The current divisive and coarse nature of American politics has been raised by some prominent evangelical leaders because it has left so many Bible-believing, gospel-loving Christians questioning their political responsibilities. A pastor…Timothy Keller…once said, “To not be political is to be political”. Confusing? Not really. By this he rebukes those who avoid political conversations for fear of being perceived as ‘too political’. But as he points out, avoiding politics altogether is a tacit endorsement of the status quo which might include social conditions that perpetuate flagrant injustice. Historical examples include nineteenth-century churches that refused to denounce slavery and mid-twentieth-century churches that remained silent on Jim Crow laws. By refraining from becoming ‘too political’, these churches, by de facto, supported evil institutions and laws.
Another example is the Church of England in South Africa (CESA) and their approach to apartheid (1948-1994). Although the Church sought to take an ‘apolitical’ stance, this pretense of neutrality allowed the CESA to be misled into accepting a social, economic, and political system that was cruel and oppressive. By trying to not be political, the church effectively baptized the status quo and countenanced a system that tolerated profound injustice. The German church’s capitulation to the Nazis in the 1930’s represents a similar failure. By not denouncing Hitler’s explicitly anti-Christian ideology, pastors failed to shepherd their churches during a time when faithful Christian discipleship was needed. The overarching goal of cultural engagement is being a faithful presence in the community and in electoral politics. This is just one of the many ways to live out the Bible’s command to love thy neighbor. The church’s mission must never be equated with the platform of a political party, but it should do its part in encouraging cordial discourse and preach frequently on moral issues. In some churches, biblical moral issues have pastors fearful of offending congregants who themselves may attend church on Sunday and live in sin the rest of the week.
So it comes down to the question as to whether Christians should vote? Prior to a recently past election, one Christian leader…pastor…expressed discomfort with hosting voter registration drives or providing voter guides to his congregation because he believed it communicated that direct participation in the political process is ‘what Christians should do’. (At least he had that right.) He believed that ‘voting is a good thing’, but he did not think it was prudent for the church to go beyond praying for candidates and preaching on moral issues. While he was on the right path, does this approach fall short of what full-orbed Christian discipleship requires?
In representative democracies like the United States, the locus of power is the citizenry; the government derives its authority from the people. Unlike billions of people around the world, Americans, through the ballot box, control their political future. We are stewards of that future, just like we are stewards of everything else God has given us. In Romans 13, according to Paul, government is ordained by God to promote good and restrain evil. ( In today’s world that assignment seems to have been somewhat lost.) God authorizes the government to wield the sword for the administration of justice. (Once again that authority seems to have come into question.) A truth with far reaching implications emerges for Christian political engagement. Voting is an exercise in delegating God-ordained authority. By voting, Christians are entrusting their ‘sword bearing’ responsibility to officials who will govern on their behalf. From this viewpoint, voting is a matter of stewardship; failure to vote is a failure to exercise God-given authority. Failure to educate one’s self on the issues to be considered is also a failure of responsibility. It is simply not enough for pastors to hope their congregations are informed about candidates and issues. If the act of voting is the act of delegating the exercise of the sword, pastors should communicate to their members: “This is what Christians should do.” Given the unavoidable role of politics and the direct, real-world impact that the state’s decisions have on people’s lives, downplaying the responsibility to vote amounts to a failure in Christian discipleship and neglects to offer comprehensive love of neighbor. Unfortunately, today the reality of what is being taught in seminaries…known by some as ‘cemeteries’…is of questionable nature and results from a liberal modification of the Word of God or total disregard.
Love of neighbor must be embodied in all aspects of life. Can Christians really care for their neighbors if they don’t engage in politics, the arena where a society’s basic rights and freedoms are shaped? Given the United States’ outsized influence in the world, how can American Christians love the people of the nations without having a vested interest in how their own government approaches the issue of religious liberty and human rights worldwide? Through their vote, Americans determine who will represent their country abroad as well as the values that will be exported around the world. Will America’s ambassadors be stalwart defenders of those engaged in religious expression and vigorously advocate for their rights? Will abortion, under the guise of ‘family planning’, be funded overseas by American taxpayers or will US foreign policy value the life of the unborn? American believers, through exercising their right to vote, have a direct say in these issues.
Pastors should exhort their members to be involved in the political process and to vote. They should help educate and equip their members to think biblically about political issues, candidates, and party platforms. Much of this equipping and educating could be effected through the regular rhythms and liturgies of the church. In many congregations this might mean making voter guides and other educational material available. If such considerations make some in church leadership a bit squeamish, we must recall a proper understanding of ‘politics’…that of deciding how to best organize the affairs of the community and love one another. When we realize that politics is at the core of how we love our neighbor as we live and order our lives together, we understand there is no reason to shy away from becoming informed about how to vote. We must make room for discussion and disagreement on certain issues within the body of Christ. We must not avoid talking about them altogether. It is not enough to espouse concern for human dignity but not support policies and candidates who will fight to overturn profound moral wrongs.
As we faithfully seek how best to engage in politics, we also have to grapple with the reality of voting in the current context of our two-party system. Next week we will look at how that complicated challenge can be approached.
“Pastors should help educate and equip their congregational members to think biblically about political issues, candidates, and party platforms.” Family Research Council