times Christians shy away from the political arena because they fear
the brutal attacks their political opponents will launch. Other Christians
believe that, because of all the negative attacks and mud slinging,
politics in general must be 'un-Christian.' Such timidity comes from
a 'dirty hands' morality where Christians believe that such negative
'dirty' activities must be wrong. However, dismissing all political
attacks misses the beneficial nature of some attack ads. With a proper
ethical framework Christians in fact should support and appreciate
certain political attacks and attack ads.
Some things which at first appear to be 'dirty' are in fact a necessary
part of Christian life. Disciplining children leaves some people
with a 'dirty hands' feeling. In general Christians should check
their feelings and impressions against Christian principles and
scriptural examples. Political attack ads must also be examined
in this deliberate biblical framework.
The Bible does not speak explicitly about acceptable political advertising.
Looking at just one example, the Bible does provide advice about
what to consider when selecting Christian leaders (elders and deacons)
in I Timothy 3. Paul asks the rhetorical question, "if a man
does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take
care of the church of God?" The principle here is that character
matters. Leaders must be above reproach, their character and private
life must be in order. A church leader's children must be in good
order. Presumably the deacon's children will not be guiding the
church, but Paul makes the connection that the deacon's family reflects
his character, and hence his ability to guide the church. Someone
could be an excellent teacher, highly intelligent and have incredible
spiritual discretion - but this is not enough. Even though the requirements
to serve as elders and deacons are different from those required
of political leaders, the same principle applies - the private life
and character of those in leadership are relevant.
Elsewhere the Bible makes clear that character matters, especially
the character of leaders. Jesus warns us in Matthew 7:15 of "false
prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are
ravenous wolves," showing that inner-character, not just outward
claims, are vitally important. Christians must take the character
and private live of candidates for leadership taken into consideration.
They should also apply this Biblical model for selecting leaders
to politics. The character and private conduct of any politician
should be an important factor in Christian's determination of that
candidate's worthiness for office.
Any evaluation of character must be undertaken within the bounds
of honest inquiry. Christians are called not to lie or slander.
This simple command can be extremely hard to live by, particularly
in the expedient world of politics. Being intentionally deceitful,
or untruthful is never acceptable. When trying to evaluate the moral
value of political attack ads this consideration of honesty in criticism
must be weighed against the need to evaluate the character of potential
Not all Attack Ads are Equal:
When people speak of "attack ads" they almost invariably
refer to an ad which makes their preferred candidate look bad. Attack
ads must be clearly categorized and distinguished before being morally
Broadly speaking, all political ads fall into one of two categories.
Positive ads and negative ads. All ads which portray a political
candidate positively try to convince the viewer to vote for that
candidate. Negative ads are the ads which try to persuade the audience
to vote against a candidate (perhaps by voting for someone else).
Negative ads in our two-party political system voting against one
candidate is effectively a vote for the other candidate. For example,
to not vote for Bush, even if you don't vote at all, is effectively
a vote for Kerry. There are some ads that serve both purposes, making
both a positive statement about one candidate and a corresponding
negative claim about the opposing candidate.
Negative ads are extremely popular in today's political system.
In 1996 a study of all political advertising showed that candidates
aired more than five times as many negative ads as positive ones,
according to the Wisconsin
Advertising Project. Politicians love negative ads because they
have proven to be more effective in winning elections. This places
a larger burden on Christians to understand the relative merits
of negative ads.
All negative advertisements can also be split into two groups:
those ads that address specific issues and those ads that address
the candidate's character. These categories often overlap, with
the distinction hinging on how the ad appeals to the voter.
1. Negative Issue Ads:
When the NRA runs an 'attack ad' against a politician who supports
gun control they appeal to the voter on the merits of the issue.
Gun control is bad, so this candidate must be opposed.
2. Negative Character Ads:
"Character ads," come in many different flavors, but they
all appeal to the electorate to vote on the basis of some part of
the politician's character. Some advertisements accuse candidates
of lying, such as the famous 1992 Patrick Buchanan ad which quoted
then President George H.W. Bush saying, "read my lips, no new
taxes." The commercial then catalogued the tax hikes Bush had
signed into law. It closed with the powerful line, "Can we
afford four more years of broken promises?" This ad addressed
an issue, but the meat of the attack was against President George
President George W. Bush currently has several negative character
ads attacking John Kerry for 'flip-flopping' on issues. The point
of these ads is not so much that Kerry opposed funding troops in
Iraq, for example, as much as pointing out that Kerry has changed
his position multiple times - indicating indecisiveness in his character.
Can Christians Support Negative 'Attack' Ads?
With this understanding of what constitutes a "negative ad"
or an "attack ad" Christians can see that there is nothing
inherently offensive or immoral about these ads. Christians are
called to care about issues and Christians are called to care about
character in leaders. In so far as these ads are designed to heighten
awareness about particular issues or expose a serious character
flaw in a potential leader, they are justified. Negative "issue
ads" are almost always morally acceptable.
There is no ethical distinction between providing positive information
for one candidate, a "positive ad" and providing the corresponding
negative information, "attack ad" for the other candidate.
The information content is the same - only the context changes.
Negative "character ads" are likewise merely the inverse
of positive character ads. The content is the same, and it cannot
be acceptable to show the presence of character in one candidate
but unacceptable to show the lack of character in another candidate.
