The ERLC Podcast

Bringing hope to an election year (Part 1)

June 27, 2024

Are you weary as you think about politics in our country? Is it hard to know what to say and do during an election year as you lead your church, talk to your family, interact in your community, and go to the voting booth? We feel those tensions, too, and want to provide encouragement as you seek to bring a distinctly Christian hope to the public square. 

Welcome to the ERLC Podcast where our goal is to help you think biblically about today’s cultural issues. Today, we’re talking about bringing hope to an election year

In a special two-part series, ERLC President Brent Leatherwood and Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, will discuss godly political engagement in a messy political landscape, give an overview of the issues we’re watching in this election year and beyond, and talk about how to anchor our trust in Christ as we seek the good of our communities. 

Episode Transcript

Brent: Hello, I’m Brent Leatherwood, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. And let me first start by saying thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here today to talk about an issue that’s probably on your minds or will be on your minds, because the further we get into 2024, well it’s an election year and maybe that fills you with a lot of excitement or a lot of anxiety, I don’t know. But we’re here today to just explore some of those things and get more in depth with questions centering around an election year to be helpful and hopeful guide for you. Joining me today is my former colleague, professor at Southwestern Seminary and director of the Richard Land Center. Dan Darling. 

Tell our folks just briefly about the Land Center. What are you doing there?

Dan: Yeah, so the Land Center, as you mentioned, is named for Richard Land, who is president of ELC for 25 years and served Southern Baptist really well in the public square. And the center is named after him. And it’s really devoted to a couple of things. One, trying to train up the next generation of Christian leaders in all phases of life, whether it’s the marketplace or the ministry or public service. Also help equip pastors and Christian leaders as you do how to think through the moral and ethical issues and how to steward their citizenship. 

Brent: Well, we’re certainly grateful for Dr. Land. Grateful for you. And listen, let’s just jump right into it. So it’s an election year. How are you feeling about 2024 and just all that is with us here in this presidential election year?

Dan: Well, I’m feeling a couple of things. I think, first of all, I know this sounds counterintuitive in an election year where we’ve got whatever perspective you’re coming from, we have two fairly unpopular candidates, kind of a sequel that a lot of Americans don’t want to see. Nevertheless, here we are, but I’m actually grateful. It seems counterintuitive to be grateful, but the fact that in America, we as citizens have the opportunity to, in some way, some small way, shape our government, shape public policy. There’s a lot of Christians around the world who wish they had these opportunities. A lot of people around the world wish they had the freedom to do this. You know, nobody in Russia or North Korea or some of these closed countries is complaining about partisanship right now. They wish they had a little bit of that. And one sense, I’m feeling grateful. In another sense, you know, I think it’s gonna be a very divisive election. There’s gonna be a lot of important issues on the ballot. It’s gonna be a challenge, I think, for Christians to be faithful to what we believe and yet participate in our democracy.

Brent: Yeah. Do you think that Christians should look at this election year with trepidation with anxiety?

Dan: I don’t think we should. Obviously there’s gonna be a lot of negativity. There’s gonna be a lot of partisanship, a lot of mudslinging back and forth, maybe even more than it’s typical. But I don’t think we should look at it with trepidation or fear. We are the people that know God is gathering history to himself. God has made us for this moment. He is not in heaven bringing his hands over the things that keep us up at night. He has given us everything we need to live for life and godliness. And so I think we can both have genuine concerns about the state of our country and press into those with the way we vote and the way we speak up about public policy. And yet at the same time, we can believe Jesus’ words when he says, “be of good cheer, I’ve overcome the world.” 

Brent: Are there particular issues, just kind of like at a 30,000 feet level, that you as a individual voter that you are kind of looking at or thinking about as we come into this election season?

