THE TRUE STORY
“BLESSITT FOR PRESIDENT”
Blessitt for President
Lord, what are you doing to me? I am constantly being ignored or ridiculed or criticized or rejected. Yet you will not let me leave this presidential campaign. You make me go on just to be humiliated. You don’t want me to win, but you want me to try. You have a mission for me and I am committed to do it. Much of the water dripping from my face in humid Florida is not sweat but tears. Yet, I wipe the tears and smile and press for- ward to share your love and salvation with everyone. It’s hard to ask for a vote, I’d rather ask them to give their lives to you, Jesus. Running for president feels uncomfortable to me. I sometimes have a flash of horror when I think what if I win?! Ha! I ask myself, which was easier – walking across Africa where I’ve just come from or running for president? Oh, Lord, you know the latter is tougher. Jesus, you are stripping me of everything and it is painful, but it is right. I want to be free for you to grind me to powder so you can blow me where you will. Sometimes I think this campaign is more about me than any- thing else. You are at work perfecting me. Please don’t stop now. I am a work in progress.
During nearly forty years of carrying the cross around the world, I’ve found myself in some difficult situations. As I conveyed in previous chapters, I have slogged my way through dense jungles and survived in the middle of war zones. But nothing was more challenging than running for president of the United States, which I did for seventeen months from 1974 to 1976.
Running for president wasn’t something I thought up on my own. I didn’t say, “Boy, I wonder if this would be a fun thing to do!” I wasn’t yearning for power. I wasn’t looking for a new line of work.
I had been carrying the cross for almost two years in Africa when the Lord called me to run for president. He even explained his reason when he gave me the assignment. I felt that Christ’s plan was for me to run for president so that the other candidates would be challenged to tell the voters about their relationship with God.
At that time in America, religion and politics were two things most people didn’t openly discuss. I know that candidates today talk freely about religion. Some wrap themselves in the Bible as much as they wrap themselves in the flag. But that wasn’t always the case. Before the 1976 election, candidates didn’t talk publicly about their religion. There were exceptions, of course. John F. Kennedy talked about his faith in 1960, but that’s because he had to. He needed to defend himself against critics who said that, as a Catholic, he would be working for the pope, not for the American people.
Before the 1976 election there wasn’t a movement of Christians called the “religious right,” and even people like Jimmy Carter, who is known today as an outspoken Christian, didn’t talk about being “born again.”
But all that was about to change.
A Reluctant Candidate
Believe me, it would have been fine with me if Jesus had called someone else to get candidates talking about God. But he didn’t. While walking with the cross in Africa, I scouted newspapers and listened to broadcasts of the BBC and the Voice of America to see if anyone else was raising the faith issue. They weren’t, so I accepted Jesus’ call.
I returned to America to enter the important presidential primaries in New Hampshire and Florida. I walked with the cross in both states from October 8, 1974 to March 9, 1976, the date of the Florida primary.
In leaving Africa for the American campaign trail, I was entering a war zone. My campaign would be a humiliating struggle unlike anything I had experienced before.
I would never have done this if Christ hadn’t called me. But I did it out of obedience, knowing He had a purpose in it all that was beyond me and my petty concerns. If I had known the future, I would have trembled; but since I only knew the Lord, I was thrilled. Plus, I love a challenge. I enjoy something that requires everything and lifts me to new levels of discipline and endurance.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” wrote Solomon in Proverbs 27:17. As I ran for president, I would be sharpened and strengthened in new and challenging ways that would teach me valuable lessons about reaching the world for Jesus.
The God Question
Most candidates have a slogan or campaign statement that is the focus of everything they do. For me the focal point was the God question. My goal was to ask the other candidates a question that had been largely avoided in presidential campaigns for almost two hundred years: “What is your personal relationship with God?”
I’m not talking about clichés. Such as the words, “God bless you,” or “God bless America” many political figures use at the end of their speeches. Some politicians speak these sincerely. For others, it is the worst form of pandering. I wanted to separate the sheep from the goats by asking each candidate what he thought and challenging him to go public with his beliefs.
