When President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney debated foreign policy in Florida on Monday, they sparred over which man would better handle the threat of nuclear breakout in Iran -- despite the fact that their differences on the issue are more a matter of rhetorical emphasis than substance.
But Iran is only the tip of the nuclear threat iceberg in our post-Cold War environment.
Our next president, in addition to managing nuclear crises, must have a comprehensive vision for an era that former Senator Sam Nunn calls a race between "cooperation and catastrophe."
We should remember the moral stakes of electing the person with a "finger on the button": every four years, Americans entrust a single individual with control over weapons that could destroy all human life.
Voters are entitled to know what values will guide how the candidates handle the power of omnicide, which renders immanent the theological admonition of the Biblical book of Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
In other words, we need "nuclear values voters" to demand a moral accounting of the candidates' nuclear policies.
A historic religious consensus
From a religious perspective, the 2012 election is historically unique in respect to nuclear ethics.
The major umbrella organizations of American Christianity - the National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and the National Council of Churches (NCC) - are not known for aligning on social issues. However, following the adoption of a new policy position by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) last year, the three groups are essentially unanimous, for the first time in American history, in their recommendations on nuclear weapons.
They have separately urged that faithful citizens support:
- Maintaining the absolute taboo against the use of nuclear weapons as an organizing principle for nuclear policy;
- Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban nuclear testing worldwide;
- Advancing nuclear disarmament through verifiable, multilateral reductions in global arsenals;
- Recalibrating U.S. nuclear policy to post-Cold War realities, including enhanced safeguards against accidental use of nuclear weapons;
- Taking leadership in securing bomb-capable material from terrorists;
- Reconsidering the morality and utility of a policy of nuclear deterrence that holds millions of lives in the balance.
More than seventy percent of American citizens identify with a denomination represented by one of these three bodies. Their positions serve as reflections of the modes of thought and values that guide Americans in their ethical judgments. And they reflect the riches of a two-thousand-year-old treasury of Christian moral thinking on peace and war, which is worthy in its own right.
How the candidates line up
Mr. Obama declared in 2009 that the U.S. "seeks the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons." He then signed the New START agreement with Russia, bringing both countries' nuclear arsenals to historic lows; convened an international nuclear security summit to prevent nuclear terrorism; and named the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as a priority.
A key question is whether he will use a current review of Pentagon strategy to create a nuclear security policy based on 21st-century realities - as a letter from 116 faith and political leaders recently urged him to do.
Mr. Romney opposed New START, has named Russia as America's chief geopolitical rival, and has declared (as has Mr. Obama) that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. But his platform's vision for an "American Century" does not articulate the holistic focus on nuclear security that our historical moment demands.
Should Mr. Romney win the election, it will be interesting to see how and whether the values of his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- which has been historically reticent on national security issues -- might begin to inform a broader set of concerns, including nuclear weapons.
Religious doctrine shouldn't dictate foreign policy for a pluralist society. But given the importance of religion to American public life, both candidates owe the nation an explanation of how they will advance a nuclear security strategy that accounts for the moral lights guiding a supermajority of Americans.
From a Christian perspective, such leadership would yield a double portion of justice and peace: it would make the world safer by moving away from a reliance on a dangerous and militarily useless nuclear arsenal, and save hundreds of billions of dollars that could be redirected toward alleviating human suffering.
The Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founding director of the Two Futures Project, a movement of American Christians for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and the author of the forthcoming The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good.