Conviction and kindness are the prescription of Southern Baptist leaders for the final eight weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign.
With early voting by mail having begun in North Carolina and in-person early voting slated to begin in three states next week, Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines, Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and Cedarville University President Thomas White are among those to weigh in with ethical and spiritual advice for voters.
Gaines, pastor of Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, told Baptist Press "biblical convictions" should guide Christians "in all areas of life, even the way they vote for a president."
"The most pressing issues in our nation are moral not financial," Gaines said in written comments. "Christians should analyze the candidates' positions regarding moral issues and vote accordingly. In my opinion, the three key moral issues in America today are: a) the sanctity of human life, b) the sacredness of marriage and c) the significance of racial respect/reconciliation."
Gaines' specific counsel to voters included:
• "Christians should have a strong, biblical conviction to vote for pro-life candidates."
• "Christians should vote for candidates that uphold" marriage as "exclusively monogamous and heterosexual."
• "Christians should vote for candidates that promote racial respect and reconciliation."
Gaines said he is troubled by "hateful comments" he has heard "regarding political candidates and how people should vote."
"Many voices, even among Southern Baptists, have been less than wise, and sometimes downright ill-mannered," Gaines said. "Christians must at times be prophetic. But we never have a license to be pejorative or denigrating.
"If any Christian, especially a Christian leader, castigates and attacks a political candidate, that Christian has crossed a line and has sinned. The litmus test should be, 'Would that person be open to me sharing the Gospel with him/her after I make this comment?' If the answer is no, then keep silent, even if it sounds 'prophetic,'" Gaines said.
Some purveyors of "harsh statements toward candidates" attempt to justify their comments as in the tradition of John the Baptist, who rebuked King Herod for marrying his brother's wife, Gaines said, citing Mark 6. Yet Scripture suggests John did not behave rudely because Herod "respected him, protected him and enjoyed listening to him"—even while recognizing the clear rebuke of his message.
In the end, hope should characterize believers' actions this political season, Gaines said.
"The White House cannot send revival, nor can it stop revival," he said. "Stop looking around and start looking up. The Lord is the source of your help and strength."
Gaines added, "We should be good citizens and participate in the presidential election. We should also realize that we are part of a greater Kingdom than America—the Kingdom of God. Today is a great day in America to share the Gospel with lost people and win them to Jesus. Today is a great time for God to rend the heavens and come down in revival in His churches."
Supreme Court justices
In a Sept. 9 appearance on Fox News, Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, cited as paramount for Christians this election season "the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices" who will protect "religious liberty and the sanctity of life." Of the two major party candidates, only Republican nominee Donald Trump will appoint such justices, Jeffress said.
"I am getting sick and tired of these namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians who say they're going to stay at home in November out of moral principle," Jeffress said on Fox's "Hannity." "Will you please tell me what great moral principle there is in the universe that would allow a [pro-abortion], anti-religious liberty candidate like Hillary Clinton to become the president? I believe any conservative Christian who refuses to vote or throws away his vote in November is nothing but a hypocrite and a fool."
Jeffress later clarified to BP, "I never said people who don't vote for Trump are this or that. That wasn't my comment."
Jeffress explained, "It's hypocritical for conservative Christians to say they believe in the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage and religious liberty then sit at home and not vote or throw away their vote on a third-party candidate and not elect a candidate like Donald Trump who has said he'll appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, a candidate who says he's pro-life, a candidate who says he believes Christians are being marginalized in society today."
While Jeffress admits he is not certain Trump will keep his campaign promises, he said he is confident Clinton will "nominate liberal, activist judges to the Supreme Court."
Despite Jeffress' public political statements this year, he said his beliefs are not necessarily the beliefs of the members at First Baptist Dallas and the congregation's Democrats "are just as welcome as Republicans are." At church, "the only leader we're going to talk about is Jesus Christ."
He estimated that "the vast, vast, vast majority" of First Baptist members support Trump now that there is a "binary" choice between two candidates in the general election.
Falwell appeared on "Hannity" with Jeffress and praised Trump's stated desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment, 1954 legislation that prevents churches and other nonprofit groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Some conservative nonprofit organizations are "in silence" regarding political matters, Falwell said, "because they're afraid of what's going to happen to them" if their leaders speak out.
Cedarville hosted a Q&A session Sept. 13 on the presidential election in which White told students that voting is part of a Christian citizen's responsibility to promote "human flourishing" in America.
Supreme Court nominees, White told BP in an email after the Q&A, should be an important consideration for voters.
"Obviously Supreme Court appointees matter greatly," White said, "and in fact all presidential appointees, like those in the Department of Education, affect the work of Christian universities like Cedarville. In one candidate we reasonably know the appointees will oppose a biblical worldview. In the other candidate, we expect friendlier appointees to a biblical worldview but have no guarantee."
White emphasized that the Gospel, and not politics, is the nation's ultimate hope.
"While Supreme Court appointees matter, what matters most is that believers conduct ourselves as good ambassadors for Christ," White said. "Our hope lies not in courts or political systems but in the Gospel as the power of God to salvation. We must speak and act consistently with our biblical worldview so that we do not harm our witness to the world after this election has passed."
By a show of hands at the Q&A, about a third of the Cedarville student body said they would vote for Trump were the election held that day. Two-thirds did not indicate support for either major party candidate.
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP (bpnews.net) reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.