Dan: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of issues that are really important to I think someone like me and most, I think, evangelical Christians, Southern Baptist. I think the sanctity of human life is a big issue. And we’re in a post-Roe era, and we’ll talk about that I’m sure a little bit later. But that’s an issue that’s on folks’ mind. I think also things like religious liberty, not just here in the United States, which is very important, there’s a lot of religious liberty flashpoints that we’re concerned about, particularly higher education and other places with Title IX and other things, but also global religious freedom. I think also America’s place in the world, there’s a lot of threats around the world in terms of Russia, North Korea, Iran, China, and people are very nervous. And then also I think economic issues; evangelical Christians are also folks who care about economic issues and how those things resolve. And so I think those and more issues are things that folks like us are thinking about. 

Brent: So we’ll get into some of those very individualized issues that I’m sure that many people in our audience are thinking through. So before you engage those issues, do you think that there are hallmarks for Christian political engagement? There’s certain things that we are striving for that maybe other voters aren’t necessarily animated by or have categories for? And if so, what might those be?

Dan: Yeah. In terms of, I think issues that are of genuine importance to, I would say evangelical Christians, Southern Baptist particularly, would definitely at the top of the list would be things like religious liberty. Can we protect our religious liberty here for the church to practice freely? I think we also care about the sanity of human life. We also care about the culture itself, where a lot of parents are nervous about the sort of march of the sexual revolution.—some of the LGBT ideology that is sort of making its way through schools and other places—and are rightly concerned about that impact on the culture on their children. And then also as we mentioned, American Christians care, not just about the United States, but we care about our brothers and sisters overseas who are suffering persecution. And the U.S. has historically been a force for good for that, an advocate for those who suffer under tyranny, particularly religious persecution.

Brent: So think through some of those issues. Right. And some of those particular areas that you spotlighted. We see the horrible attack of Hamas on Israel. We see churches being taken over and burned by the Russian invasion in Ukraine, several of which are Baptist churches. Actually closer to home, we see some aspects of our society taken over by transgender ideology. Or we even see ballot initiatives that are lost in certain states to protect life. As you see these challenges out there internationally and right in our backyard, what is it that you use to remain hopeful? And what would be a word that you could give to those Christians out there who see these things happening and we’re telling them to be hopeful? What do you back that up with?

Dan: Well, I think if we put our hope in anything but Christ, I think we’re gonna end up being disappointed. Our sure hope is in Christ. We believe that God is gathering history to himself, that he is sovereign over all things, that he is not surprised by the things that surprise us. That doesn’t mean we should be passive. It doesn’t mean we put our head in the sand. But I think it offers a realism in terms of we live in a fallen world and there’s a lot of good we can do in politics, but we know until he comes back to renew and restore the world, that things are always gonna be like that. But again, we do have that hope that Christ is renewing and restoring the world. The other things that give me hope are: I’m hopeful about the church. I think Christ said he’ll build this church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Anecdotally, I’m hearing from pastors around the country that are saying there’s a newfound sense of hunger in their communities for people to come and hear the gospel. So our churches are growing. But then I’m also hopeful about this country. I’m an optimist when it comes to America. I believe that America has endured challenges before; we’ve endured hard and difficult times that we’ve gotten through. I think American people are good people. I think we should be hopeful. Cynicism really sells today, but I don’t think we have to buy it.

Brent: Right. Let’s focus in just briefly. Obviously it’s an election year; political nerds like you and me, we’re gonna get excited at any point because obviously we love seeing our fellow Americans exercise the powers that come from living in a participatory democracy like we have. And yet, there are certain elements out there, individuals that get really wrapped around the axle about the election season. What do you think is the cause of that sort of emphasis on the pursuit of political power and where is that coming from?

