What you should know about the presidential debates

June 26, 2019

The long road to the White House picks up speed this week as the first debate of the 2020 U.S. presidential election will take place in Miami, Fla. The two-night event will feature most of the Democratic candidates vying for the presidency with 10 candidates taking the stage each night (five announced candidates did not meet the qualifying requirements set forth by the Democratic National Committee). On the Republican side, there are no debates expected to be held. 

A brief history of presidential debates    

Most Americans probably don’t realize this, but presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon in our national political history. For most of our 243 years, campaigning generally was looked down upon by presidential candidates. While the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas may come to mind, those storied interactions actually happened in the context of a campaign for U.S. Senate (though both would later be presidential candidates). What made these seven debates so important in American history was how the format allowed each candidate to give a full explanation of their philosophy of public service and the legislative solutions each man was advocating for on the most pressing issue in the public square, slavery. The first candidate was given one hour to make his case, followed by a rebuttal from the other candidate for an hour and a half. The first candidate was then given a half-hour to respond. Huge crowds gathered around Illinois to watch these events. They set the standard for debates in the American political system.

Debates amongst presidential candidates competing in the same primary has a slightly longer history than general election debates. The first of its kind occurred between candidates competing for the Republican nomination in 1948. Democrats would do the same a few election cycles later in 1956.

The first general election debate would also be the first televised presidential debate. It took place in September of 1960 between the Republican nominee for president, Richard Nixon, and the Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy. Nearly 67 million Americans tuned in to watch the first of the four debates to take place between the two men. The third debate in the series was especially unique: Kennedy participated from a studio in New York while Nixon took part from a California studio.

While primary debates would occur again in 1968 and 1972, the next general election debate would not happen until Republican incumbent President Gerald Ford agreed to debate upstart Democratic nominee, Gov. Jimmy Carter. Why was there such a long gap between debates? Because many analysts attributed Nixon’s narrow loss in the 1960 election to his poor performance on television, especially the way he presented himself. Nixon had been ill leading up to the debate. Then, on the day of the debate, he didn’t shave prior to going on camera, he declined to wear makeup, and he rarely stayed focused on the camera, all of which stood in contrast to the youthful Kennedy. There’s no way of knowing with certainty if this doomed Nixon’s 1960 campaign, but it certainly made an impression on viewers.

That lesson from 1960, “don’t make a mistake” (as subjective as it may be), has been a constant debate priority for campaign managers and consultants ever since. The stakes loom especially large in our era of social media and viral videos where a gaffe (or a shining moment) can label your campaign instantly. Who doesn’t remember former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “oops” moment where he forgot the third part of his three-part plan? Or Ford’s assertion there is no “Soviet domination” of Eastern Europe––in the midst of the Cold War? Or Al Gore repeatedly sighing in a debate with a more affable George W. Bush?

Did these instances affect the outcomes of those elections? Maybe. They certainly had a deleterious effect on the narrative those respective campaigns were trying to carefully shape for those candidates.

What to expect in the initial debates

Given that first impressions mean a lot in politics for Democratic or Republican candidates alike, viewers should not anticipate major adversarial fireworks in the initial debates from any of the most well-known candidates. These individuals want to use this time as a moment to introduce themselves and begin forming the narrative of their campaign: Why they’re running and the difference they will make for the country. But, they had better be fairly concise when doing that. Most analysts expect the average mic time for each candidate in these initial 2020 debates to be somewhere around six to eight minutes. This is why most campaign managers will advise their candidates against utilizing precious seconds to go negative by attacking another candidate.

However, for the lesser-known candidates on the stage (particularly those who just barely met the qualifications to make the debate), they could see this as their one chance to truly differentiate themselves from their peers. Providing a contrast on national television right out of the gate could certainly do that.

Last-minute candidate preparations

As someone who spent the vast majority of my professional career in electoral politics, I can say the days leading up to a debate are different for each candidate, though most take one of two routes. Either they are hurriedly running through last-minute sessions on their opening and closing statements and finessing their responses to a number of policy questions, or they are filling their time with other campaign activities in an effort to not overdue their preparation. 

Nearly all candidates have prepped for the debates with their staff and outside experts for weeks with deep policy briefings and sessions that are called “murder boards.” These hour-long (or more) meetings are designed to grill candidates about specific areas in an effort to help them formulate and refine their answers. Toward the end of the process, brevity becomes the priority to help ensure the candidate provides his or her answer in the allotted time, per the debate rules.

How should Christians watch

As Christ followers, we should keep one thing in mind as we watch these debates on any given election year: We’re beginning the process of assessing and eventually electing a chief executive of our nation, not a savior. 

As citizens of a democratic republic, we should seek to learn more about the skilled men and women who want to lead our nation, evaluate their visions for the future of the country, test them about the complex issues we face, and determine how their policy solutions line up against our own understanding of human flourishing. 

While some candidates may promise a lot of things they cannot possibly fulfill, the reality remains that we still live in a fallen world and everything short of, to use Russell Moore’s phrase, “a previously dead Man showing up in the sky on a horse” is going to leave us unsatisfied by our earthly rulers. And that’s OK. Our challenge is to navigate these times wisely, especially as we choose our leaders, until that day comes.

F. Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood was elected as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2022, after a year of leading the organization as acting president. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He brings an expertise in public … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24