Voting as Christian Discipleship: Participation in political process is opportunity, responsibility
When I was growing up, the "rule" was that politics and religion were never discussed in polite company. Seeing how the level of political discourse has sunk to gutter level and observing the high animosity and even violence between partisans in this election, one can understand why that "rule" was established!
Yet, the challenge remains for us as Christians: Should we participate in the political process that governs our country (from local school board to U.S. president), and if so, how?
Christians have had an ambivalent relationship with politics in the United States. In colonial times, preachers often spoke on political issues of the day. In the mid-1800s, many preachers (including many Methodists) promoted the abolition of slavery from the pulpit and supported the Civil War as a holy war against slavery. African-American congregations have often been involved in the political process, inviting candidates to speak, endorsing candidates and even lifting up clergy as political leaders.
At the same time, many churches avoided political issues in the 20th century, encouraged by the cultural emphasis on separation of church and state to compartmentalize that part of life out of the church. It was a big shift when evangelicals became politically active through the Moral Majority in the 1980s. However, that political involvement did not characterize all evangelical churches. Many look at the political process as dirty and abhor the need to compromise in order to govern.
Politics and government are part of our lives, however, and Jesus Christ wants to be lord of all of life, not just certain parts. We live in a democracy that is self-governing, which means that in the largest sense we are the government. Recognizing Christ's lordship, we have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to participate in the process that shapes our government and the policies of our city, schools, state and country. We do that through casting informed votes and through voicing our perspective on issues of concern. Jeremiah 29:7 invites us to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (NIV).
One of the criticisms of Christians becoming involved in politics is that we are "forcing our values" on everyone else. We need to understand that all laws and government policies reflect the values of the people who enact them. There is no such thing as "value-neutral" government. And if we believe in the Christian values like love, patience, grace, responsibility, self-control and others, we ought to promote those values for the betterment of society. Nobody is forcing any values on anyone. Rather, we are attempting to persuade others to adopt values and/or policies that we believe will lead to the betterment of our society.
It is important for Christians to guard against equating a certain political party as being THE Christian party. A person doesn't need to be a Republican or a Democrat to be a Christian. Each party represents one approach to solving the country's problems. Often, the parties agree on the goal but disagree on how to get there. Sometimes, the parties propose different visions of what they want our country to be. Neither party will perfectly reflect Christian goals or values. Our task as Jesus followers is to determine as best we can which party or candidates most closely reflect our values on the issues we believe are most important from a Christian perspective. This requires paying ongoing attention to the process and policies of government, not just in the two weeks prior to an election, and evaluating those policies in the light of biblical principles.
In the 1980s, one of the top issues of concern was the possibility of nuclear war, with the attendant destruction of the planet. Both parties had the same goal of security, peace and preserving the planet. One party believed the best way to pursue that goal was through nuclear disarmament, perhaps even being willing to disarm unilaterally. The other party believed the best approach was "peace through strength," using the nation's nuclear arsenal to deter armed conflict. The goal was one that all Christians could agree on. The differing approaches to reaching that goal were what John Wesley would have called "prudential decisions," ones on which Christians of good faith could disagree, ones where the Bible does not have a clear-cut answer. It is on these prudential matters that we need to have the humility to realize we could be wrong, and the grace to accept the perspective of brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.
For Christians, perhaps the most distressing aspect of political campaigns is the lying, name calling, mudslinging and personal attacks that do not help us determine the qualifications and policy ideas of the candidates. Our country has become so polarized that we now divide ourselves off from those who do not share our political views. This division and antagonism between the parties extends even into the church, disrupting congregational life and foreclosing opportunities for fellowship, witness and cooperative ministry.
John Wesley famously advised his parishioners how to conduct themselves in an election:
- To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy;
- To speak no evil of the person they voted against; And,
- To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side. (Journal, Oct. 6, 1774)
How we engage with each other in the political process is just as much a reflection of our discipleship as the particular conclusions we draw on various issues or candidates. At all times, we ought to embody the Spirit of Christ, treating each other with love, humility and respect.
The Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president and general manager of Good News. An elder and member of the Wisconsin Conference, he is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served various-sized congregations and fulfilled leadership roles within the Wisconsin Conference.