Dan: I actually encourage Christians to get involved. And when I look at Scripture, when I see the command to love your neighbors yourselves, I think if we have an opportunity to shape the communities our neighbors live in and shape the policies that affect their flourishing, we should do that. I think part of seeking the welfare of your city that Jeremiah told exiles in Babylon to do is if we have an opportunity to steward our citizenship and help shape the policies around us. So I think politics is really important. Politics can be a useful vehicle for human flourishing, but it becomes a poor religion. And I actually think Christianity, when we follow Christ, when we have the spiritual disciplines, when we’re attending church every week, when we understand how God is moving through history, it tempers our politics in a way that allows us to be involved and engaged, but understand that the limits of what we can do in a fallen world. And so we do care about elections, and we do wanna see outcomes that affect the policies we care about, but we understand that even if it doesn’t go our way, or even if we’re disappointed by who is put in charge, that ultimately Christ is sovereign overall and he is still on the throne. And I think that tempers our politics. And I think when we lose that, when politics becomes all consuming, when it becomes everything, when it becomes our identity, then I think we’re poorly served by it.

Brent: You said in there, we do care about elections and we do care about outcomes. And we also would add to that, that we care about leaders. Absolutely. And even leaders that we disagree with, obviously we are called to pray for those in authority. But you look around the public square right now, and it can seem, not always, but it can seem like there is a real lack of leadership with integrity. Thinking about leaders, how can we as Christians work to hold leaders to a higher standard? And how can we encourage people to run for office that do represent the standards that we would like to see in public office?

Dan: First of all, as you mentioned at the beginning, praying for our leaders is really important. That’s something that I often have to remind myself to do. Am I praying for our leaders as often as I’m complaining about them or posting about them? First Timothy two, Paul urges Timothy to pray for everyone in authority. And let’s remember they’re praying for Nero who would send Paul to his death. He would be a martyr at the hands of Nero. And he is saying, you still need to pray for him. So much less, our American leaders, when we agree with him, when we disagree with him, and not just at the presidential level, but all the way down to the local level to be in public office today, to put yourself forward, is to open yourself up to a lot of abuse and a lot of just mockery and scrutiny of your life and all that.

So anyone stepping forward we should pray for. And then I do think we should prioritize not just the policies that leaders enact, but the leaders themselves in virtue and character. And sometimes, you know, our choices are not great, and so you have to make a choice about a leader based on other issues. But where we can, I think we should prioritize character and virtue. And sometimes the nastiness of our politics compels Christians to say, “I just don’t wanna be involved in that.” But I actually think that’s a mistake. I think when good Christians leave the arena, it kind of cedes the field to other actors. And so we actually need good Christians, good men and women of faith to step up and say, “I see this as a calling. I wanna run for office because I think God has called me to be in this place.”

Brent: I think one thing I would pick up on, to maybe piggyback a little bit to what you said, we often think, I mean, look, we’re having this in the midst of 2024. It’s a presidential election year. There are a lot of races below that particular question on the ballot that deserve and really need Christian engagement in terms of policies, in terms of the personalities that are running. And one thing that we tend to underappreciate, I would say in the church, is the great good that can be accomplished at those local levels, through those local races, and helping to inform and speak to those candidates that are vying from local office. We underestimate how much our voice can really matter in those races that are closest to home. And oftentimes if we want to change a policy or change the culture that we’re living in, speaking into those races, will accomplish a great deal more good than even at the presidential level.

Dan: Absolutely. I mean, in fact, sometimes the entire focus is on the presidential race, and in some ways there’s not much you can do about that. It’s sort of fixed. Right? But there’s a lot of things below that that we can have an impact on. Your state leaders, your local leaders, your school board, your local state representative, and state senators and mayors. And not just getting involved in running for these offices, but praying for them, getting to know them. If you’re pastoring a church in a particular community, getting to know your local leaders and saying, “How can we pray for you? How can we help you?” And then also getting involved in trying to find good people to run for office, running for office, being involved in politics is a way of loving your neighbor, serving your neighbor. There’s gonna be somebody in these positions. So we have to ask ourselves, do we want someone of Christian character and virtue in these positions, or are we just gonna sort of leave it alone and see what fills the vacuum? And often what fills that vacuum is not better than having a Christian there.

