With November rapidly approaching, and with it one of the most divisive elections in history, I’ve experienced a lot of inner conflict. The question I’ve been asking myself is this: how active ought a Christian to be in American politics?
I grew up in a culture that taught it was inappropriate for a Christian leader to engage in political dialog. Politics should stay out of the pulpit at all costs. But ironically, I also grew up in a culture that viewed Christian ethics and the political right as synonymous. So here’s my struggle. As someone feeling the call to ministry, how do I walk this tightrope? How do I appropriately engage or disengage in American politics? And how do we as a church divorce ourselves from the far right?
What If Paul Could Vote?
We don’t find much in the New Testament that tells us how to live in a democratic republic. This is to be expected, since the writers of the New Testament lived under the reign of the Roman Empire. But I often wonder what Paul would think if someone travelled back in time and told him that some day all citizens, even Christians, would have a voice in determining the policies and leaders of our own empire.
At the end of the day, we just don’t know how Paul would react. As such, Christian denominations and individuals all take a different approach. Which is totally fine and to be expected. We’re all trying to be as faithful as we can be. We’re all trying to live out our faith in the public arena. We’re all just trying to figure it out.
Perhaps Paul, given this piece of knowledge from the future, would say Christians should refuse their vote and not participate in imperial politics at all. After all, even though we live in the empire, our citizenship is in the kingdom of God.
Or maybe Paul would recognize that an individual Christian’s vote wouldn’t matter much, and the real power in this new system of governing would lie in the church agreeing to cast their votes with one voice. Perhaps if the church focused on only one issue and made that issue their political compass, the church could affect real policy change in the world.
Both of these stances can be argued and have been argued. But I think there’s serious issues with them. Honestly, there’s going to be serious issues with any stance. This is a messy subject. But in this blog post, I want to outline my own train of thought on the subject. I’m not saying this is the right way for Christians to engage in politics. I’m not sure there is a right way. This is just the way that makes sense to me.
The Goal of the Church and the Goal of the State
Separation of church and state is necessary for a secular government seeking to serve all people. But in reality, the church and the state are not all that separate. The state makes policies that directly affect the life of the church. The church affects change that, one hopes, leads to change and transformation within the state. But the church and the state may be even more connected than that. I believe the church and the state have the same ultimate goal.
The church is focused on the Kingdom of God, with a goal to work alongside God to bring his kingdom here. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The state is focused on the Kingdom of America, with a goal to make this country the best that it can be. We the people, in order to form a more perfect Union, etc., etc.
The focus is different, the underlying reasons are different, and the methodology is different, but the goal is the same. We’re all trying to make the world a better place.
So, should Christians engage in the politics of the state? The heart of this question is actually this: is engaging in the politics of the state a legitimate avenue for Christians to take in their efforts to continue the work of Christ in the world? And if so, how?
One of the simplest answers to these questions is, “no.” Political engagement is not a legitimate avenue for Christians. This is the “citizens of heaven, not of this world” argument. This way of thinking does have its merits. It’s always a good reminder that this current world is not our home. However, as I mentioned earlier, I do see some serious problems.
This is an example of a Christ against culture outlook. If you’re not familiar with what I’m referring to, I’m using the language from the classic work by Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. In this book, Niebuhr outlines five major views on the relationship between the church and culture. Christ against culture is the understanding that the church should be separate from culture. The church and the world are completely against each other. And this is true to an extent; the world is oriented against the church. But on the other hand, the church is not oriented against the world. The world is God’s creation, and our focus as the church should be on redemption over against rejection. Full separation from our culture is not necessary, nor is it preferred. As the body of Christ in the world, we must be fully engaged in our world, bringing about transformation from the inside out.
A beautiful biblical picture of what it looks like to live as God’s holy and set apart people in the midst of an evil world can be found in the Old Testament. Yep, I’m talking about the Babylonian Exile. Let’s check it out.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
In other words? Live your lives. True, Bablyon isn’t your final home. Yes, you’re Israelites first. Yes, you are citizens of my Kingdom before you are a citizen of Babylon. But settle down. Build houses. Take wives. Seek the welfare of wherever you find yourself. If the plane goes down, you’re going down with it.
With this background, let’s return to our thought experiment with the apostle Paul and his time-traveling friend. If Paul knew that someday Christians would have the power to shape the culture of their countries, I have a hard time believing Paul would tell us to refrain from exercising that power. I believe Paul would be excited at the potential Christians would have to take part in shaping their nation, in making their voices heard, and in seeking the welfare of the wider world beyond the church.
