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Probe Ministries > Engaging the Culture > Public Policy > Voting and Christian Citizenship


Voting and Christian Citizenship: A Biblical View Print E-mail

Byron Barlowe

Written by Byron Barlowe

Applying a biblical worldview to your voting choices is an important part of your role as a citizen.  Byron Barlowe looks at how Christians should exercies their right to vote and make biblically informed decisions in the voting booth.

Summary

It is both a sacred duty and privilege for Christians to serve as citizens who salt (preserve) and light (illumine) our culture. Americans have inherited a government system based solidly on a biblical worldview, but one that also tolerates and protects other viewpoints. Truly humble, tolerant political engagement does not equal spiritual compromise. Christians found out how seductive political power can be in the 1980s and need to resist the pull of compromise. God doesn't take sides; we need to make sure we're on His side.

Download the Podcast Although a strongly biblical candidate may be ideal, that's not often a realistic option. Instead, we must use our sanctified minds to prayerfully choose between imperfect candidates—who are not, after all, seeking pastoral positions. Believers have a duty to vote our values. How else would we vote? Our calling: not to force those values on others in a free society, but to honor the privileges of citizenship, including legitimate political influence, and to vote our convictions.

Christian Citizenship: A Duty and Privilege

One pundit wrote fifteen months before the 2008 election, "If you're not already weary of the 2008 presidential campaign . . . you must be living in a cave.... The campaign began the day after the 2004 election, making this the first non-stop presidential campaign in history. The media, desperate to sustain interest in the horse race, pursue such earth-shattering stories as: ‘Which candidate owns the most pets?'"{1}

Then, a new kind of Internet-age debate featured Democratic presidential candidates responding to home-grown videos posted to YouTube.com by members of the public. Among them: two Tennesseans dressed like hillbillies and a snowman, ostensibly concerned about global warming!

Hard to take politics seriously given all of the theater, isn't it? But political engagement—including voting—is a God-given, blood-bought right that Christians must take seriously. We are called by the Lord Jesus to be preserving salt and illuminating light in our culture. And it's not just presidential races that matter.

Kerby Anderson, in an article entitled "Politics and Religion," wrote, "Christian obedience goes beyond calling for spiritual renewal. We have often failed to ask the question, ‘What do we do if hearts are not changed?' Because government is ordained of God, we need to consider ways to legitimately use governmental power. Christians have a high stake in making sure government acts justly and makes decisions that provide maximum freedom for the furtherance of the gospel."{2} Some believe we have a cultural mandate to redeem not only men's souls, but the works of culture including politics.

Yet, Christians remain on the sidelines in alarming numbers.

According to one poll before the 2004 elections, "only a third of evangelical Christians—those who ought to be most concerned with moral values—[said they would] actually vote." But the Bible says a lot about believers' duties as citizens. "When Moses commanded the Israelites to appoint God-fearing leaders, he wasn't just talking to a handful of citizens who felt like getting involved.... And modern Christians are under the same obligation to choose leaders who love justice.... Today, in our modern democracy, free citizens act as God's agents for choosing leaders, and we do it by voting."{3}

As believers, we're citizens of two kingdoms: one temporal and earthly, the other eternal and heavenly. We are called to participate in both the culture and politics of The City of Man, as this world was called by Augustine, while primarily focusing on the Kingdom of God.

The longevity and value of these dual kingdoms ought to serve as crucial guides to how invested we become in them. Eternal issues matter more than temporal ones. To allow politics and social issues to overtake our commitments to the everlasting is to risk idolatry, while losing ground in both realms.

