s public image—who can most effectively sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the public—who can come back with a witty, stinging retort and cause his opponent to flinch, waver or fall off his game.
But consider. Despite their questionable entertainment value, do debates actually inform the undecided? Does a candidate’s passionate plea sway people into thinking, “That’s my guy! I can get behind him”? Or do debates simply confirm what is already in a voter’s mind? In other words, does watching verbal contests of matching wits and swapping rhetoric simply validate onlookers’ political leanings?
Perhaps the greater question is whether debates affect elections. The answer to this is yes.
Decades ago, there was John F. Kennedy versus Richard M. Nixon. Both men wanted to become the next president of the United States. Most who listened to the radio broadcast of their first debate thought Nixon won.
But those who watched the same debate—history’s first televised one between two opposing presidential candidates—felt differently. The suntanned Kennedy came across as relaxed, cool, calm and collected, while Nixon looked tense (perhaps due to an injured leg), wore the stubble of a five o’clock shadow, and perspired profusely, which made him seem uncomfortable and unkempt. Many historians claim that this first debate was a turning point for Kennedy and resulted in him narrowly defeating Nixon in the general election.
There was also President Gerald Ford versus Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in their presidential debate held in San Francisco, California, in 1976. When asked by New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize-recipient Max Frankel about the Russians and their dominance over Eastern Europe during the Cold War years, President Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
Incredulous, Mr. Frankel asked the president to clarify: “I’m sorry…Did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a communist zone…?”
Here was a chance for Gerald Ford to recover from his startling assertion, which clearly was incorrect. Instead, he doubled down: “I don’t believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.”
With that, his bid for the White House was all but finished.
Then there was incumbent President Ronald Reagan, who was down in the polls when he sought reelection in 1984. His opponent, Senator Walter Mondale, appeared to be gaining traction whenever President Reagan’s age was brought up (Mr. Reagan would have been the oldest man elected to the Oval Office). On more than one occasion, people wondered if a 69-year-old senior citizen—who, by definition, would have been well past his prime years—would be physically or mentally healthy enough to endure the daily pressures of serving as de facto leader of the free world.
Using his famous off-the-cuff wit during a debate in Kansas City, Kansas, Mr. Reagan said of his rival: “I will not make age an issue with this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
From then on, the question of Ronald Reagan’s age was no longer as relevant in the public’s view. He went on to win a second term.
In these real-life examples, the aesthetics of a favorable appearance, spur-of-the-moment remarks, and witty zingers carried more weight than what values or quality of character each candidate possessed.
This is even more true today, in which debates have turned into a comical primetime soap opera of empty promises and sound-bite insults.
Oddly, the person most capable of verbally destroying his competitors will ultimately be the one who places his hand on God’s Word to be sworn into office come January.
Despite this use of the Bible—along with that of other politicians who make a solemn oath on it when they enter office—almost no one stops to consider what the Author of the Book actually thinks about the very debates that help place these men and women in positions of power.
Debating appeals to our very nature and drives our thinking. As human beings, we are free. Free to question, to wonder, to doubt, to protest, to take exception to anything or anyone who goes against our personal way of thinking.
The natural mind questions. It assumes it knows better. And it is not naturally humble. It does not voluntarily lower itself to ask: “Why am I so quick to express my opinion? What makes my thoughts so important that everyone should hear me? What makes me the so-called authority on this or that subject?”
Truly, it is a rare person who sits back and observes before forming a judgment or opinion.
Human nature is prone to act without thinking and quick to respond with pure emotion rather than choosing to wait. In the New Testament, the apostle James, Jesus’ half-brother, admonished, “Wherefore, my brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (Jms. 1:19).
The Bible also instructs, “He that is soon angry”—quick-tempered—“deals foolishly” (Prov. 14:17). When people cannot control their emotions, their emotions control them. Sooner or later, they end up making decisions they will regret.
Many road rage incidents escalated because this verse went unheeded.