So yes, I think Christians should exercise their right to vote. That’s a good starting point for how Christians ought to be politically involved. But how do we do that?
Single Issue Voting
So we’ve established that we should vote. Great! But how? Should each individual vote their conscious? Or should the church as a whole go into political engagement in one accord, with one mind?
Here’s the bottom line. It’s impossible for everyone in the church to agree on everything. Sometimes it’s impossible to agree on anything! That said, if only the church had a single issue to be our kind of “litmus test” for political candidates and policies that we should support, that would make things easier. If one black and white, yes or no issue helped us to instantly decide how we should cast our votes, we wouldn’t be in disagreement. We could stand united. We would be an unstoppable force of political change in our culture.
No. The choice to not vote is problematic. But I think the choice to vote based on a single issue is even more dangerous. There are so many issues with this that it probably deserves its own blog post. But let me give it a shot here.
Alright, just to be 100% clear, we’re talking about abortion. When we use the phrase “single issue voters” in America, especially when Christians are the subject, we’re talking about abortion. Okay, there’s the elephant in the room, and here are some of the problems with it.
First, and most obvious, there are so many more problems in our country than one single issue. When we focus in on one topic, that of abortion, there are so many other important topics that go ignored.
Second, this mindset can be easily taken advantage of, and is taken advantage of all the time. If a candidate wants to instantly win the support of thousands of people, all they have to say is “Hey, I’m pro life!” It doesn’t matter what the rest of their policies are. As long as they have that one single issue down, they have all the single-issue voters in their pocket.
Third, it’s a red herring. This goes hand-in-hand with the last point, but single issue voting can lead to distraction from bigger and more important policy changes. When it comes to abortion, nothing is ever going to change. Continuing to vote only for politicians who claim to be pro life is only going to distract voters from investigating other more important issues that actually can lead to important transformation in our culture.
Fourth, it’s divisive. Like I said, Christians are never going to agree on everything. There are going to be some Christians who just disagree with the majority of the church’s stance on the single issue. What happens when a Christian takes a pro choice stance? In my experience, they are typically ridiculed and condemned. Setting up a system where all Christians are expected to vote a certain way on a single issue just builds barriers between Christians that shouldn’t exist. It forces Christians into a dogmatic box, a modern American creed, that does more damage than good.
There is so much wrong with the political discourse in our country surrounding the topic of abortion, and I’m not going to go into that here. I’m trying to stick to the idea of single-issue voting in general. But something we need to recognize is that we’re not all going to agree, and that’s okay. We need a level of political engagement in the church that invites all Christians from every walk of life and political wing to use their voice, to speak out against injustice, to call for positive transformation, and to fight for the welfare of our nation. Not because we are Americans first and Christians second. But because we are image bearers of the God of all creation. That level of complexity just can’t happen if we are concerned with a single issue.
So if you’re following my train of thought, and if you agree with me, here is where we stand. Christians ought to exercise their right to vote in a way that brings about the welfare of our nation. That is, as long as the goal of the state lines up with the goal of the church, to create a more perfect world that reflects the values of God’s kingdom. The way we exercise that right is not by focusing in on one single issue. We must have a political environment in our churches and in our world characterized by complexity. Only this political complexity can make enough room for all Christians from all walks of life to freely engage in the public arena. Here’s what I think is so great about political complexities, and really, any kind of complexity: it encourages conversation.
Single-issue voting does not encourage conversation. It’s the easy way out. It’s the lazy way out. Actually, it’s just the way out. It’s a great way to close the door on any candidate, on any political party, on any person, and on any potential conversation.
Hear me out. I’m not saying if you’re pro life, you’re lazy. That’s not it at all. However, if you’re pro life and if you will only ever vote for pro life candidates, and you will only ever have productive conversations with other people who are pro life, and if you refuse to conduct any further investigation, and if you ignore every other issue in our country, then you’re not really engaging in political discourse at all. You’re checking out. And yes, it works both ways. I’m merely using pro life as an example because that’s the classic single-issue issue.
At the end of the day, embracing complexity doesn’t mean compromising your morals. It means recognizing that the world is not black and white and that other people see the same issues as you from a different perspective. That political candidates and individual policies have more depth than a single issue mindset allows. And that conversation in the public arena is more transformative for our culture than dogmatic, closed-minded arguments.
The key, then, to political engagement for Christians is embracing complexity.