Flipping the usual focus of candidates' qualifications onto the electorate, one Christian columnist wrote, "Those who make critical decisions for America (its voters, I mean) should come up to some minimal standards before leaving the house on Election Day. Voters should be able to tell the difference between worldviews.... Voters should be free of regionalism and other types of ‘group-think'.... Vocations, unions, ethnic groups and age groups that vote in lockstep are not behaving as free people. Citizens whose consciences are ruled by others should not govern a free nation... Voters should value their vote, but not sell it." {4}

It didn't take Albert Einstein to say it, but he did say "It is the duty of every citizen according to his best capacities to give validity to his convictions in political affairs."{5}

Chuck Colson, convicted Watergate felon, said, "All you have to do is lose the right to vote once, and you would never again find any excuse for not going into the voting booth.... Be a good citizen: Exercise the greatest right a free people have [sic]."{6}

God's will and Kingdom will not be thwarted, and we cannot ultimately control outcomes, even as a voting bloc. As Christian citizens in America, we need to offer due diligence in voting and other political activities, trust God with the results, and keep spiritual concerns first.

Puritan Roots, Pluralism & Practical Politics

In 2007, for the first time a Hindu priest opened Senate deliberations with prayer. I asked a group of Christian homeschool parents gathered to discuss America's political system if they could justify forbidding this, and no one could answer satisfactorily. Pluralism—when a culture supports various ethnic backgrounds, religions and political views—is a practical and, understood correctly, appropriate reality.

Americans—believers and non-believers alike—have inherited a system of governance based solidly on the Bible, but allowing for a plurality of beliefs or even unbelief. The Puritans who first colonized this land "saw themselves as the new Israel, an elect people."{7}

The architects of our political arrangement, many of them professing Christians, were deeply influenced by the Puritan's positive cultural impact and the Scriptures to which they appealed. Daniel Webster said, "Our ancestors established their system of government on morality and religious sentiment."{8} John Quincy Adams said, "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity." George Washington, a devoted Christian, left room for others: "While just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion affords to government its surest support."{9}

Probe's Mind Games curriculum points out the realism of the founders in mitigating the imperfections of people even as they self-rule. "Again, we can see the genius of the American system. Madison and others realized the futility of trying to remove passions (human sinfulness) from the population. Therefore, he proposed that human nature be set against human nature. This was done by separating various institutional power structures."{10} This was based on a biblical understanding of man, a proper anthropology.

So, how can such a firmly entrenched Judeo-Christian political heritage be reconciled with a culture increasingly full of Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, humanists, and other unbelievers living alongside Christians?

The Constitution and Bill of Rights justly allows for religious and political diversity. Nineteenth-century theologian Charles Hodge of Princeton regarding immigrants said:

All are welcomed; all are admitted to equal rights and privileges. All are allowed to acquire property, whatever their religious feelings, and to vote in every election, made eligible to all offices and invested with equal influence in all public affairs. All are allowed to worship as they please, or not to worship at all, if they see fit.... No man is required to profess any form of faith.... More than this cannot reasonably be demanded.{11}

Theologian Richard J. Mouw explored the possibility of evangelical politics that doesn't compromise and at the same is time highly tolerant of other views. Not "anything-goes relativism," but rather confidence that comes from God's guidebook for life, tempered by fair-minded ways of dealing with people. He wrote, "This humility does not exclude Christians advocating social and political policies that conflict with the views and practices of others. It does mean we should do so in a way that encourages reasonable dialogue and mutual respect."{12}

Believers need to consider the words of Bernard Crick: "Politics is a way of ruling in divided societies without undue violence.... Politics is not just a necessary evil; it is a realistic good." Kenyans victimized by recent mob killings that erupted after disputed elections could testify that when the political process fails it can be devastating.

The founders, even as they envisioned pluralism, did not themselves have to deal deeply with it. It requires a keen worldview for voting and activism in today's truly pluralistic America. Our nation is based on an unmistakable Christian foundation, but that of course doesn't mean you have to be a Christian or even believe in God to participate.

Political Might and the Religious Right: Does God Take Sides?

Ever since Jimmy Carter ran for President based partly on his evangelical faith in the 1970s, and then the Moral Majority took the nation by storm in the ‘80s, there has been a non-stop discussion in America surrounding faith and politics.