My mission faced difficult challenges as I tried to work with a political establishment that didn’t know what to do with me. Plus, I was handicapped by the fact that Jesus told me I couldn’t accept a penny in campaign contributions from any person or organization. I ran as a Democrat in both New Hampshire and Florida, appearing on the ballot in both states. But I was denied the opportunity to participate in the debates, since only candidates whom the national news media considered the major contenders could take part in them.
I also didn’t receive as much media attention as the other candidates and the media coverage I did receive was mixed. Some reporters said I was nuts (and what I was doing probably looked nutty to them), but others were positive.
The Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire ran a story with this headline “Candidate Blessitt Emphasizes Contact with the People.” The article said that five hundred people were working on my campaign around the state.
Here’s what the Florida Times-Union, a Jacksonville, Florida, paper said: “What’s a minister doing entering the presidential race? Because the millions of Americans who worship God on Sundays are being ignored, says the Rev. Arthur Blessitt.”
I loved talking with the journalists. But the highlight of the campaign for me was the wonderful, beautiful people I was privileged to
meet along the way.
A Grassroots Campaign
I carried the cross during my campaign in both states and the reception of the people was powerful. They loved me, fed me and helped me. I spoke in shipping centers and nursing homes. I also spoke on college campuses; I loved speaking to young people who typically gave me standing ovations.
But most of the time I campaigned through something I called ‘house meetings.” A family would invite me to speak and invite their friends and neighbors to attend. Typically, I spoke for ten minutes about why I was running for president and then I spoke for ten minutes about Jesus, followed by about twenty minutes of questions and answers. I closed the meetings by sharing how the people could welcome Jesus into their lives, concluding with a brief prayer of salvation they could pray with me. Many times more than half of the people at each home meeting prayed to receive Jesus as their Savior. Over the course of my campaign thousands of individuals came to Christ.
The love and fellowship in these meetings were beautiful. The hosts and the folks who attended were nothing but friendly and appreciative. I left each house with people hugging one another, crying, praying and praising God. I feel certain that I was more successful in evangelizing than I was in lining up votes, even though I received one percent of the primary vote in Florida and one percent in New Hampshire.
My experience with these house meetings made me think of the beginning of the Christian movement two thousand years ago when believers met in homes. What would happen in our communities today if more Christians practiced hospitality by opening their doors to friends and neighbors so they could share Jesus’ love with them?
Struggles on the Campaign Trail
Not everyone was so warm and friendly. Every effort was made to get me to withdraw from the race. Twice people shot at me as I carried the cross. Another time a man waved a gun in my face.
The Lord would not even allow me to have a driver for my van. I slept in the van at night and then carried the cross fifteen to twenty miles the next day. Then I looked for a house or business where I could leave the cross overnight. If I was unsuccessful, I hid the cross in bushes beside the road. Then I hitchhiked to my van parked fifteen or twenty miles back.
Sometimes I had to stand by the road for an hour or two before someone gave me a ride. My appearance began looking very unpresidential when I had to stand in the pouring rain.
“Where are you going?” people asked me as they stopped.
“Oh, about twenty miles up the road.”
“Whatever are you doing out here in this bad weather?”
I didn’t want to tell them I was running for president. I would pray: “Lord, let me witness to them about you. I don’t mind sharing about the cross, but if I tell them I’m running for president, they’ll think I’m crazy! Why do You humiliate me? You know what they’ll think. No one will vote for a wet, poor, cross-carrying hitchhiker anyway. Why do you make me do this? You won’t let me take money or even get a driver for my van. I can’t win this way.”
But Jesus was not swayed by my logic. “Tell them what you’re doing,” He would say. So I did.
“Well, I’ve been carrying a twelve-foot cross around the world since 1969. I was in Africa when God called me to come back to America and run for president.”
“Run for president? President of what?”
“President of the United States. I’m on the ballot!”
Each time this happened, I felt God was humbling me so he could exalt himself and make me into a better man. But at times I felt God had another purpose, too. Perhaps he was using me to change the course of history.
Challenging Jimmy Carter
Twice during the campaign I spoke with Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia who eventually won both the Democratic Party nomination and the general election. One day when we were eating in the same restaurant in New Hampshire, I walked over to his table and said hello.
“Hello, Arthur,” he said, greeting me by name.
After a few moments of exchanging pleasantries, I came right to the point. “Mr. Carter, you know why I am running for president. I’m raising the issue of each candidate’s relationship with God. Do you know Jesus as your Savior?”
