If you just want the short answer, let me cut to the chase. At the ballot booth on November 4th, I will be voting for Barack Obama.
Before I explain why, let me first provide a few reasons that are NOT part of my rationale for this decision. I am not voting for Obama because I think he's a flawless, invincible superhero who will cure cancer, save the planet or usher in some sort of utopia. He's not and he won't. I am also not voting for him because I agree with all of his policy positions on every issue. I don't. Third, I'm not voting for him because he represents everything that I believe in, politically, biblically or theologically as a Christian. He doesn't. The reason I am voting for Barack Obama is because I believe he would make a better president than John McCain.
Four years ago this week, Mark Noll wrote a piece for Christian Century magazine titled None of the above: Why I won't be voting for president in which he outlined the 7 issues he considers to be most crucial when choosing a candidate to support: 1) race, 2) the value of life, 3) taxes, 4) trade, 5) medicine, 6) religious freedom and 7) the international rule of law. As the title of his article suggests, he did not vote for either Bush or Kerry in 2004 because neither of them met his criteria in all 7 areas. While I'm disappointed that Noll, one of the most reputable scholar/historians in contemporary Christianity, chose to completely abstain from the ballot that year, I very much liked his model of a report card for evaluating presidential candidates. If Noll's pass/fail scoring system hasn't changed in the last 4 years, it's doubtful that he will be voting this year either. Even so, I can't help but wonder how John McCain and Barack Obama would measure up against Noll's standard. Out of the 7 requirements, how many does each of them meet satisfactorily? 4 or 5? Which senator would receive a higher score?
Much of the discussion surrounding this election has been about what the country needs most in our next president. Is it change? Yes, but what kind? Experience? Sure, but how much? Judgment? Of course, but on which issues? Intelligence? Certainly, but how is that measured? Communication skills? Independence? Character? Faith? The dichotomies of buzzwords are endless: words vs. action, style vs. substance, character vs. competence, personality vs. positions on the issues, ability vs. accomplishments, broad ideals vs. policy details, personal story vs. political resume, etc.
As we approach the finish line in this extraordinarily lengthy election season, it has become more and more difficult to separate the "substance" of each candidate (leadership abilities and policy views that determine their competence as president) from their "style" (the political strategy and effectiveness of their campaign). I'm not saying that style and substance can or should ever be neatly separated. After all, in order to evaluate the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it would be almost impossible to separate FEMA's ability to handle the crisis from the president's ability to communicate an effective strategy. It was a failure in both substance and style.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion surrounding the 2008 election has focused too much on style at the expense of substance. I challenge you to browse through any major news website in search for a summary of each candidate's positions on issues like the economy, Iraq, health care or education. Before you find what you're looking for, you will be bombarded by articles and links to stories about style, personality and campaign strategy. Who connects best with which type of voter? Which states and voting demographics are still up for grabs? What will the backlash be from this sound byte, miscue or TV ad? Which campaign has slung more mud? Whose debate performance will boost their polling numbers?
These might be important questions that play a role in determining who will win this election, but whatever happened to the issues? Are the candidates' positions on foreign policy, taxes, energy, immigration and the environment really so well-known that they are common knowledge? I will be the first to admit that it can be fascinating to analyze the political strategies that make the difference between victory and defeat. But with round-the-clock blow-by-blow scrutiny that reduces politics to little more than a spectator sport, I often wonder if we're even asking the right questions. While the question, "Whose campaign strategy is more effective?" is certainly worth exploring, our attempts to answer this question must not overshadow the central question: "Which candidate will make a better president?" Who has the better combination of leadership abilities, character, experience, judgment and policy ideas: Barack Obama or John McCain?
To answer this question with Noll's model in mind, I've created my own highly subjective un-scholarly 100-point grading system: 10 categories worth 10 points each. The candidate with the higher total score will get my vote. Narrowing my criteria to 10 categories was very difficult, but I tried to consider both the intangibles (character and leadership ability) as well as the tangibles (the candidate's views on the big issues).
