He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide (Micah 4:3).

If you believe what politicians say about themselves, you would think they were brave, brilliant statesmen with ideal families and perfect policies. If you believe what their opponents say about them, you would think they were stupid, greedy hacks whose families are vile and whose programs are the ruin of their nation. By the time Election Day arrives, many of us are fed up with politicians heaping flattery on themselves and slinging mud at their opponents.

Sometimes we wish for the good old days when there were fewer blowhards, fewer attack dogs, and more high-minded statesmen debating the issues courteously and intelligently. But the Bible says, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions’”(Ecclesiastes 7:10). The truth is that in politics, the old days were often worse. Today’s political campaigns can be negative and nasty, but historian Paul Boller says, “Presidential campaigns are a lot nicer today than they used to be.”

George Washington won the first two presidential elections with no real challenge, but after that things often got nasty.  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been friends, but they ran against each other in 1796. Supporters of Adams called Jefferson a “howling atheist,” a candidate for cutthroats. Jefferson’s campaign claimed that Adams would destroy the Constitution, declare himself king, and make his sons crown princes. Adams won the 1796 election and did none of those things.

The 1800 election again matched Adams and Jefferson. This time Jefferson’s supporters invented a tall tale that President Adams had ordered an American warship to bring back from England two mistresses for the president’s pleasure. Newspapers favoring Adams warned that if Jefferson won, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” Jefferson would burn Bibles and churches. Jefferson won the election, but he never did any of those things.

In the 1828 campaign, Andrew Jackson’s hatchet men called John Quincy Adams “the Pimp” and charged that he had pressured a woman into an affair with the Russian czar. Adams supporters fired back by saying, “General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute.” They called Jackson a drunkard and a crazed killer. Each campaign accused the other candidate’s wife of sexual immorality. The attacks wounded Mrs. Jackson so deeply that she became more and more depressed as the campaign went along. A few days after her husband was elected, she died.

In 1860 and 1864, Democratic newspapers pictured the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, as a primate, changing his nickname from “Honest Abe” to “Honest Ape.” Many historians call Lincoln the greatest president in U.S. history, but his political opponents called him such things as buffoon, ignoramus, ape, thief, tyrant, and butcher.

In 1888, Democratic President Grover Cleveland ran for re-election. Republican mudslingers accused him of being a raging drunk who mercilessly beat his wife and once threw her out of the White House in the middle of winter. Cleveland’s wife said it was totally false and that every woman should have a husband as good as hers, but Cleveland lost the election.

When politics entered the television age, Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s campaign pictured a little girl picking the petals from a daisy as a mushroom cloud rose from an atomic explosion. The ad was saying that if conservative Republican Barry Goldwater were elected, he would cause nuclear war. The scare tactic worked, and Johnson won in a landslide. Would Goldwater really have blown up little girls and destroyed the world? No. In fact, Goldwater’s leading supporter, Ronald Reagan, later ran for president and won. His time in office did not produce the end of the world but the end of the Cold War.

The history of electoral politics is full of dirty tricks, so let’s not dream about “the good old days” when high-minded leaders stuck to the issues. The good old days are a combination of a bad memory and a good imagination. Negative campaigning and dirty politics have been around as long as there have been politicians and elections.

Far From Perfect

Often the attackers themselves don’t really believe what they are saying, and they change their tune the moment it suits their goals. For example, it was said of John Edwards that his four years in the Senate were not enough to make him ready to be president. “The American people want an experienced hand,” said Edwards’ opponent. “This is not the time for on-the-job training in the White House on national security issues.” In a slap at Edwards, a multimillionaire trial lawyer who got most of his primary campaign funding from trial lawyers, it was said, “If his intent is to remove special interests from Washington, why has he…  taken more than $11 million from lawyers and law firms?” Did those attacks on Edwards come from Republican opponents? No, the attacks came from John Kerry and his campaign back when Edwards was battling Kerry for the Democratic nomination. But after Kerry won his party’s nomination, he chose Edwards as his running mate and had nothing but praise for him.