Political power's seduction blinded believers, claim former movers and shakers like Ed Dobson. "One of the dangers," he said, "of mixing politics and religion is that you begin to think the only way to transform culture is by passing another law. Most of what we did in the Moral Majority was aimed at getting the right people elected so that we would have enough votes to pass the right laws."{13}

In those days, Christians seemed to believe they could legislate and administrate God's kingdom into full flower. However, core issues like gay unions and abortion remain largely unchanged or even worse today.

"History has shown us we can't rely totally on laws," continued Dobson.{14} A good example is Prohibition. The harder the government cracked down on alcohol, the more ways people found to get around the law. One result was increased crime. Laws don't change hearts; they are meant to restrain evil.

Sidling up to political power brokers even for commendable causes can prove disillusioning. Recently, conservative Christians hoped for fair and full consideration from the administration of the boldly evangelical George Bush. According to former White House deputy director for faith-based initiatives David Kuo, administration operators used and mocked evangelicals who were trying to do compassionate work partly funded through the government. But as Kuo asks, "What did they expect from politicos?" Good question for all of us. Jeremiah the prophet warned, "Cursed is the man who trusts in man."{15} That would seem to include man's politics.

Committed evangelical Bill Armstrong shared prophetically as a Senator back in 1983, "There is a danger when believers get deeply involved in political activity that they will try to put the mantle of Christ on their cause . . . to deify that cause and say, ‘Because I'm motivated to run for office for reasons [of] faith, a vote for me is a vote for Jesus'."{16}

Ed Dobson often joked about God not being a Democrat or Republican—but certainly not a Democrat. But, he asked, "Is God the God of the religious and political left with its emphasis on the environment and the poor, or is he the God of the religious and political right with its emphasis on the unborn and the family? Both groups claim to speak for God."{17}

The Lord appeared to Joshua before a battle. He discovered that the issue wasn't whether God was on his side or his enemy's, but whether the people were on God's side. The religious and political Left casts itself as champion of the poor and the environment while the Right emphasizes the unborn and the family. Both say they speak for God. Seeking God's priorities and using His wisdom for our particular times is critical. However, "God's side" is not always easy to find.

So what's a Christian citizen's role? Armstrong and others believe Christians have been commanded by Christ to be involved. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" means more than paying taxes. Some basic biblical principles:

• All political power comes from God;

• Government has a God-ordained role to play in society;

• Christians have a God-ordained responsibility to that government: to pray, submit to and honor government leaders and, of course, to pay our taxes.{18}

The late Christian political activist, pastor, and author D. James Kennedy warned in the heady early days of "the Reagan Revolution" not to trust in the man Ronald Reagan but in God. "After victory," he writes, "many people give up the struggle and later discover they had won only a battle, not the war. Are you working less, praying less, giving less, trusting less? Maybe there is a bit of the humanist in all of us."{19} He continues, "The government . . . should be a means to godly ends. Ronald Reagan is but a stone in the sling, and you do not trust in stones; you trust in the living rock, Jesus Christ."{20}

Thus, voters, campaigners and officeholders need to heed the humility of experience in a fallen world and the understanding of the Founders that power corrupts and should be divided up, placing final trust in the Almighty.

Should We Elect a Christian When Given the Chance?

Talk show host Larry King asked pastor and author Max Lucado if religion should matter in an election campaign. I love his answer: "Well, genuine religion has to matter. We elect character. We elect a person's worldview. Faith can define that worldview.... [Within the] American population 85 percent of us say that religion matters to us. 72 percent of us say that the religion of a president matters."{21} Polls show that Americans would sooner elect a Muslim or homosexual than an acknowledged atheist.{22}

Philosopher and early church father Augustine dealt with a culture war among the Romans. In his classic book The City of God he taught that "The City of Man is populated by those who love themselves and hold God in contempt, while the City of God is populated by those who love God and hold themselves in contempt. Augustine hoped to show that the citizens of the City of God were more beneficial to the interests of Rome than those who inhabit the City of Man."{23} Of course, a Christian will want to vote for a citizen of God's city if there is a clear choice between him and a rank sinner. That choice is seldom so clear in elections. But understanding this dual citizenship of the Christian voter herself in the City of Man and The City of God is essential to dissecting complicated, sometimes competing priorities.