While my understanding of the Christian faith is what drove my selection and interpretation of these 10 categories, I want to make it clear that God is not a Republican, Democrat, or even an American for that matter. He cannot be reduced or explained by the narrow, man-made political dichotomies and ideologies of this world. As Greg Boyd said, "You can no more have a Christian worldly government that you can have a Christian petunia or aardvark." For Christians, then, we must always be mindful that this world is not our home and whatever our worldly political views or favorite football teams or ice cream flavors may be, our first allegiance must always be to Christ, whose mustard seed Kingdom transcends politics, culture and history. "We'll never have a Savior on Capitol Hill" sings Derek Webb. Amen to that, but it's also true that not all politicians are equally flawed, which means there is still a great deal at stake in choosing our leaders. Herbert Hoover was no Abraham Lincoln. It is because of my faith in Christ, not in spite of it, that I care deeply about who becomes the next president of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the world.
Here are the factors on which I've based my decision:
1) Leadership. One of the biggest challenges for an American president is to strive for unity while respecting diversity. This requires experience, judgment, flexibility and the ability to respectfully disagree with your opponents. In his distinguished career in the Senate, John McCain has demonstrated the ability to bring people together from opposite ends of the political spectrum in order find common ground. Barack Obama, though less experienced, also has a unique ability to connect with people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints because of his natural charisma, eloquence and level-headed demeanor. Both candidates have inspirational personal stories as well as the ability to inspire and empower others. One weakness they both share is that apart from running their political campaigns, neither has any chief executive experience. It's tough to pick a winner in this category so I'm calling it even. Verdict: McCain 8, Obama 8
2) Character. Politicians are not known for their honesty, so I tend to take their campaign promises with a grain (or lump) of salt. Both McCain and Obama have changed their positions from time to time which is standard campaign fare. Even so, I expect a certain level of political integrity in the candidates I choose to vote for. Moral and ethical principles are inseparable from one's character. In terms of personal morality, I don't think McCain should be disqualified for his adultery and divorce in 1980, nor should Obama be disqualified for his drug use that occurred around that same time. The "Keating Five" scandal was an error in judgment by McCain as was Obama's association with fundraiser Tony Rezko. Both men have admitted these mistakes and learned from them which is very important to me.
Obama's decision to go against the Ivy League flow and become a low-paid inner city community organizer after graduating from Harvard Law says a lot about his values and integrity. Obama also deserves credit for his ambitious, but admirable attempts to raise the bar of political discourse to higher ground. In both his general election campaign as well as in the primaries against Hillary Clinton, Obama has shown considerable restraint and composure, some would say too much. I respect him for not taking a typical slash-and-burn, win-at-all-costs approach as many others have. Assertions that he is "post-partisan" can be applied to his refreshingly inclusive and respectful communication style, but his issue positions are pretty standard for a Democrat.
As for McCain, it is undeniable that the horrific torture and long-term injuries suffered during 5 1/2 years as a POW have shaped his understanding of human dignity and produced tremendous character. I give McCain a lot of credit for sticking to his convictions and going against the Republican establishment on issues like climate change, campaign finance reform, torture, immigration and reducing "pork barrel" spending. Although you wouldn't know it from following his presidential campaign, McCain is not truly a rank-and-file Republican. For better or worse, he thinks independently from party lines and calls it like he sees it. He has earned many friends among Democrats (don't forgot that John Kerry asked McCain to be his running mate in '04) and his reputation as a "Maverick" is deserved.
It's encouraging that both Obama and McCain are people who can balance conviction with flexibility. They both take their elected responsibilities very seriously, but neither of them are rigid partisan ideologues (except during campaign season). I'm giving the edge to McCain in this category because he tends to be more straightforward and clear when it comes to taking a stand. Obama has a tendency to be vague and abstract because he doesn't want to be divisive. Verdict: McCain 9, Obama 8
3) Economic and Tax Policy. As Mark Noll brilliantly states, "those who benefit most from the social infrastructure of the U.S.--from its traditions of liberty as well as its traditions of entrepreneurial creativity, its provisions for making business work as well as its culture of personal consumption--should pay the most to maintain that infrastructure." I couldn't agree more. Since the Sojourners website says it better than I could, I'll just cut and paste the paragraph below which summarizes how I understand the morality of taxes and budgets:
"Budgets are moral documents that reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. Examining budget priorities is a moral and religious concern. Our political leadership’s tax cut mentality ignores “the least of these”—leaving them with crumbs from the feast of the comfortable. And it does nothing to help our deficit problems. Religious communities spoke clearly in recent years about the perils of a domestic policy based primarily on tax cuts for the rich, program cuts for low-income people, and an expectation of faith-based charity. We speak clearly against budget proposals asking that the cost of the deficit be borne by the poor, who are not to blame and can least afford it."