That’s politics: a political opponent is no good, but the moment he joins your campaign, he suddenly becomes fabulous. Back when Ronald Reagan was running for president, his budget plans were mocked as “voodoo economics.” George Bush the elder used that phrase while campaigning against Reagan in the Republican primaries. But Bush eventually became Reagan’s running mate, served two terms as Reagan’s Vice President, and defended the very policies he had earlier denounced as voodoo.

Why do politicians say harsh things about their opponents? Because it works. Many voters don’t understand economics or judicial appointments or foreign policy, so appealing to their minds doesn’t work. It’s more effective to push their emotional buttons. Right-wing talk radio, left-wing film propaganda, and countless 30-second campaign spots don’t always make voters smarter but they do make voters angrier at the other side. The level of anger can determine whether a voter goes to the polls or stays home from lack of interest, so the party with the most effective attack methods may have the highest voter turnout.

In short, a major reason for nasty campaigns is uninformed voters. If voters don’t want to think, then gutter politics is what they will get—and deserve. Someone has said, “Democracy is a government where you can say what you think even if you don’t think.” British statesman Winston Churchill once remarked, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” We voters aren’t always geniuses, and elections aren’t always pretty. Mudslinging and dirty tricks to rouse voter anger are pretty much politics as usual.

But would you rather have no campaigns and no free elections at all? You don’t have to like everything about politics as usual, but you can still be grateful if you live in a country where you get to vote and where you can speak your political opinions freely. In many nations and periods of history, politicians have murdered rival politicians and imprisoned anyone who spoke against the government’s policies. Whatever we don’t like about electoral politics as usual, it beats dictatorship as usual. Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.”

If no other system has worked better than free elections and if old-time elections were at least as dirty as today’s, does that mean we should just accept politics as usual? No, we should face our shortcomings and press for better campaigns and better government. At the same time, we need to recognize the limits of politics and realize that it will take something far greater than politics to make our lives better and to make the world peaceful, prosperous, and happy.

Political Campaigns

If we think about how campaigns are conducted, we can’t just assume that politics as usual is okay because it’s not worse than past elections and better than dictatorship. We need a higher standard. That standard is the Bible. If you’re active in politics, don’t just think about which methods will gain votes. Think about which methods God approves.

God approves of truth-telling; God hates lies. God loves respectfulness; God hates rudeness. God commands every person to speak the truth in love. Does this mean we can’t have debates and disagreements or that we can’t point out what we think are weaknesses in another candidate’s policies? No, honest debate and discussion are a healthy part of trying to sort out the best plans for the future. But we must not spread ugly rumors or false impressions. The Bible says, “Do not go about spreading slander among your people… Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:16,18). The Bible says that nursing anger gives the devil a foothold and that unhealthy talk grieves the Holy Spirit. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31). Elections full of lies and hate offer Satan a base of operations, while honest, respectful debate invites the Spirit of truth to help the nation figure out the best path.

What else does God approve in political methods? He approves of humility. Too many politicians brag too much. If the economy improves during their term in office, they claim credit for it. Often they just happened to be in office at the right time. A rooster may happen to be crowing when the sun comes up, but does that mean he caused the sunrise? Politicians might crow a lot, but they don’t control economic cycles much more than roosters control the sunrise. They can sometimes stifle an economy, but they can’t make it grow. Only workers and investors can do that. It might be hard for a politician to run for office without being a blowhard, but the Bible says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2).

God also approves of leaders of compassion and character, who treat rich and poor alike and are not influenced by money. This is hard to do in a system dominated by rich candidates who are expert fundraisers. It’s ironic that with new campaign finance laws that were supposed to limit the influence of money on politicians, more money has been spent on this American election than on any in history, and the lead candidates are the wealthiest ever. President Bush’s holdings are estimated as high as 13 million dollars—and he’s poor compared to the others. Vice President Cheney and his opponent for vice president, John Edwards, each have fortunes somewhere around $60 million. Topping them all is presidential contender John Kerry. Born into a rich family, he married an heiress worth millions, then divorced her and married an even richer heiress. Today he and his wife are worth an estimated one billion dollars.

It’s not necessarily wrong to be rich, but when all four contenders for power are super-rich, we wonder whether wealth and connections count for more than wisdom and character. The Bible says, “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse” (Proverbs 28:6). But how many low-income people rise in politics based only on talent and trustworthiness? Rich men dominate the political process. Never have candidates been so rich, and never have so many other rich people poured so much money into an election.

