Why I’m Hosting Presidential Candidates

  |   July 22, 2015   |  

On August 4, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission will host a civil forum as part of the Send North America Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. At that event, I will talk with two candidates for President of the United States, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, about their vision for the future before an audience of 13,000 pastors and leaders from around the country.

Last year, we decided that we would have some sort of forum, about issues of concern to evangelicals. Because we only have time for any substantive conversation with two or maybe three candidates, we decided early on we would need an objective standard by which we would determine who would receive an invitation. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were among those who qualified to receive an invitation, and I’m very glad they accepted. We also invited Hillary Clinton, and she declined. I regret that, since I think it would have been respectful conversation that would have enabled her to speak to questions evangelicals have, and could have modeled our disagreements with her with civility.

This forum will be the first in a series of conversations with candidates, and we’re already in conversation with other campaigns about these. I want our constituency of gospel Christians to hear from everyone possible, of all parties and all ideologies. I’m glad that Gov. Bush and Sen. Rubio have agreed to kick off this ongoing conversation.

In recent years, some candidates have sought to woo evangelicals with God-talk. If a candidate can give a “testimony” of “faith,” and quote from a couple of hymns, sometimes he or she expects that to be enough to win over evangelicals. The stakes are too high for identity politics. Instead, we should return to an older part of our heritage. The early Baptists—such as John Leland and Jeremiah Moore and the Danbury Association—were nobody’s political pawns or proxies. But they were deeply engaged in talking to candidates and leaders about matters such as religious liberty and the limits on the state over conscience. We should do the same.

Our task, in an American context, is to recognize that we are not subjects but part of a system in which the final governing accountability is with the people. That means that just as the gospel shapes us into the kind of people we are to be in our workplaces and in our families, the gospel ought to shape our consciences to carry out our duties as citizens. That means being informed, beyond simply slogans and Facebook posts. We should listen and we should deliberate. 

That’s why we’re having this conversation at a missions conference. These candidates are not coming as speakers on Christian theology or mission, but our mission as Christians includes both personal evangelism and also public justice. We seek to engage our culture, and here have the opportunity to engage some of those who seek to lead our country regardless of where they fall on a religious or political spectrum.

I hope our event will help us to think through how to carry on these conversations with those who may potentially lead us, and the rest of the free world. I am grateful to Gov. Bush and Sen. Rubio for having this conversation.

At the same time, let’s remember that as important as our rights and duties as citizens are, they are not ultimate. We are Americans, yes, but we are not Americans first. We are citizens too of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, and we wait not for a president but for a King.