Take New Orleans, where a former NFL athlete was slain outside the famed French Quarter after a fender-bender accident. The arrested assailant was booked with second-degree murder, a charge that involved shooting the former football player at least eight times, including in the back, as well as wounding the deceased’s wife.
All this because the individuals involved got caught up in the heat of the moment and exchanged words fueled by rage. They were not “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” And because at least one person was so wrapped up in his emotions, he let his passions drive his thinking.
What does this have to do with debates, political or otherwise? Engaging in debates, even from the sidelines, encourages our human nature to run amok—to give ourselves over to whatever feeling, urge or whimsy strikes us. Yes, political debates can be somewhat informative regarding issues, but most sessions quickly devolve into bouts of boasting and insults. In this regard, the Bible warns, “There is a way [course of life] which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12).
This is the sad reality of the human condition: “The heart [mind, seat of thought, inner person] is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Human beings’ natural state—lacking the much-needed extra component of God’s Holy Spirit for guidance, which God freely gives to those whom He calls to repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38)—is deceitful. That mind and its nature cannot be trusted. Not even a little.
Each person considers himself better off than he actually is. No wonder, then, that God declares: “There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
Human nature whitewashes its true character and whispers, “I’m not that bad.” Yes, it is that bad. Even worse! This should be no surprise since our nature is acquired from the “god of this world” (II Cor. 4:4), the great serpent who “deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9)—Satan the devil.
How effective is Satan at worldwide deception? God’s Word vividly describes him as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). This evil being broadcasts feelings and thoughts of jealousy, rage, envy, competition, strife, wild lust, greed, pride and envy. The devil injects this thinking into an unsuspecting mankind. And the overwhelming majority do not even believe he exists! They think of him as a “cute” cartoon figure or some other type of harmless costumed character.
The way we live might feel right—it might please and even titillate our senses of sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell—but there are certain life decisions that rise above the limitations of the physical senses. These require precise spiritual direction—sound judgment based on the laws of God, which the Bible defines as righteousness (Psa. 119:172).
When we make a deliberate decision to observe His commandments and statutes, God says that it “shall be our righteousness” (Deut. 6:25).
Think. What if every political candidate running for the highest office in the land said to himself, “Who am I to profess to have all the answers? Who am I to claim that I have the best solutions to America’s problems? Who am I to suggest that I’m better than everyone else running for office?”
Such a person would never even consider running. Unsurprisingly, this level of genuine humility has never found a place in presidential campaigns.
Have you ever witnessed a candidate attempt to bridge gaps with his opponent and concede, “I have never considered that. I see your point”?
Understanding human nature and what inspires it puts political debates into perspective. The Word of God reveals and explains our human condition—what drives us, motivates us, and permeates our thinking.
At the core of every man and woman is carnal nature. Even at its best, it is a mixture of both good and evil. For example, sometimes we are moved to commit acts of compassion and mercy such as giving a coat to someone shivering in freezing rain or anonymously donating money to a worthy cause. Other times, we secretly do, say and think things that we would never want revealed to the public.
Jesus Christ, as humanity’s Creator (I Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-16), taught, “For from within, out of the heart of men”—the fountain and seat of thought, desires, appetite, affections, purposes, passions, will and character—“proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:21-23).
The nature of man is described in more excruciating detail in the book of Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are manifest [obvious], which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:19-21).
The word “variance” can mean quarrel, strife, discord and debate—a vivid picture of the whole political campaign process, including when candidates go head-to-head on television.
In the arena of politics, one can see the spirit of competition and strife at work—the pursuit for one-upmanship at virtually any cost. Witness the grandstanding, the fake humility, the tossing about of accusation, the slander, and the not-so-subtle questioning of personal integrity.
The same attitude of division permeates mass media, sports, business practices, and politics. It is fully on display—front-and-center—in every arena of society.
All of this is diametrically opposed to what God has in mind for mankind. He wants to work with those who yield to Him. When a person does so, he can begin to exhibit the fruits of God’s Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).
