What Does the Bible Say About America's Ruthless Election Campaigns?

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 4, 2020. (Reuters)

If you've been around for a while, then you know something about the nature of elections: smear campaigns, mud flinging, scare tactics, lies, manipulation. Politics are a ruthless enterprise. And here we go again in 2020. But, if you think today's elections are ruthless, look back to the American presidential election of 1800—one of the most brutal elections of all time. John Adams had been elected president in 1796, with his good friend, Thomas Jefferson, as vice president. Adams and Jefferson became friends in 1775 when they met as delegates to the Continental Congress. Later, they both lived in Europe and served on diplomatic assignments. There, they grew closer.

Despite their friendship, they held different ideas about the role of government. Jefferson was part of the Democratic-Republican party and maintained the conviction that stronger rights belonged to the states. Adams was part of the Federalist party and believed in a stronger centralized government. These differences grew so vast, and they bitterly separated the two friends. During his tenure as vice president, Jefferson abandoned Adams and went back to Monticello to figure out how to defeat Adams in 1800.

As you can imagine, the campaign of 1800 turned out to be vicious. Mud-flinging went on left and right. Thomas Jefferson accused his good friend of being a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

Adams' campaign fired back and said Jefferson was "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Even Martha Washington got in on it. She came to Adams' defense and called Jefferson "one of the most detestable of mankind."

Jefferson got the last word. He hired someone in the press to spread a rumor about Adams, saying he wanted to attack France (which was a blatant lie). It proved to be effective, though. Many Americans believed it, and Jefferson ended up winning the election. Adams was so upset that he refused to show up at Jefferson's inauguration. The two friends didn't talk again for 12 years.

Despite the falling out, the two men eventually corresponded that they still respected each other and desired to renew their friendship. In 1812, Adams wrote to Jefferson and wished him a Happy New Year. Jefferson responded cordially, recalling memories of their friendship. They remained pen pals for 14 years and exchanged a combined 158 letters.

In what might be the greatest twist of irony in American history, the friends and former rivals died on the same day: July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which they both had helped write. It's safe to say that these two men went through it all together, including the bitter pains of division caused by self-ambition. Too bad they couldn't avoid it.

God's Word warns us about the divisions that come from our own selfish ambitions and instructs us to avoid them. Here, Paul was writing to the Philippian church where there had been a rivalry going on among some of the believers (1:27). Paul was making a call for unity and giving practical advice about how to end these rivalries. He says, "Do nothing from selfish ambition..." (Phil. 2:3, ESV).

The Greek word here for "selfish ambition" is eritheian. It means "strife," "contentiousness" and "rivalry." Implied within the word is the idea of using whatever means necessary to one-up someone and look better than them, as in the campaign of 1800.

Aristotle used eritheia in his work, Politics, to describe candidates getting into office using unethical means. Even in his day, he was aware of the manipulation, coercion and strong-arming that politicians use to get into power.

Yet Paul is telling us that this doesn't ensue only in politics. It happens in the church. Believers compete with one another at each other's expense in order to achieve positions of leadership, celebrity and prominence. Paul was telling the church to stop it. Immediately!

There's simply no room for rivalry in the church because it causes strife and division. Christ's body must not be divided (1 Cor. 1:10, 13). Instead of campaigning for themselves, the believers were to serve one another, the way Christ served us.

Have you ever done something out of selfish ambition that cost one of your brothers or sisters in Christ? While it's likely you haven't run a public smear campaign, maybe you have smeared someone's name so that you could benefit from it. Or maybe you've been serving your church with a spirit of one-upmanship in order to get a position you're after, rather than simply serving your church as unto the Lord. Behavior like this may get you ahead in the short run, but in the long run it's certain to cause you all kinds of problems, especially with the people you hurt. Whatever it is that you are after, it's not worth competing if you have to divide God's people to get it. There's nothing that God wants us to have that we must vie with other Christians to attain.

Today, if you're competing with others, why not try a new approach? Instead of putting people down like you are running a sleazy political campaign, do what Jesus did: Serve those people instead. There's no doubt that the outcome will be a win-win for both parties. Everyone involved will be edified, blessed and stronger.

This sure beats having to deal with the misery that comes from running a crooked campaign. Who wants to deal with the consequences of that?

Rev. Chris Palmer is the founder and pastor of Light of Today Church in Novi, Michigan, and host of the popular podcast, Greek for the Week, seen on several Internet platforms. His most recent book is Letters from Jesus: Studies from the Seven Churches of Revelation.

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