For Whom Should You Vote?
Dr. Jim Denison
My title may have caused some of you to wonder if I’m going to endorse a presidential candidate today. I could do that if I wanted our church to lose its non-profit status, and if I wanted to violate the church-state separation essential to Baptist theology and American religious life. So I don’t think I will. Besides, I have another election in mind. One with even larger significance than the debates and campaign of these days. One which will effect every one of us long after the 2004 election is history.
We’ll hear today from two candidates, each presenting his own spiritual platform and hoping for your personal vote. Two of the wisest men of all time, engaged in a debate as current as this week’s news.
Meet the candidate for “good”
Our first candidate is described by his contemporaries as a short, squat, ugly little man with strangely-staring eyes. He is also considered by his peers to be the wisest man who ever lived. Historians usually trace our entire Western culture back to him. You know him as Socrates. He will speak to you now.
Good morning, and thank you for your invitation to speak today. I have but one point to make: your happiness depends on you. You can discover life’s highest value, its greatest good. You can learn all you need to know to accomplish your goals, to fulfill your dreams, to become what you were put on this earth to be. You can do it.
Here’s how: know thyself. The unexamined life is not worth living. But by examining yourself, by correct thinking and learning, you can become anything you want to be. There is an objective Good, and you can know it.
My student Plato put it this way: by right thinking you can escape this world of shadows and know the world of perfection. His student Aristotle claimed that by the right use of logic and reason, you can know that perfect world.
Those who followed them disagreed as to the best way to know the Good, but they all believed that you can do it.
In my ancient world, one group said that ceasing our desires is the way to happiness, while another movement disagreed, claiming that pursuing right pleasure makes us happy. Still another movement claimed that objective knowledge doesn’t exist, so if we’ll cease to seek such knowledge we’ll be happy. Yet another told us to align our lives with Reason and Fate to find happiness.
Many since my time have added their opinions. Immanuel Kant said duty for duty’s sake is the purpose of life. Friedrich Nietzsche told you that the will to power is basic to human fulfillment. Most of your American scholars believe that the greatest good for the greatest number of people produces happiness.
But we all agree: you can choose to be happy. You can accomplish your goals and fulfill your dreams. You can do it.
Abigail Adams, wife of your second president, said it well: “To be good and to do good is the sum of human purpose.” Your Thomas Jefferson may have said it best: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You have a right to be happy. And you can seize that right, fulfill that dream.
Most of your countrymen agree. Ninety three percent of you say that you are your own determiner of moral truth. Most of you know that humanity is basically good, that we may sin but that doesn’t make us sinners. We’re good, and we can know and do the good. To be good and to do good is the sum of human purpose.
If your religion helps you to be good and do good, all the better. If coming to church, reading the Bible, praying, doing church work helps you be a better and happier person, by all means be religious. Of course, you know that your faith is just your faith. You have no right to force your beliefs on anyone else. So be tolerant, be good, and do good. This is the sum of life.
Meet the candidate for God
Now let’s meet our other candidate, a Jewish businessman, political leader and scholar named Nicodemus. He is one of the most dynamic and successful people we’ll find anywhere in the biblical world. An astounding resume, Exhibit A for “success” as our culture defines it. Let’s hear from him.
I am pleased to address you today. Our moderator was kind, but accurate. I did actually have everything my society and yours deem important for success. I was everything my opponent wants you to be. Here’s my story.
I was powerful—in fact, I achieved more power than it is possible to possess in your society today.
My name meant “conqueror of the people.” Clearly my parents envisioned great power for their baby boy. Imagine naming your infant son Napoleon or Alexander the Great. I was born with a gavel in my hand, bred for success, raised to conquer.
And I fulfilled my parents’ wildest dreams and fondest hopes. How many of you want your son or daughter to be President of the United States? A member of the Supreme Court? A Senator or Representative? I did all that and more.
As your Bible says, I was a “member of the Jewish ruling council” (v. 1). This group was known as the Sanhedrin—70 men who constituted the Supreme Court of our nation. We possessed ruling authority over every Jew anywhere in the world. We were the court of final appeal. Even the High Priest was subject to our rulings.
If your nation had one ruling body which combined the power of the Supreme Court and the House and Senate, and possessed authority over the president and the military, that body would be our Sanhedrin. And I would be one of its members. There was no more powerful position in all the land. If power can find God, I should have found God. And yet I didn’t.