In the tangled vines surrounding campaign messages, it's not so simple to discern a candidate's worldview and decide who best matches our own, but that's what wisdom and good stewardship require (and as recent scandals like Senator Larry Craig's alleged homosexual improprieties shows, a politician's stated views and behavior don't always match). Seems like the Christian citizen's top priority, then, is to have a biblical worldview to start with (something that Probe can help with greatly).

Given that, how does the average Christian voter decide on parties, platforms, and candidates? They do it based on principles of biblical ethics, godly values, simple logic and a discerning ear.

Remember, America is a republic, not a democracy. And in a republic we are to elect representatives who will rise above the passions of the moment. They are to be men and women of character and virtue, who will act responsibly and even nobly as they carry out the best interests of the people. No, we don't want leaders we can love because they remind us of our own darker side. We want leaders we can look up to and respect.{24}

Should we elect a person who claims to be a Christian, like former pastor Mike Huckabee? It depends. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney received a standing ovation when said, "We need a person of faith to lead the country." A contributor to the blog run by Left-wing evangelical Jim Wallis responded, "But that statement is nearly meaningless, for even Sam Harris is a person of faith. Strident, angry, atheistic faith."{25} Good point: all have faith, but faith in what or who?

On the other hand, former Senator Bill Armstrong states, "God was able to make sons of Abraham out of stone. Certainly that means he can make a good legislator out of somebody who isn't necessarily a member of our church or maybe not even a Christian or maybe an atheist. So I don't think we ought to limit God by saying ‘only Christians' deserve our support politically."{26}

The politically influential Dr. James Dobson caused a stir when he critiqued one candidate for not regularly attending church. Dr. Richard Land responded that this is not a deciding factor for him. He said that as a Baptist minister he would never have voted for the church-attending Jimmy Carter but did vote twice for the non-attending Ronald Reagan. This, like so many others, seems to be an issue of individual conscience for voters.

Evangelical Mark DeMoss writes in support of Romney, a devout Mormon. "For years, evangelicals have been keenly interested to know whether a candidate shared their faith. I am now more interested in knowing that a president represents my values than I am that he or she shares my theology."{27} After all, we've worked together on issues like abortion, pornography, and gambling. Can't we be governed well by someone who shares most of our values, he reasons? As columnist Cal Thomas says, I care less about where the ambulance driver worships than if he knows where the hospital is.

Taking the high road of choosing good candidates, not necessarily ones whose theology one agrees with all down the line, makes voting and party affiliation complex for believers. We'd prefer a clean, easy set of choices. But, it appears that even voting and civic engagement is under the "sweat of the brow" curse of Genesis—nothing comes easy.

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias reminds us that we're NOT electing a minister or church elder. He said:

I think as we elect, we go before God and [choose] out of the candidates who will be the best ones to represent [sanctity of life] values and at the same time be a good leader . . . whose first responsibility [is] to protect citizens.

What we want is a politician who will understand the basic Judeo-Christian worldview, and on the basis of that the moral laws of this nation are framed, and then run this country with the excellence of that which is recognized in a pluralistic society: the freedom to believe or to disbelieve, and the moral framework with which this was conducted: the sanctity of every individual life.{28}

Vote your conscience. Many issues are disputable matters, as the Apostle Paul put it. Avoid the temptation to unreflectively limit your view to a few pet issues. If over time you prayerfully believe that stewardship of the environment is critical, balanced against all considerations, vote accordingly. If sanctity of life issues like abortion and stem cell research are paramount to you, by all means vote that way. However, realize that trade-offs are inevitable; there won't be a perfect candidate who falls in line on all our values and priorities.

