I’m not sure why the Apostle Paul would ever want to be the president of the United States, but let’s say he wanted to. Would he have a chance of being elected if he ran in 2008? In a word: NO.
Why not, you might ask? He’s a brilliant writer, thinker, and all-around passionate person, not to mention a SAINT! He wrote the texts that became the theological foundation of the Christian faith, after all. That has to count for something, right? Unfortunately Paul has a huge skeleton in his closet: a history of mercilessly persecuting and killing Christians. His past is very, very sketchy, and if you are a politician running for President of the United States these days, your past better be absolutely spotless.
It doesn’t matter how brilliant or well-spoken Paul might be. The minute word got out (and circulated via cable news) about Paul’s wild pre-conversion days as the Christian-hating Saul, he’d be toast. The James Dobsons and Pat Robertsons across America would denounce Paul as an unpatriotic anathema—someone who, with such a horrible record of unchristian behavior, could not be trusted to run the country. Let’s face it: if Paul ran for President of the United States, he might as well pick Osama bin Laden as his running mate. He’d have about as much of a chance as Ron Paul to win the presidency.
It’s a strange time when, in America—a country which has always prided itself on fresh starts and second chances—a presidential hopeful is absolutely bound to their past sins, scandals, and gaffs. The 2008 election has proven that one’s past is, perhaps, the most important determinant of one’s electability. Each of men running for president has their own personal albatross: that is, their own past baggage that could prove disastrous for their White House chances.
For Obama, the biggie is Reverend Wright—the outspoken Chicago pastor who has a penchant for colorful, impassioned critiques of America. When the Wright soundbites hit the cable news circuits a few months ago, Obama was suddenly questioned: is he unpatriotic by association? Does Obama share his pastor’s extreme and polarizing views of race, 9/11, and the American government? Even as Obama denounced Wright’s remarks and severed ties with the controversial pastor, the media seems determined to brand the Wright scandal as Obama’s potential Achilles’ heel.
John McCain’s major albatross, of course, is his association with President Bush. Now the extent of his actual association with Bush is relatively negligible in the grand scheme of Republican politics, and indeed, Bush and McCain have been bitter rivals more often than they’ve been buddy-buddy. They differ quite a bit on policies too, but the mere fact that McCain is a Republican, supports continued troop presence in Iraq, and doesn’t publicly denounce President Bush makes him “Bush II” in the many voters’ eyes. He can distance himself all he wants from the current administration, but the past eight years of Republican-led government will nevertheless haunt McCain as he tries to build a case for himself as a “different type” of Republican.
In each case, the most damaging thing for the candidate is in the past—and it’s not even something they themselves did or said! It’s some one they were associated with: Obama with Rev. Wright, McCain with Bush… Are we really ready to disqualify someone on the basis of who they know? Should politics really be about how cleanly one has kept his or her company, admitting only the most inoffensive, neutral, uncontroversial people into the inner circle? I’m not so sure this is at all what we want in a leader.
Think about Jesus: he kept company with some pretty scandalous and generally unseemly people. He openly criticized the government of the day, in much stronger language than anything Rev. Wright is saying of America today. Heck, if Paul would be a controversial presidential candidate, imagine Jesus! He wouldn’t have the murderous record of persecuting Christians to defend, but he would have to answer for those pesky claims of divinity (talk about elitism!) and his tendency to favor blunt language over politically-correct platitudes.
The point of all this is not to suggest that Christianity and politics are impossibly opposed; on the contrary, I think that Christians should get involved in politics. But it’s important to remember that our faith is about forgiveness—redemption, renewal, and the unbinding of past shackles. Our faith would be pointless if we let our past mistakes inhibit our future success. We are reliant on the reconciliatory power of the gospel—that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come”… that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins (past, present, and future) against us (2 Corinthians 5:16-19). As Christians, we’d be hypocrites to demand spotless moral records from anyone, even our presidents.