Brent: Yeah. I was actually in Texas where you are now recently, and was giving a lecture to a Christian college. And I did a little thought experiment with the audience that hopefully was a little revealing. Everyone could name who the president of the United States is and vice president. They could probably name who the governor of California was, or a congresswoman from Georgia. But you start asking them, “Who is your state representative for this area? Who is on the county commission for this area?” The room started getting a lot quieter. That kind of leads to my next question: where are Christians tempted in an election season and how can we avoid that temptation? 

Dan: Think there’s a few temptations. I think the first we mentioned before, but I mentioned again, cynicism. Cynicism about the church, cynicism about your fellow Christian, cynicism about the country. And look, there are deep concerns in America, but I think America’s still a good country. And I think there’s still a lot of reason to be hopeful about the country. So cynicism is not a virtue. I think number two, the abandoning of spiritual formation in an election season. I think of James 1:27 where he says true religion is caring for widows and orphans and remaining unspotted from the world. And what he’s saying is that there’s an inside and outside dynamic that our activism in the world is only ever as good as our life with God. And so it’s tempting in a political season to be formed in shape only by the presidential race or the politics. And that’s sort of forming our hearts instead of getting time with God. And then I think the third temptation, and this is really important, is to allow a political moment or a political figure to divide us from our fellow brothers and sisters. Jesus said that they would know you are Christians, by the way you love one another. Francis Schaeffer, who was a great apologist in the 20th century, no shrinking violet, was unafraid to speak truth to the culture, be prophetic to the church. Nevertheless, he said that love is the final apologetic. And he said, God has given the world the right to judge the validity of our faith by the way we treat each other. And so let’s, by all means, engage. Let’s make arguments. Let’s speak against evil, but let’s not let minor differences with other Christians separate us. Let’s determine and say, I am united with my brothers and sisters by something that unites us far more than should divide us.

Brent: Sure. It seems like in this culture that we’re living in the convictions that we hold fast to as Baptists, as evangelicals, as Christians, they’re increasingly running counter to what this culture wants. How do you navigate that in the midst of making your decisions about someone who’s running for office, a constitutional amendment that might be on a state ballot? How do you make sure that you are holding to conviction and yet still pushing forward in terms of helpful policy?

Dan: Well, I think first of all, we shouldn’t be surprised that to live as faithfully as a Christian is gonna run counter in some way to the culture. Jesus promised us that if they persecuted me, they’ll persecute you. Now, in America, we have not really faced persecution per se, but true Christianity will always cut against the culture in some way. We’re always gonna be countercultural, and we should be prepared for that and not surprised by that. I think secondly, we need to obey like what 1 Peter 3: 15 and 16 says, to have an answer for every person for the hope that lies within us. So we need to answer the deep questions of the age. People are asking questions, what does it mean to be human? Why am I here? What does it mean to be a man or a woman? All these things. And Christianity has the answers.

But then he says to do it with gentleness and kindness, and we can be both courageous and civil at the same time. The loudest person in the room is not always the most brave. And so I think that’s the approach, and to trust that the Lord will use what we do to accomplish his purposes, that we should not get weary and well-doing. And every generation needs to hear the message of the gospel. They need to hear the message of Christian ethics. Just because we’ve said it before, we need to keep saying it again and educate a new generation. And God will use what we do to change hearts. Nothing is in vain. 

Brent: One of the things I appreciated most when you were here on staff, Dan, is you truly have a pastor’s heart. And you brought that here to the team at the ERLC, and now we’re placing a renewed emphasis on thinking through, okay, how can we best serve pastors? Simple question. What do you think a pastor needs right now in the midst of this election year and upcoming election season?