It can be hilarious to hear millionaires and billionaires claim to understand the struggles of ordinary people. They’re too rich to know. And even when they claim to understand, they treat money as the answer to everything. They are so money-focused that they often try to buy votes by promising voters bigger giveaways or lower taxes. If they care so much about people in poverty, why are they so rich? Would they have such huge fortunes if they were more generous with people in need? They promise to use tax money for many good things, but how about using more of their own money—not other people’s money—to do good? The Bible is realistic about politics as usual when it says, “The rich rule over the poor” (Proverbs 22:7), and “money is the answer to everything” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). Campaign finance laws won’t change this; the more basic need is greater political involvement by people of ordinary income but extraordinary wisdom.

Public Policy

To get beyond politics as usual, we need campaigns that aim for biblical standards of integrity, and we need government that aims for biblical standards of justice. While parties debate how to use government power to take money from some people and give it to others, they won’t take a strong stand for society’s most basic institution, marriage, and they largely ignore the most basic task of government: protecting human life.

President Bush supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Senator Kerry’s home state is the first to approve homosexual marriage, and though Kerry says he doesn’t support gay marriage, he has always voted against any law that would prevent gay marriage. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Senate couldn’t even get a majority to support a marriage amendment. They don’t want to anger activists or appear intolerant. It’s politics as usual by both parties.

The most urgent issue of public justice in our time is abortion. Canada has no party or major leader who consistently stands up for the unborn, and millions have died. In the United Sates, more than forty million unborn babies have been killed in the past thirty years. Government has not guarded their right to life. Even pro-life politicians have fallen short. Most of the present Supreme Court was appointed by presidents claiming to be pro-life, but the justices won’t uphold the unborn child’s right to life. President Bush and Vice President Cheney say they’re pro-life but sometimes they appear more eager to protect political cronies than protecting unborn babies. Pro-abortion Senator Arlen Specter was challenged in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary by a pro-life candidate and would have lost, but President Bush campaigned for Specter and helped him to win by a whisker. The pro-life president rescued a pro-abortion senator rather than rescue unborn babies.

Candidates John Kerry and John Edwards have two of the most pro-abortion voting records in the Senate. They have voted against any bill that would place any limit on abortion. They have blocked appointments of judges who might not favor abortion. They even voted against a ban on partial birth abortion, a procedure where a doctor deals with a late-term pregnancy by puncturing the skull of a partially delivered baby and suctioning its brain out.

John Kerry says, “I oppose abortion, personally. I don’t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception.” That’s politics as usual. Every Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter has said that he opposes abortion personally but will support it politically and pay for it with taxpayer money. Kerry also favors experimenting on embryos and stem cell research which creates and then destroys human embryos. If life begins at conception, as Kerry believes, how can he support such things? Abortion and embryonic stem cell research are matters of life and death. His church and his own conscience say that life is being destroyed, yet Kerry defends the destruction instead of defending the helpless.

This is not just an abstract debate. If you want to know the result of politics as usual, meet Amy Richards. Amy is a freelance lecturer. Formerly on the staff of Ms. Magazine, she writes the advice column for feminist.com. Back when Amy was eighteen years old, she got pregnant. She was in good health and felt no pressure from anyone else to get an abortion, but she didn’t want a child, so she aborted it.

Later, in her thirties, Amy was living with her boyfriend Peter. They decided to stop using birth control. Amy got pregnant, as she had hoped, but she was shocked to hear that she was carrying triplets. Amy says, “My immediate response was, I cannot have triplets… I would have to go on bed rest in March. I lecture at colleges, and my biggest months are March and April. I would have to give up my main income for the rest of the year. There was a part of me that was sure I could work around that. But it was a matter of, Do I want to?”

Peter asked her, “Shouldn’t we consider having triplets?” But Amy insisted that it was a woman’s choice. She says, “I felt like… I’ll never leave my house because I’ll have to care for these children. I’ll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise.”

Amy went to a specialist and learned that she was carrying “identical twins and a stand-alone.” Amy had wanted only one baby, so she decided to get rid of the twins by having the specialist stab a needle into the heart of each one and inject potassium chloride. Her boyfriend went along with her decision, but he was shaken when he saw the sonogram with three heartbeats and realized that two were about to die. He wanted to stay in the room to watch the procedure, but the specialist made him leave and then gave each twin a shot to the heart.