In my view, the economy is McCain's weakest category. He wants to continue Bush's hands-off approach of giving big tax breaks and unrestricted freedom to corporations in the hope that they will invest their wealth in the U.S. instead of outsourcing to cheap labor overseas. He wants to continue spending $10 billion per month for the Iraq War with no end in sight, but he won't raise any taxes to help reduce the enormous deficit. Obama, by contrast, wants to end the war, cut taxes for 95% of American households and raise taxes only on those who make over $250,000 per year to help get the deficit back under control. It's encouraging that he understands that the classic balancing act between free trade and labor rights has swung too far toward profits at the expense of people. McCain's solution is to cut spending on everything except the military, such as social services and education, while hoping that the wealth of a few will trickle down to those who are struggling to make ends meet. It's obvious that the recent economic crisis has a lot to do with these very same failed economic policies of free trade deregulation and high spending under 8 years of Bush, but McCain doesn't seem to be interested in reducing military spending or regulating/taxing big business in any significant way. Can he really be serious about giving corporations even more tax cuts than Bush already has? This category is not even close. Verdict: McCain 2, Obama 9
4) Foreign Policy. The good news for McCain is that he has a clear advantage in foreign policy experience and knows more world leaders than Obama. The bad news is that his foreign policy positions are almost completely identical to the ineffective and costly strategies attempted by the Bush administration. Because of my interpretation of the biblical teachings to bless our enemies and be peacemakers, I am morally opposed to pre-emptive war. I may not be a hardcore pacifist in all cases, but I believe war should always be a last resort, not the first option. Even after 5+ years of bloodshed with over 4,000 troops killed and 30,000 wounded at a cost of $10 billion per month, McCain still staunchly supports the Iraq War and is opposed to setting a timetable for withdrawal. In addition to these losses, our national reputation and economic stability have suffered tremendously because of this policy of aggression. Bringing our troops home and taking care of their physical and mental health is the patriotic thing to do.
By contrast, Obama was one of the few voices that opposed the war from the start and seems to have a better understanding of the vicious cycle of revenge and violence. Other advantages for Obama in this category include the foreign policy expertise of his running mate Joe Biden as well as a focus on stopping nuclear proliferation. In my opinion, the fact that Obama favors a more diplomatic foreign policy strategy does not make him "naive" or "soft on terror." It gives him the moral high ground and credibility needed to change course away from cowboy-style unilateralism. Verdict: McCain 3, Obama 9
5) The Sanctity of Human Life. As a Christian, I believe that all life is a sacred gift from God, from the womb to the grave. As such, issues such as abortion, adoption reform, capital punishment, gun control, immigration, stem cell research and the use of torture all require a consistent ethic of human life. Neither candidate's set of positions fully reflects what I believe. Both candidates support capital punishment, while I am against it. On the question of immigration reform, I agree with both candidates that we need a humane and holistic way to fix the broken system without separating the children of undocumented workers from their parents. I am also encouraged that both candidates strongly oppose the use of torture, even for suspected terrorists. My position on stem cell research is closer to McCain's while my view of gun control is closer to Obama's.
McCain's stance on abortion (not Sarah Palin's) is slightly closer to my view than Obama's, although I don't fit neatly into either political category of "pro-life" or "pro-choice." While I believe abortion is immoral and needs to be restricted more than it is now, the possibility of overturning Roe vs. Wade is remote at best, as the eight-year "pro-life" presidency of George W. Bush (six years of which coincided with a "pro-life" majority in congress) did very little to threaten the landmark ruling. As is the case with other legal forms of immorality such as divorce, adultery and pornography, I don't think that seeking an absolute ban is the best way to attack the problem, especially in cases of rape, incest and other potential gray areas where vulnerable women have been forced to make a desperate choice.