Politics, Religion, and Values

As the old saw goes, "never talk about politics and religion." That may be wise advice when Uncle Harry is over for Thanksgiving dinner. But as a rule of life, it breeds ignorance and passivity in self-government. "Only if we allow a biblical worldview and a biblically balanced agenda guide our concrete political work can we significantly improve the political order," according to a statement by the National Association of Evangelicals.{29} That means dialogue, and that's not easy.

Some prefer a public square where anything goes but religion. That would be wrong. Likewise, a so-called "sacred public square," with religious values imposed on everyone, would be unfair. Christians should support a "civil public square" with open, respectful debate.{30}

But, you often hear people make statements like, "Christians shouldn't try to legislate morality." They might simply mean you can't make people good by passing laws. Fair enough. But all law, divine and civil, involves imposing right and wrong. Prohibitions against murder and rape are judgments on good and bad. The question is not whether we should legislate morality but rather, "What kind of morality we should legislate?"{31}

Yet tragically, as iVoteValues.com discovered, "many believers don't even consider their values when voting," often choosing candidates whose positions are at odds with their own beliefs, convictions, and values. A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say their faith has little to do with their voting decisions!{32} Many believers are missing a chance to be salt and light to the watching world.

What about when the field of candidates offers only "the lesser of two evils"? Like when only one candidate is anti-abortion yet she holds to other troubling positions? That requires thoughtful distinctions. If the reason you vote for candidate X is only to avoid the graver consequences of voting for candidate Y, you're not formally cooperating with evil. In this case, whatever evil comes from the anti-abortion candidate you helped elect due to your convictions would be unintended. Same as if you were a bank teller and the robber demanded, "Give me all the money or I'll blow this guy's brains out." You cooperate to avoid the greater evil, but your intent was not to enable the robbery.{33} It's hard to argue against this reasoning in a fallen world where even God allows evil for greater purposes.

What about cases when the field of candidates offers only "the lesser of two evils"? For instance, you can't decide between the more pro-abortion candidate who's otherwise highly qualified and the anti-abortion person who has some real flaws.

Some believe that if you vote for the pro-abortion person for other important reasons, then you are not responsible for abortions that might result, as briefly illustrated above. Others see a necessary connection—vote for a "pro-abort" and you are guilty. Study and pray hard on such issues as God gives freedom of conscience.

Sometimes it comes down to choices we'd rather not make. Only rarely, perhaps, can we say that to abstain from voting is the only way. Notable Christian author Mark Noll believes this is such a time for him.{34}

Others warn that this only helps elect the candidates with unbiblical values. One commentator wrote, "Voters should not spend their franchise on empty gestures.... No successful politician is as strong on every issue as we would like. Our own pastors and parents can't pass this test in their much smaller contexts. Rather than striking a blow for purity, we risk giving up our influence altogether when we follow a man with only one or two ‘perfect' ideas."{35}

Hold this kind of issue with an open hand. Many change their minds as they age and lose unrealistic youthful idealism. But if God gives a clear conviction, again, stick with that value or candidate. Only seek the difference between legalism and God's leading.

Some more left-leaning evangelicals like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis value helping the poor and dispossessed through government, while critics claim that as the Church's exclusive role. The retort: the Church is failing in its duty and it's a fulfillment of the Church's duty to advocate for government intervention. Others focus on sanctity of life issues not only as a higher priority, but as part of the government's biblically mandated task of protecting its citizenry. What is your conviction? Best be deciding if you don't know yet.

The purple ink-stained fingers of Iraqi citizens who voted at their own risk for the first time in decades testify to the precious privilege of voting in a free society. Americans gave blood and treasure to free them. Don't let the same sacrifice made by our ancestors on our behalf go to waste. Inform yourself. "Study to show yourself approved" not only regarding Scripture, but as a citizen of The Cities of Man and of God.

