More than any in recent history, this election cycle has produced a widespread and varied reaction, even among evangelicals who otherwise are pretty uniform in their belief about what is good and right and true. Part of the variance is generational. Where older generations are more inclined to take back America for God, younger generations are far more prone to push back against the notion that America was ever a Christian nation. Another reason for the stark divide of opinions is philosophical. Where some Christians believe that to abstain from the election (or even vote for a third party candidate) is negligence of a God-given civic responsibility to vote, others believe that the church has rapidly decreasing reason to seek a presence in the public square. Additionally, as has been historically the case, where minority groups such as African-American Christians have tended to align with the democratic party, white Christians have predominately aligned with the republican party. With all of these divisions, it seems there is little hope for productive dialogue, let alone finding a consensus regarding how Christians should think about this election. But there are some general guidelines that all Christians—regardless of age, race or belief about America—would do well to remember as election day draws near.
We serve a God who is sovereign over the politics of all nations.
Indeed, it is the resurrected Lord of the Church who has “all authority in heaven and on earth” including authority over political systems and election cycles and campaigns and the next president. Proverbs goes as far to declare, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” And the One who holds authority over all things including the desires and plans of the hearts of the kings of the earth is the one Lord of the one Church. Therefore, there is ultimately one uniting hope for the Church—that God “does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”” (Daniel 4.35) and is working all things, even things meant for evil (Genesis 50.20), for the good of the Church (Romans 8.28).
Politics are unavoidable by God’s design, so we should engage in political activity prayerfully and wisely.
At its core, politics is the structuring of citizenship in a city (or state or nation). The warning here is to not mistake the good creational structure of politics with the sinful fallen direction of politics. When God created Adam and Eve and commanded them to multiply and fill the earth, there was an implicit command to be political—to structure the common life of a community in a way that loves God and loves neighbor. This is what is meant by the good creational structure of politics. However, this is not typical of our experience of politics. After the fall, politics became no longer a means to love God and neighbor but to serve and promote selfish ambition and agendas that work against God’s design for his world. This is what is meant by the sinful fallen direction of politics. Because politics is essential to God’s design for his world, to reject politics all together is to be ignorant of God’s design for the world. Further, “in the United States, ultimate national sovereignty is entrusted to the people. James Madison explained that the “consent of the people” is the “pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” This reality makes politics unavoidable for American citizens who control their political future.”
But because sin has distorted and disoriented political activity away from God, Christians must engage in political activity in a way that recognizes the way politics is bent towards sin and prayerfully and wisely act in accordance with God’s design for his image bearers and his world—loving God and loving neighbor.
There is no such thing as moral neutrality.
I’m treading into some contentious waters here, but I think it’s merited, at least as a point of consideration. There is a temptation to view the two major party candidates—both of whom are unquestionable morally corrupt—as means to some possible good end. For example, there is a stream of thought among conservatives that views a vote for Donald Trump, as morally reprehensible as he is, as a justified means to the end of the appointment of a conservative justice to the Supreme Court. This temptation is compounded at times when Christians (wrongly) assume that there are only two options—voting for Clinton or voting for Trump. But, as Dan Doriani has pointed out, there are two problems with this way of thinking. First, it wrongly assumes we can know the particular outcome of a decision. In the example above, it wrongly assumes the necessary and certain consequence of voting for Trump is the appointment of a conservative justice. Second, this way of thinking “tends to decay into lawlessness when people do whatever it takes to achieve their desired result.” In other words, the attempt to achieve some outcome deemed morally acceptable (like the appointment of a conservative justice) while dismissing the morality (in Trump’s case, immorality) of the means necessary to accomplish that outcome is the beginning of moral ignorance and indifference. And this, for the Christian, is very dangerous.
There can be a difference between enacting policy change and Christian faithfulness.
In generations past, it was far easier (although not necessarily easy) than it is presently to exert Christian influence in the public square to enact immediate change. The cultural tides have shifted drastically against Christians in the public square. No more can Christian faithfulness be so closely tied to political influence. Jonathan Leeman notes that in today’s cultural climate “society may get better; it may get worse, regardless of the activities of faithful Christians. That, finally, is outside of your control and mine. What is within our control is whether or not we seek justice, love of our neighbor, and do both of these things wisely, not foolishly. On the last day, God will not ask you, “Did you produce change?” but “Did you faithfully love your neighbor and pursue justice in those places where I gave you authority?””
Civil dialogue about our disagreements is healthy.
We are blind to our own blindness. Our experience and context have massive implications for the way we see the world including our political party affiliation and the policies we want to see set up or demolished. But our experience and context is always limited, never encompassing the full spectrum of reality. Therefore, we would do well to humbly and respectfully listen to others whose experience and context are not like our own. As Bruce Ashford says, “We should recognize the good in their lives and their arguments, rather than glorifying ourselves and demonizing them. We should be teachable, rather than close-minded. In a nutshell, we should be publicly righteous and our churches should be formation centers for public righteousness.” In other words, the Church of all people should come alongside one another for the sake of helping one another see the world through the lens of ultimate truth—the story of God’s work in Christ and the Spirit—not our own agenda—political or otherwise. This is not to say that as we look together at this election through the lens of God’s work in Christ and the Spirit we will all arrive at a consensus. That certainly won’t happen. It is to say that we should be okay with that as long as we are find consensus in God’s work in Christ and the Spirit.
Our ultimate hope and ultimate good is coming only when our King returns.
In such a time as this, we cannot afford to bow down to the idols of American politics. We cannot afford to look to this election for ultimate, lasting hope. There is only one source of our sure hope and everlasting good—the promised coming day when Christ rips open the skies and descends with glory and power to sit as King over all things and to establish his kingdom forever among his people. For all the opportunity American politics has afforded Christians in previous generations to overtly influence the public square, it seems those days are quickly drawing to a close. “Maybe God’s purpose in all of this is to teach us that this country was never our home after all.” Until we are at home in the Kingdom of Jesus, are we willing to watch the liberties and comforts and securities once afforded to Christians by the American government be taken from us if that means, in God’s providence, that the gospel goes forth to the nations? If in this election we seek first the comforts afforded the Church in a real or perceived Christian America, we will prove poor servants of the King. If, however, we are content to “work for the good and justice of others, whether sitting in the living room or left out on the porch, whether second to Pharaoh like Joseph or imprisoned in a lion’s den like Daniel,” we will then labor as faithful servants until our hope, our good and our King comes.
Sources & Additional Reading:
Bruce Ashford, Seven Guiding Principles for Christians in the Public Square posted on intersectproject.org.
David Closson, 4 Reasons Christians Should Care About Politics posted on erlc.com.
Dan Doriani, Why I Don’t Think You Must Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils posted on thegospelcoalition.org.
Jonathan Leeman, What Christians Should Do For Government posted on 9marks.org.
Russell Moore, Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils posted on christianitytoday.com.