Dan: Well, I think pastors need prayer. You know, I think pastors are in the trenches. They’re at the front lines, if you will, in our community, shepherding God’s people. And I think a few things I would say to pastors, I would say to myself when I pastored, is, number one, you pastor the people that you have, not the people you wish you had. Right? So 1 Peter says to shepherd the flock of God, which is among you, the ones that you have. You may have a mix of people in terms of their political instincts or how they think about the election. And remember, you’re their shepherd. I think number two, especially when it comes to the election, is we can’t pretend it’s not happening. So I think pastors need to address the election in the sense of, okay, folks, we all know this is happening. Here’s how we wanna conduct ourselves as God’s people.

What does it look like to live out our and steward our Christianity in this moment? God is not surprised by this moment. He’s put us here in 2024 for a purpose. He has not put us in 1954 or 2124. He’s put us here. How do we steward this moment? Three, I think pastors have a unique opportunity to shape the political theology of their people by really helping them see what issues really do come from Scripture that are issues that Christians can’t bend on. And what issues are those things that good Christians will disagree about? What’s the most prudent way to address these things? Because I think if the church doesn’t do this kind of work, our people are gonna get shaped and discipled by other voices throughout the week. Some good, some not so good. I think that’s role and responsibility. We don’t need pastors to be partisan. But Christianity isn’t inherently political in the sense that it, it is always gonna cut against the idols of the age. So I think that’s one of the responsibilities.

Brent: So it sounds to me at a basic level, you’re saying, listen, don’t turn your pulpit into a soapbox. Don’t just give it over to a candidate who’s sinking office. That gets into that sort of partisan nature of things, right, that I think we all know we need to avoid. But are there other ways that a church can be a helpful place for people to learn and get information about an upcoming election? And have you seen that played out in a helpful way in your own time?

Dan: I think so. I mean, I think, as you said, we don’t need pastors to be pundits. People can get that Monday through Friday, that when they come to church, they need to hear word from the Lord. So that’s the primary thing. But we shouldn’t act as though our Christianity doesn’t affect this one area. Christ is Lord of all. He is Lord over our politics as well. And so I think first equipping people on how to conduct themselves as Christians in the political arena, that when you’re in the political arena, you’re still a Christian to what are the key issues that you should be on the lookout for and that you should care about. Then I think also equipping people to go into the political arena in the marketplace. You know, as a pastor, you may have people in your church who are thinking about running for office or thinking about stepping into those spaces, or they may already be there, and you can be an encouragement to them to use their gifts in those places that really glorifies the Lord. And I think there’s resources that they can find, right. If they have questions, you know, individually, and how do I think about this candidate or this candidate? I don’t think that’s something you do from the pulpit necessarily, but there are other ways and forms and ways that churches can equip people. 

Brent: I’ll give a real life example also, just to underscore that from right here in Tennessee, you may remember this, when you were working here at the ERLC in 2014, there was an amendment on the statewide ballot here that was a pro-life amendment. And six weeks out from the election, it looked like that pro-life amendment may actually not pass. And I remember there was a concerted effort that the ERLC helped with the Tennessee Baptist here under the leadership of Dr. Randy Davis and others got engaged to make sure that Southern Baptists across Tennessee were informed about the opportunity that this amendment presented for Christians. And it played out in a couple of ways. Some pastors early that fall decided to do a sermon series on the imago Dei, and the implications and the responsibilities that come from all of us being made in the image of God to their congregations, others hosted on Sunday evenings, almost like informational sessions, so that folks could come and learn about the issue. And then others decided to construct some emails to help their congregations have a resource as it got closer to election day. I mean, all of these things happened, and I think they were all very helpful for folks who wanted to know more about that issue.


There are no easy answers when it comes to living as a Christian in the public square. But, similar to Esther, God has put us here for such a time as this, to glorify his name the best we can. Even in an imperfect political climate, we can engage in a way that honors God and his Word, keeps our integrity intact, seeks the genuine good of our neighbors, and brings hope to our nation. 

Join us next time as we hear the rest of the conversation between Dan and Brent. 

Recent Episodes

Already a listener? Leave a review!

Leave a Review