It may not seem like a nice thing to 'attack' a political candidate,
but given the nature of leadership, negative ads and negative arguments
are necessary. The 'dirty hands' feel to negative issue ads does
not provide a defensible rejection of negative issue ads. Christians
should know and educate others about a candidate's stance on abortion,
for example. Because political candidates have chosen to run for
office, they have consented to having their position on issues examined
by all. Political candidates expect for their opponents to criticize
their issues and their character.
However, not all negative ads are justified under the Biblical
principles of examining character in leaders and knowing that issues
matter. Christians are also prohibited from lying, deceiving and
slandering. These facts are rather obvious, but in the political
world the line between opposing an undesirable candidate fairly
and unfairly can be dangerously thin.
Christians should be the first to condemn negative political ads
that are deceitful or untruthful. The problem is that most negative
political ads are not obviously untruthful. Most often these ads
raise matters often politically charged judgment. This difficulty
should not stop Christians from upholding their constant commitment
to truth. Some additional examples will make this problematic issue
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads
The ads run by the Swift
Boat Veterans for Truth are a clear example of a difficult
judgment call. The latest Swift Boat Vets ad shows that they understand
the reasoning behind these character attacks. It ad asks, "why
is this relevant?" and then answers, "because character
and honesty matter, especially in a time of war." Everyone
agrees that either John Kerry is lying about his service in Vietnam,
or the Swift Boat Veterans are lying. Both sides make substantive
arguments, but in the end it can only be left to hazy political
judgment. If the Swift Vet ads are based on lies, as Kerry charges,
then, from the Christian perspective, they would be an illegitimate
attack. However, if Kerry is lying, as the Swift Vets charge, then
Christians should find the ads perfectly than acceptable.
The "Daisy Ad"
In 1964 President Johnson's campaign ran one of the most famous
political attack ads ever. This ad is a good example of a negative
ad that is unacceptable because it is deliberately deceptive and
dishonest. The "Daisy ad" features a little girl picking
a daisy, set against a nuclear mushroom cloud. The strongly suggests
that Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, would launch a nuclear
war, and explicitly says, "these are the stakes, to make a
world in which all God's children can live, or to go into the darkness.
Either we must love each other or we must die." Almost nobody
will defend this as a truthful argument over the issues. In fact,
the Johnson campaign almost immediately withdrew the advertisement,
but subsequently enjoyed the negative press about Goldwater the
ad created. It appears that Johnson didn't honestly believe that
Goldwater would launch a nuclear war, but was merely making a fear-inspiring
association to try and discredit the candidate.
The "Daisy Ad" does not truthfully raise an issue or
aspect of character, and hence Christians should oppose this type
of ad for being unethical. Even the Johnson campaign admitted that
this ad was illegitimate, soon pulling it off the air. Christians
should be wary of political advertisements drawing extreme conclusions
without evidence to back them up. For example, if someone charged
that Kerry would bring the second great depression or that Bush
would cause World War III, these attacks, without extensive evidence
and documentation, would be unacceptable.
The "Bush = Hitler Ad"
More recently, an online advocacy group, MoveOn.org held a contest
for independently produced ads criticizing President Bush. Almost
all of these ads fall into the unclear realm of political judgment.
However, two ads explicitly compared President Bush to dictator
Adolph Hitler. One ad showed Hitler in salute, and then morphs to
President Bush raising his hand at his inauguration. In the background
you hear "Sig Heil! Sig Heil!" during both images.
This sort of advertisement again makes no clear, explicit issue
argument. It does, however, make a clear 'negative character ad'
argument that Bush is an American Hitler. The association of Bush
with Hitler, however, can scarcely be defended as truthful and honest.
Perhaps a handful of the most extreme political partisans honestly
think that Bush is like Hitler. This association of Bush with Hitler
appears not only offensive, but slanderous. Such negative advertisements
cannot be justified for Christians as either a legitimate political
issue or honest concern about character. Some would argue that this
is merely a type of character judgment, but most would see that
the justifications for equating Bush with Hitler are so illogical
and unfounded that they can only be called what they are - slander.
Ads that associate a candidate with some evil, without any solid
support, are not legitimate attacks. It should be noted that criticizing
a candidate for supporting or failing to support an issue is distinct
from this sort of slanderous association.
Christians should not only expect negative attacks in politics,
they should recognize the important role they have in the political
debate of examining political issues and the character of candidates.
The scriptures show how character and private lives are important
concerns for leadership. Negative, so called, 'attack ads' may not
seem nice, but they are absolutely essential so voters can thoroughly
examine potential leaders.
Many politicians and media commentators deem all 'attack ads' offensive
and 'dirty.' No solid ethical argument supports these claims. What
most call "attack ads" are more appropriately though of
as "informative ads." There is no ethical difference between
providing information in favor of one candidate and providing information
against a candidate. When the NRA runs an ad pointing out that some
candidate opposes gun rights, there is nothing unethical with providing
voters with information on the issues. Christians who attack candidates
by pointing out their stance in favor of abortion are not engaging
in unethical or 'dirty' political tactics. Issues are critical to
the political selection process.
Honesty and a commitment to the truth in all spheres of life should
always inform Christian decisions in politics. Attack ads are no
different. While truth and honesty are required, Christians should
not shy away from informing the public about critical issues and
important considerations of character in our future leaders. Perhaps
most attack ads are not so negative after all.