When we embrace complexity, we’re able to see past the surface level red herrings and come to a deeper understanding of the issues plaguing our society. Systemic racism. Greed. Oppression. Xenophobia. Pillars of our society that fly in the face of the Gospel preached by Jesus. Injustices against other human beings made in God’s image that fly in the face of Christians in exile seeking the welfare of the place they temporarily call home.
These are complex issues that cut deep to the heart of what we’re supposed to be doing as Christians. Taking care of the poor, the widow, the orphan. Welcoming the stranger. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Loving our neighbors.
Earlier we talked about the goal of the state and the goal of the church. As long as the state is attempting to create a more perfect union, our goals are aligned. But as Christians, our understanding of what it means to make a more perfect union is often at odds with the world. So now I want to examine some America-first mindsets that seem to have seeped into the church’s understanding of what it means to be a good citizen.
The American Dream is not a Christian ideal. Capitalism is not a Christian ideal. The free market is not a Christian ideal. Seeking to build wealth is not a Christian ideal. Climbing the corporate ladder is not a Christian ideal. Individualism is not a Christian ideal. America first is not a Christian ideal. Patriotism is not a Christian ideal. Pledging undivided allegiance to an empire is not a Christian ideal.
So when I say that Christians ought to be engaged in American politics, I’m not saying that Christians ought to embrace their inner American. Seeking the welfare of our temporary home and fully devoting ourselves to the empire are two very different concepts. I can imagine Paul actively taking part in the political process. I can imagine Paul being involved in public political discourse. I can even imagine Paul urging Christian leaders to run for political office. But I can’t imagine Paul pledging allegiance to the Roman flag, singing songs about the beautiful mountains of Rome, and losing his mind at a Caesar rally.
In America, political figures have become heroes of sorts. Celebrities that represent something much bigger than themselves. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are more than just men. They have come to be a symbol representing everything that their platforms stand for and their opponents stand against. Obsession with a political figure, blind adherence to a political platform, and uninformed straight-party voting has become just as dangerous as the single-issue mindset.
So what’s the way forward? I have no idea.
Embracing Complexity Means Informing Ourselves
For Christians, the political process should be a means to an end. A vehicle to creating a better world. Not an inroad to heretical America-first theologies. It’s a tool, and it can be a useful tool. But it’s a dangerous tool that must be well wielded. That said, it is better for a Christian to forfeit their vote than to vote uninformed, to vote straight-party, or to vote with a single-issue mindset. Let me say that one more time for the people in the back: it is better for a Christian to not vote at all than for a Christian to vote poorly.
So investigate. Ask questions. Read. Pray. Converse. And vote. Don’t go in uninformed. Don’t blindly follow one party or another. Don’t vote based on a single issue.
Here are some guidelines for how to cast an informed vote that you may or may not agree with, and that’s okay. I’m not trying to convince you to adhere to my political beliefs with this blog post. I’m just trying to get you to see how the American political process can align our role as citizens of God’s Kingdom.
- Don’t vote for America-First policies. As I mentioned earlier, America-First is not a Christian ideal and does not further the Kingdom of God.
- Don’t vote for greedy policies. Building wealth? Not a Christian ideal. The economy is a hot topic for political pundits. But cast your vote for policies that will benefit the poor and the needy and not those that will benefit the rich.
- Don’t cast your vote based on one issue. I’ve beaten this concept enough. Don’t vote for a candidate based on his or her response to a single issue. Hold everything in balance and make judgments based on a candidate’s whole platform.
- Don’t cast your vote for a Christian. I’m not necessarily saying your shouldn’t vote for a Christian. I would love to see more Christians engaged in American politics. But don’t vote for someone simply because they’re a Christian. Remember, our goal here is to seek the welfare of America. Not to turn America into a Christian nation. Christians and non-Christians alike can further this agenda. Vote for the platform as a whole, not for the candidate’s characteristics.
- Don’t cast your vote for policies that benefit you. Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard is to vote in ways that will benefit the most vulnerable person you know. Vote for policies that will benefit the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the stranger, the voiceless, the oppressed. Because when you vote for policies that aid the least of these, you vote for policies that aid Jesus.
So go forth. Vote well. Converse well. Embrace complexity. Above all, love your neighbor. They will know who we are not by how high we fly our star-spangled banners. They will know who we are not by which candidates we support. They will know who we are not by the lines we draw in the sand or the walls we build on our borders. They will know we are Christians by our love.