When I heard the new J.D. Hayworth campaign radio ad for the first time, I felt like I had worms in my underwear. Whereas Hayworth's opponent, John McCain, usually stonewalls when asked about his faith, Hayworth instead shines forth with bravado in an ad that declares him “a good Christian,” whatever that may be. How did we land at a place in American public life where one's faith is either something to be avoided altogether or something to be wielded like a sword and shield? Neither approach is one of which we should be proud.
On his rare attempts to articulate his faith, McCain sputters a few words about how faith sustained him for years in a POW camp, certainly an admirable thing, but that response leaves one to wonder about any role of faith in his life over the last month. Or at anytime in the past four decades. Faith as a relic.
Hayworth, on the other hand, comes forth with a full frontal faith assault in an ad clearly designed to check all the formulaic boxes we voters have been trained to expect through the ubiquitous “voter guides” of groups like the Christian Coalition or the American Family Association. Faith as an exercise in placing planks in a political platform.
Both McCain and Hayworth reduce faith and debase it. McCain reduces it to a relic socked away in the recesses of a memory. A lifeless, fossilized relic not to be examined or even given much credence. Hayworth reduces faith to a predictable, mathematical equation. Stake out five clear positions and call yourself “a good Christian.” In these reductions, we discover problems not just with John McCain and J.D. Hayworth, but also with America's inability to discern the proper role faith should play in one's life and in our public life together.
If faith has played no role in his life since Vietnam, John McCain has a faith problem. Not as a politician but as a person. If his faith is not shaping his decisions, his leadership, and his world-view today, it is appropriate to ask what is.
After declaring himself a “good Christian,” J.D. Hayworth checks all the “faith boxes” a conservative candidate would need in order to garner votes. For example, the ad begins by sharing J.D.'s initial faith decision. Evangelical street cred. Check.
We learn J.D. met his wife at church. Good combo – female spouse met in a faith setting. And she is named Mary – perhaps an extra touch for Catholics like me! Institution of marriage. Check.
The couple has suffered reproductive complications, so they have come to value the sanctity of human life. Check.
The ad shares how Hayworth will defend God in the public square and in public schools. Prayer in schools. Check.
Faith for Hayworth is not so much a touchstone for his soul but a simple and predictable political formula. A litmus test.
While McCain may be reticent about his faith, Hayworth formulaically shouts his faith credentials as if one's faith consists of a series of grades on a report card. After all, Hayworth is a “good Christian,” a phrase that is defined in this ad as subscribing to the four political points above. One is left with the impression in the Arizona campaign that McCain's faith beverage is like the lightest of beers, so watered down as to be nearly tasteless and irrelevant. Hayworth's faith play reverberates like a shot of rye whiskey. It curls your nose hairs.
On my nationally syndicated radio show, I have spoken often about how I like to know everything I can about a political candidate. Especially the source and touchstone of a candidate's moral compass. I evaluate candidates much as if I were hiring a key leader on my team. My goal is to know a candidate's world view, to understand his leadership style, to learn how she interacts in relationships. Most of all, for an elected official, I hope to learn how he or she makes decisions and the core values from which those decisions emerge. Finally, I aim to get a sense of a candidate's character, not so much contained in a few predictable political positions but in the compassion, generosity, and honesty demonstrated in real life. And a little dose of humility rather than bravado would not hurt.
I would vastly prefer to hear about a candidate's moral compass. What core values shape who you are? What shapes how you lead? Whose lives have you impacted through your compassion and generosity? What examples can you give me about your decision-making process and how your faith informs that? Faith matters.
My two decades as an evangelical Christian pastor afforded me the privilege of walking alongside mill workers, accountants, security guards, soccer moms, chief executives, and a handful of politicians. Rare was the politician whose faith life matched the depth of any of the other groups listed above. Perhaps that is the occupational hazard of politics where self-service can often be confused with public service.
An encounter with the divine affects who you are, not merely what stance you might take. I understand full well that no political party will usher in the Kingdom of God, but when a candidate seeks to make decisions affecting me and society, I want to receive real insight into their soul and character. I also want to receive more than a predictable spoonful of items on a litmus test checklist.
While I may agree with Hayworth on a number of the issues he checks off in his radio ad, and while I may appreciate McCain's steely will forged in Vietnam, the whole campaign experience leaves me with the unmistakable feeling of having worms in my underwear. That feeling may be interesting, but it is not helpful. Politicians can do better, and we Americans deserve it.