DON’T USUALLY TURN TO POLITICIANS FOR MY INSPIRATION. But operating on a theory that losing politicians have greater reasons to be candid, I paid special attention to the words John McCain spoke from Phoenix on the night the United States resoundingly elected Barack Obama its forty-fourth president.
With a brief but moving evocation of the long struggle for justice during which millions of African-Americans were denied the rights of citizens, McCain reminded a campaign-weary nation that “this is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.” He didn’t flinch in describing the “cruel and frightful bigotry” of earlier eras in which the election of an African-American president would have been both unthinkable and impossible.
That act of public recognition, late though it was in coming, provided one of the few moments of transparent civility in an often dispiriting two-year contest. But it was what the losing candidate said next that truly caught my attention: “I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort . . .”
Perhaps it’s just the believer in me, but I thought I heard at least an echo of New Testament teaching about how Christians ought to relate to those entrusted with civil authority.
U.S. Adventists and others who voted for Barack Obama have more than the familiar consolations of being on the winning side of an electoral contest. They correctly see in this remarkable outcome a moment with potential for moving their nation past decades of division, racism, and alienation. The unmitigated joy we saw in hundreds of thousands of faces at celebrations around the country reminds us of why believers must be attentive to the things that stir our culture, particularly those that offer hope of building racial reconciliation and a more just society. Nothing in our firm insistence on the nearness of the Second Coming ought to keep us from affirming and supporting an historic “hinge” moment.
Adventists who didn’t vote, or didn’t vote for the president-elect, ought not retreat into the political wilderness to plot an electoral revenge that is neither good for the nation nor countenanced by the gospel. If Paul’s first-century counsel to Timothy means anything to contemporary Americans—and it should—then all believers are under a special mandate to pray for “kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2, NIV).
The obligation urged by the apostle requires more than tolerating what we would not choose, or acquiescing to a leader for whom we may not have voted. “Requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” (verse 1) are to be made for everyone, and those in authority are the first group identified.
This is manifestly a different set of behaviors than electoral losers usually practice toward their opponents. When we honestly pray for a leader, make intercession for him or her, and offer up thanksgiving for their work, we can’t simultaneously be hoping that their policies will fail, their appointees all prove corrupt, or that their foreign policy proves ruinous to their goals.
Our political philosophies, so dear to us, and too often reflecting more of our cultural and familial DNA than the teachings of Jesus, aren’t accorded any special value in the economy of heaven. Too frequently they are just further smudges of our earthliness, the debris of things we learned before we fully learned the gospel.
Political elections aren’t heaven’s preferred method of transforming human society. As one of my predecessors, F. D. Nichol, once wrote about another electoral contest, “The cure, to be effective, must reach the human heart.” Yet this unique moment in the history of the United States ought not to be missed by Seventh-day Adventists. For more than 150 years, this magazine and this people have been committed to a biblical ideal of human dignity and equality in which a day like this was possible.
Let’s not be slow in saying so today.
Bill Knott is the editor of Adventist Review.