The New York Times published Amy’s account of these things not as a dreadful murder story but as a matter-of-fact account from a leading feminist. Amy Richards says, “I had a boy, and everything is fine.” But are those dead twins fine? Is the dead baby she aborted earlier fine? When politicians talk of “a woman’s right to choose,” this is the reality. A woman chooses not to change her schedule for two months of bed rest, she chooses not to buy jumbo jars of mayonnaise at a discount store, and she chooses to kill two babies. She sees the babies on a sonogram, she watches their hearts beating, and she still orders them killed. In our society, babies can be killed at any stage of pregnancy for any reason. Welcome to politics as usual.

When we elect leaders, too many of us vote on the basis of which politician promises to give the most money and benefits to our particular group. That’s all part of the system where citizens bribe politicians with campaign contributions and where politicians bribe voters by promising them government money. Instead of playing that game, we had better pray and work to get leaders who will uphold the building blocks of society and defend the helpless from death. The Bible says, “Rescue those being led away to death” (Proverbs 24:11).

Beyond Politics

There are limits, of course, to what politics can do. Politics is a reflection of culture. Leaders can’t change things unless the people support them. So on some of these basic issues, millions of hearts and minds need to change before the law can change. Here’s where the people of God, the church, must pursue their calling, doing what no law can do. We must live for the Lord and introduce others to the Lord. We must stand for what is right no matter what government does or fails to do. On the matter of gay marriage, some religious people have overreacted by saying that the institution of marriage will collapse without a constitutional amendment upholding marriage between a man and a woman. Now, I oppose homosexual marriage, but have Christians and churches become so pathetic that their marriages depend on government decrees? An amendment may be a good idea, but my marriage to my wife certainly doesn’t depend on one. Christians for centuries have lived by God’s Word even in cultures that were totally hostile to biblical morality. Let’s not be wimps who think that the family can’t survive without the government. Let’s just be realistic that we live in a time when politics as usual is no friend to faith or morality, and let’s not issue panicky alarms that all is lost if we can’t get our way in the political realm.

Even in better times, even when government is at its best, it cannot create a perfect society. If we want all wars to cease and all nations to live at peace with each other, if we want all poverty to vanish and every person to have his own share of prosperity, we must pray for the Lord Jesus to return and to do what no politician can do. There will be wars until he returns, and the poor will always be with us until God’s kingdom comes in perfection. But when we see politics as usual, let’s not become cynical or think that things will always be like this. In Isaiah 2 and again in Micah 4 the Bible says that in the last days,

Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths. The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken (Micah 4:2-4).

That vision of the future is sure to happen. God himself says so. So we must always be optimistic.

At the same time, we must also be realistic that this will not be the doing of any politician or party or policy but the work of the Lord Jesus. Government can restrain evil by punishing it and promote good by rewarding it, but government cannot produce deep, lasting transformation in any individual or culture. Only God can do that, and he does it through faith in the gospel, through the inner working of his Holy Spirit, and through the witness of his church. That transformation will be perfected only when Jesus comes again.

Until Jesus comes, we’ll continue to see a lot of politics as usual. But we must never get used to politics as usual or accept it as the best we can expect. The Bible reveals a higher standard, and Christ guarantees a better outcome in the end. So do we just sit around and wait for Jesus to come back and fix the mess? No, we who are Christians must go to work now as agents of Jesus, as his advance team. We must be peacemakers wherever possible, defenders of life wherever possible. We must seek to help the poor from our own personal resources, even as we work for a system that gives greater opportunity to larger numbers of people. We must learn about issues and candidates and then vote for those who, despite shortcomings, are the best available candidates to resist the worst evils and to move society in the right direction.

Never stop working for the Lord. Never stop praying to the Lord. Keep praying for the Lord to transform lives through salvation in Christ. Keep praying for the Lord to guide our elections and our government leaders. Keep praying for the Lord to hasten his return, to settle all conflicts, to rid the earth of warfare and weapons, and to give each citizen of his kingdom a share in his blessings.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.