Love, meekness and temperance are nowhere to be found on the debate stage!
Human beings are easily impressed by a person’s image, facial profile, style of clothing, and eloquence of speech, rather than substance of character.
Yet it is not so with God. Look at the Old Testament. When King Saul disqualified himself from reigning over ancient Israel, God instructed the prophet Samuel to look for a replacement among the sons of Jesse in the tribe of Judah.
Samuel was so impressed with the stature of the eldest son, Eliab, that he said, “Surely the Lord’ s anointed is before Him” (I Sam. 16:6).
God flat-out disagreed: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (vs. 7).
While men look at one’s outward appearance, God looks at a person’s character—what he will do when under pressure, whether he will obey God’s laws no matter the circumstances. Will he always strive to seek God’s divine guidance? Or will he rely upon human reasoning and popular opinion?
In all, the seven sons of Jesse passed before Samuel. God’s ultimate choice came as a surprise. It was young David, a shepherd considered the “runt of the litter” among his brothers. But he was God’s choice.
David was indeed a handsome lad, but merely a boy on the cusp of manhood. Yet God selected him to lead Israel because of his willingness to seek God above all else. The book of Psalms, much of which was written by David, confirms this.
Note that David was far from perfect. He sinned—and sometimes in a big way. But David also repented big. He left a track record of allowing God to shape and mold his character into the form that his Creator envisioned.
The king had to undergo a multitude of trials and high-pressure situations that tested and tempered the metal of his character. While the man from Judah did become king over all the tribes of Israel, it did not happen overnight.
If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, the vast majority of people would be more concerned with his towering physique and homely, gangly appearance rather than the content of his character. Lincoln would likely fail to measure up to the Hollywood expectations of how a presidential candidate should appear.
The news and entertainment media have been more than willing to embrace U.S. presidents that have smooth appearances—just as they are more than willing to gloss over and even ignore their personal conduct behind closed doors. Think of the infamous examples from the 20th century.
Similarly, the voting public tends to overlook politicians’ faults as long as they are charismatic.
While millions admire Martin Luther King, Jr., these same millions have forgotten his words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Before giving in to the temptation to root for any particular candidate in a heated debating match, we must ask, “What does God think? Who has He decided should be in office?”
This question becomes even more important when looking at the biblical book of Daniel. It declares, in a context of end-time prophecy, that God “removes kings, and sets up kings: He gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding” (2:20-21).
In chapter 4 of the same book, it adds that “the most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever He will, and sets up over it the basest of men” (vs. 17).
While this does not mean that all elected leaders are handpicked by God, He does select them as needed to fulfill His purpose and further His Master Plan for mankind. This is especially true of the most prominent nations.
Also, note that a candidate’s advancement to a political office is not evidence of some sort of “divine seal of approval” or God’s personal endorsement. God is merely allowing human beings to set up and continue their own systems of government. There is, however, coming a time when all governments will bow to the superiority of the Almighty. (To learn more, read What Is the Kingdom of God?)
Ask: Does it make sense to be emotionally vested in a candidate whom God does not support?
At this time, God is allowing mankind to form and set up governments as it sees fit. But the Creator of the universe does have a very specific idea on how to rule nations. The central message of the Bible is the gospel of the kingdom of God. Put another way, this is the good news of the government of God.
Who will rule in this soon-coming supergovernment?
God is now carefully selecting individuals with whom He knows He can work—those who will not buck under His direction, who will fear and deeply respect His guidance, who will freely acknowledge that they fall woefully short, and who want Him to correct their paths through life. These individuals recognize that they are incapable of leading themselves: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23).
Such individuals declare, “O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing” (vs. 24).
Have you ever heard someone in a political debate answer that he knows he cannot “direct his steps”? Or that he needs God’s correction to see the right way to live?
Given the current state of affairs, these questions seem patently absurd.
God is in control. He is shaping events to occur according to His timetable and overarching Plan for humanity. He will determine who should win in every important election. Do you dare go against His decision?