I remember sitting on the couch in our family living room as a 13 year old middle schooler in the Fall of 1998. Our family had gathered around the tv to watch President Bill Clinton give a special address to the nation, confessing to both adultery and to bearing false witness. We weren’t alone. Our pastor, Richard P. Oldham, who served as shepherd of our congregation for 57 years before his death, was also present with us, since he didn’t own a television set and preferred watching the Oval Office speech rather than tuning the radio. I had a profound respect for this man of God, even as a young boy. He often remarked in his sermons about being a “Franklin Roosevelt-Harry Truman Democrat,” even though he hadn’t voted Democrat in decades, as he regularly qualified those remarks with, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic party left me.” I found myself visually split-screening the room watching the president and observing my pastor, trying to gauge his reaction. I expected to see anger on his face, but I saw something else instead: not anger, just a profound sense of disappointment. This man who had grown up in the Great Depression, whose brothers had fought in WW2, whose parents had no more than 8th grade educations between them but had lived to see their 5 children all earn master’s degrees and live out the American Dream, was now watching the political leader of our "shining city on a hill" taint its moral luster.
He told his young people that what we did in private mattered just as much, if not more, as what we did in public, because the secret things of the heart would one day be revealed, and how one’s private life was conducted illuminated one’s public credentials, as well. We knew we wouldn’t be voting on pastoral qualifications for elective office, but we would be voting on people of character. We sensed deep in our souls that if a candidate’s wife could not trust his fidelity, how could his constituents possibly do so?
So many evangelical figures who we millennials grew up admiring, men and women who echoed these same values (several of whom attempted to impeach President Clinton) now seem prepared to abdicate those principles (at least in this election cycle) for what they describe as the “lesser of two evils.” They argue that Donald Trump, with all of his flaws, will somehow be a better president than Hillary Clinton, and surely we want to salvage what is left of the Supreme Court, they implore. I’ve never voted for someone who supports abortion in my life and never will as long as God gives me breath, but if I’m truly going to be pro-life in every area of life, neither can I endorse someone who condones sexual assault, who openly boasts of his sexual conquests and rates women on scales of 1-10, who consistently makes racist, homophobic, and misogynistic remarks, who’s been successful precisely because he has preyed on the working class and the poor through his bankrupt casinos and shady real estate transactions, who is now trying to convince those same people to vote for the very man who helped drag down this nation in large part because he “played by the rules," who energizes his constituency by manipulating their emotions of anger and fear rather than offering concrete plans and visionary hope, who has displayed no genuine evidence of contrition or repentance on any of these charges, is nevertheless worthy of our ballots because “he’s not her.” Can I just ask the religious right and moral majority: at what point are you gaining the world while losing your soul? Is it really all that different from selling your birthright for a bowl of stale stew?
For those of you considering voting for Donald Trump, please know that I am not referring to you as “ignorant," nor am I calling you a “loser,” though “Mr. Trump" would certainly do that to me if I had more influence and name recognition. In fact, I hope we can remain on cordial terms regardless of the direction you end up voting. Anyone, though, who says "we cannot afford to sit this election out," had better be prepared to consider just how many principles they are willing to sacrifice in order to "win," principles for which our forefathers died. There are some things worse than losing an election, and that is sinning against one's conscience. My ultimate referendum is not standing before an independent ballot box, but standing before the judgment seat of Christ.
If character mattered then, surely it matters now.