Notes

1. Charles Colson with Anne Morse, "Promises, Promises: How to really build a 'great society'," Christianity Today (online), www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/august/11.64.html
2. Kerby Anderson, "Politics and Religion," www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/pol-rel.html, 1991.
3. Chuck Colson, "A Sacred Duty: Why Christians Must Vote," Breakpoint, breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=2429, May 13, 2004.
4. Gary Ledbetter, "Who should vote?" Baptist Press, www.bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=18923.
5. Albert Einstein, as quoted on Hillwatch.com, www.hillwatch.com/PPRC/Quotes/Politics_and_Politicians.aspx
6. Chuck Colson, "Pulling the Lever: Our First Civic Duty," www.leaderu.com/common/colson-lever.html, 1998.
7. Richard J. Mouw, "Tolerance Without Compromise," Christianity Today, July 15, 1996, 33.
8. Quoted in D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, How Would Jesus Vote? A Christian Perspective on the Issues, pre-release copy (Colo. Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2008), 29. Note: book released the week of this radio broadcast (week of Jan. 14, 2008).
9. Ibid, page 28.
10. Probe Ministries, "A Christian View of Politics, Government, and Social Action," Mind Games Survival Guide, VI:52.
11. Kennedy and Newcombe, How Would Jesus Vote? 30.
12. Mouw, "Tolerance," 34-35.
13. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can't Save America (Grand Rapids, MI, : Zondervan, 1999), 69.
14. Ibid.
15. Jeremiah 17: 5-7 (NIV).
16. "Bill Armstrong: Senator and Christian," Christianity Today, November 11, 1983, 20
17. Thomas and Dobson, 105.
18. Kennedy and Newcombe, How Would Jesus Vote? 106-119.
19. Ibid, 197.
20. Ibid, 201.
21. CNN Larry King Live, Politics and Religion, October 26, 2004 (as posted on Bible Bulletin Board: www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/mac-lkl5.htm).
22. Ross Douthat, "Crises of Faith," The Atlantic, July/August, 2007.
23. Tim Garrett, "St. Augustine," Probe Ministries, 2000; available online at worldview--philosophy/st.-augustine.html.
24. Ibid, Colson, "Pulling the Lever."
25. Tony Jones, "Honest Questions About Mitt Romney," http://tinyurl.com/3d8dm8, February 21, 2007.
26. Ibid, Thomas and Dobson, Blinded by Might, 204.
27. Mark DeMoss, "Why evangelicals could support this Mormon," The Politico, April 24, 2007.
28. Paul Edwards, "Ravi Zacharias on a Mormon in the White House," The God & Culture Blog, http://tinyurl.com/2mkj6u.
29. Ronald J. Siders and Diane Knippers, Toward an Evangelical Public Policy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005).
30. Anderson, "Politics and Religion."
31. Ibid.
32. "How You Can Have Maximum Patriotic Impact-Brief," iVoteValues.com, http://tinyurl.com/2uot68, see point #3.
33. J. Budziszewski, "Ballot Box Blues," Boundless.org, www.boundless.org/regulars/office_hours/a0000958.html. See also an insightful application of this line of reasoning in Nathan Schlueter, "Drawing Pro-Life Lines," First Things, October 2001, tinyurl.com/6godf.
34. For a defense of his personal decision to abstain from voting in the 2004 major election, see Mark Noll, "None of the above: why I won't be voting for president," Christian Century, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_19_121/ai_n6355192.
35. Gary Ledbetter, "Who should vote?"

© 2008 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Byron BarloweByron Barlowe is a research associate and Web coordinator with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.S. in Communications at Appalachian State University in gorgeous Boone, N.C. Byron served 20 years with Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), eight years as editor and Webmaster of a major scholarly publishing site, Leadership University (LeaderU.com). In that role, he oversaw several sub-sites, including the Online Faculty Offices of Drs. William Lane Craig and William Dembski. His wife, Dianne, served 25 years with CCC and now homeschools their teenage triplets.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

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