Rather than focusing on the Roe decision, I believe that more attention should be given to the issues of adoption reform and support for unwed mothers, especially those in poverty. For any progress to be made, there has to be a bi-partisan approach geared toward reducing the abortion rate and reducing unwanted pregnancy because 1.3 million abortions per year is far too many. In many ways, I'm too liberal for the pro-life camp and too conservative for the pro-choice view. I have reservations with both candidates in this area since neither one is totally consistent. Verdict: McCain 5, Obama 5
6) Energy and Environmental Policy. Care for God's creation is a moral issue and so I'm pleased that both candidates are concerned about climate change (Sarah Palin notwithstanding). Both candidates also want to move the country toward energy independence and raise fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. What they disagree on is offshore oil drilling and how much to tax the big oil companies. McCain does not want to regulate these companies or tax their windfall profits because he would rather let the free market develop alternative energy solutions. Obama, on the other hand, wants to tax the oil companies' profits to help pay for serious investments in solar, wind and biofuel research. McCain's plan relies heavily on nuclear plants, while Obama is more cautious about nuclear power due to concerns about environmentally safe ways of storing the hazardous waste.
Another major policy difference has to do with what the candidates actually mean when they describe energy independence from "foreign oil." McCain's concern is that the oil is foreign. Obama's concern is that the oil is still oil. McCain sees offshore drilling as a way of replacing foreign oil with domestic oil whereas Obama wants reduce oil dependency as whole, regardless of where it's from. If you ask me, McCain is giving a free pass to the oil companies and Obama's plan encourages much more sustainable stewardship of the earth's resources. Verdict: McCain 4, Obama 9
7) Health Care Policy. There is a huge difference between the approaches of each candidate on this issue. McCain thinks that competition in the private sector will lead to the best quality of care, whereas Obama wants to create a national health care plan that would require coverage for all children. Obama's plan will certainly cost more, but it would help those who can't afford it on their own. McCain's plan is very cheap, but it's little more than the old free-market trickle-down philosophy that tells low-income families that they're on their own to find coverage. As it stands right now, over 9 million children in this country do not have health insurance, which I believe is a serious moral issue. If your child is sick and needs immediate medical care, the fact that you're poor or unemployed should not be a barrier to getting help. Most of the other developed nations in the world understand this and so does Obama, which is why he wins this category hands down. Verdict: McCain 3, Obama 9
8) Education Policy. Here's another category that doesn't get enough attention, but is crucial to the future of this country. I'm sure that most kids whose families can afford private school are probably getting a decent education, but what about the vast majority who attend public school? The next president will have a huge amount of influence in determining what education looks like for millions of children, especially the poor. McCain believes that "No Child Left Behind" has been working, but Obama thinks it needs some major adjustments including a higher priority for education in the federal budget. Similar to the healthcare issue, McCain doesn't want to spend a lot of money on education because he would rather privatize whenever possible. Obama's philosophy is to give public school teachers more resources, increase the eligibility for Early Head Start, provide more college scholarships for economically disadvantaged kids, lower interest rates on college loans and give incentives to new teachers who choose to teach in a high-need field or location. Sounds like a plan to me. Verdict: McCain 3, Obama 9
9) Global Poverty/Human Rights. As someone who believes that all life is sacred, I contend that the 1.4 billion people around the world living on less than $1.25 a day should be of great concern for the leader of the free world. According to the ONE campaign (of which I am a member), more than 33 million people around the world are infected by HIV/AIDS, 22 million in Africa alone and 72 million children don’t have access to basic education. In addition to these crises, there are other issues such as trade justice, debt cancellation, human trafficking, clean water/sanitation and food security that need immediate action. As it stands right now, the U.S. is only contributing 0.016% of our Gross National Income (GNI) towards Official Development Assistance (ODA) to poor countries which truly embarrasses me. In 2007, we were tied for last place out of the 22 industrialized countries in this measurement (for the record, the UN target is supposed to be 0.7% of GNI).