He smiled and looked nervously at the reporters who were nearby. “You know I’m a Baptist and you know what that means,” he said.
“Yes, I think I do, but why don’t you just say that you are saved or born again? I feel sure you really are. Why not just say so?”
Carter looked away. It seemed as if he was getting annoyed. I pressed on. “You can change history by sharing about your relationship with Jesus. There are huge numbers of voters in America who are very interested in this question. I’m going after them. You know about the attention I’m getting. Most people won’t vote for me because they know I can’t win. But they would vote for you if you were up-front about your faith in Jesus. I’m going to pray that I will stay in the running until someone responds to this issue. God bless you and may He give you the courage to break down this wall.”
I wish I could tell you that after this meeting, candidate Carter started speaking about his faith. That didn’t happen. However, shortly after the Florida primary he did speak openly about being “born again.” Carter never talked to me about what he did this, but I believe he saw the impact of my campaign and concluded that people did care about his faith.
Character was an important factor in the 1976 presidential election. President Richard Nixon had resigned in 1974, following the Watergate scandal, with Vice President Gerald Ford completing the rest of Nixon’s term. Americans wanted a president who had solid character and strong moral values. Carter’s frank and open discussion of his faith helped convince many voters he was the man for the job. It also confirmed to me that my mission to help interject the questions of the presidential candidates’ relationship with God was accomplished. I left the United States to carry the cross in Canada and then on to the far side of the world. I was in Australia during the general election in November.
A Complex Legacy
Here’s what is said about me in the archives section of the New Hampshire Political Library website a:
“This evangelist street preacher was a precursor of the ‘Christian right.’ He was not politically motivated; rather he promoted religion all over the world. He campaigned in New Hampshire by dragging a huge wooden cross on a large wheel wherever he traveled.”
I’m not sure I like being called a precursor of the Christian Right, but I do think I had an impact on the 1976 election – and perhaps political candidates have addressed issues of faith ever since. And sometimes that thought worries me.
My fundamental reason for running for president was to demonstrate that voters want to know what candidates for public office believe in their hearts about God. Are they followers of Jesus? Do they try to apply the values of their faith to the decisions – large and small – that they make every day?
If I had a role in making politicians more up-front about their faith, I am pleased. But I have been less pleased by the efforts of some believers to attach the “Christian” label to a long list of issues that seem to have little to do with Jesus. Does Jesus favor capital punishment? Does Jesus want America to declare war on another country? Does Jesus like Republicans more than Democrats?
It’s good for followers of Jesus to have convictions and opinions about these issues and to discuss their views with passion and energy. But, I’m troubled by the tendency of some believers to wrap Jesus around all their pet political issues. Transforming Jesus from a Savior to a politician is harmful; it diverts people’s attention from the real Jesus, who loves and cares for them.
In his day, Jesus was called a friend of sinners. Men and women of all kinds could go to him and find love, friendship, forgiveness and a new life. Sinners kissed him. They washed his feet. He ate and drank with them. Through it all, Jesus was known for his love and tenderness and compassion for people with hurts and needs. His call to the hurting and sinful was simple and loving: “Come unto me and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:29, author’s words). But in the years since the 1976 election, some believers have increasingly attached Jesus to a series of divisive political issues. I’m convinced that this has done great harm to the witness of Jesus and has hindered many individuals from coming to Jesus for the love and forgiveness they need.
Sinners who need and want Jesus are sometimes pushed away by being made to feel they are despised or rejected by Christians simply because of the differences in political parties or policies. Jesus’ ministry was one of love and mercy. Today some Christians condemn people who hold the “anti-Christian” position on a long list of political issues. In my experience, it is hard to mix mercy with condemnation. The world doesn’t need a pointed finger of condemnation, but rather an outreached hand of love.
Do you remember the song that says, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” That’s how non-Christian people should know us – not by our legislative agenda. Our public pronouncements should be like those of Paul, who said: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).
I am thankful that our democracy allows Christians to be citizens who participate in the political process. However, I believe we must be careful not to allow our spiritual and moral convictions to be exploited and politicized by vote-hungry politicians. And we should not embrace our political views so tightly that they prevent us from embracing the men and women Jesus wants to love through us.