On the positive side, I am encouraged that McCain and Obama have both sponsored legislation targeting the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Obama also plans to set up a $2 billion Global Education Fund and has committed to embracing the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the U.N. in 2000, to halve extreme poverty and global disease by the year 2015. McCain has also expressed some interest in reducing global poverty, but has refrained from making specific commitments.
Regarding the ongoing genocide in Darfur, over 400,000 have already been killed and 2.5 million displaced, all of them people who matter to God. McCain and Obama have expressed some concerns about the crisis, but they both should be doing much more to put pressure on Sudan in order to stop this atrocity. I'm disappointed that neither candidate has spoken out in support of the International Criminal Court's prosecution of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide. Overall, I'm not satisfied with either candidate's level of attention to this category, but it seems that Obama will be more proactive than McCain. Verdict: McCain 5, Obama 7
10) Family Values. This phrase has become code language for gay marriage in recent years, but this is a narrow and divisive understanding of what it means to be "pro-family." As a Christian who believes in strengthening families, I would love to see a more holistic understanding of the family that includes reducing teen pregnancy, preventing domestic violence, protecting children from abuse/neglect, encouraging responsible fatherhood and providing support for unwed mothers (childcare, education and parenting resources to name a few). Education, heath care and economic opportunity are also family values that have already been mentioned as part of other categories.
The heated topic of gay marriage vs. traditional marriage, like abortion, has been used by both parties as a wedge to divide voters without actually changing anything. I strongly believe in traditional marriage between a woman and a man, but I also don't think that gays and lesbians should be scapegoated for the breakdown of the family or any other social problem that heterosexuals (myself included) are largely responsible for. The president's level of real influence in this arena has been greatly exaggerated in recent years. Has homosexual behavior decreased under Bush? How exactly do my gay and lesbian friends and co-workers "threaten" my traditional marriage any more than the heterosexual culture of rampant promiscuity and sexualization does? I may get some heat from my fellow evangelicals for this, but I believe that gays and lesbians should be entitled to the same legal rights and protections as other sinners including adulterers, divorcees, liars and materialists. If unmarried heterosexual couples are eligible for hospital visitation rights, health insurance, employment benefits and a say in their partner's medical treatment, how can we pick and choose which other sinners to exclude?
Neither Obama nor McCain wants to stir up the gay marriage hornet's nest which I think is a good thing. There are clearly more urgent priorities for the country right now. To his credit, McCain's attitude has been far more respectful toward gays and lesbians than either George W. Bush or Sarah Palin, but he still seems to define strong families in narrow terms. Regarding a more holistic approach to family values, I think Obama has a much better grasp of the factors influencing family breakdown and the ways in which working class families are affected by a whole range of economic, healthcare and education policies enacted by the government. Verdict: McCain 6, Obama 8
To summarize it all:
CATEGORY -------------------------------------- MCCAIN ----- OBAMA
1) Leadership ---------------------------------------- 8 ------------ 8
2) Character ----------------------------------------- 9 ------------ 8
3) Economic & Tax Policy -------------------------- 2 ------------ 9
4) Foreign Policy ------------------------------------ 3 ------------ 9
5) Sanctity of Life ---------------------------------- 5 ------------ 5
6) Energy & Environmental Policy ----------------- 4 ------------ 9
7) Health Care Policy ------------------------------- 3 ------------ 9
8) Education Policy ----------------------------------3------------- 9
9) Global Poverty & Human Rights ---------------- 5 ------------ 7
10) Family Values ----------------------------------- 6 ------------ 8
GRAND TOTAL OF ALL CATEGORIES: MCCAIN 48, OBAMA 81
There you have it. Obama gets my vote. If you still haven't made your decision, check out this informative non-partisan summary from Procon.org of each candidate's position on 65 different policy issues (in case 10 categories weren't enough) or go to VoteHelp.org which will help you calculate which candidate you agree/disagree with the most. See you at the polls!
September 27, 2008
If you just want the short answer, let me cut to the chase. At the ballot booth on November 4th, I will be voting for Barack Obama.