If you have been following the news, and chances are you shouldn’t be if you care for your soul, then you know our civic responsibility to vote has come round again—as it often returns at least every two years. Indeed, one cannot escape the onslaught of poll after poll, the revelation of yet another scandal, or a media effort to destroy a candidate’s career.
Many lament the deplorable state of our political discourse. And though I agree that politics often brings out the most juvenile in people, and while I detest the hypocrisy of the news media, I also reflect that this is little worse than it has always been. Yes, we may be polarized these days into red states and blue states. Yet we at least are not segregated into free states and slave states. And our news media, as biased as it is, has always been so, criticizing every president since Washington. One only has to read old newspapers to see that the political heroes we extol today were laughably reviled while in office. To my knowledge, few presidents were hated by their own party as much as Abraham Lincoln, who today receives more accolades than any other executive. And though the irritating speeches from Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell might rile me from time to time, at least we are not repeating the deplorable violence in the 1856 session when our public officials were caning each other on the senate floor (Senator Sumner, can I help you up, sir?). Or far worse, we might be experiencing the true dissolution of the Republic, as the Roman senate did over two thousand years ago (Et tu, Brute?). Civil discourse, while often uncivil, is far more civil than the discourse of the gun.
The most highly polled topics of this particular cycle are issues like the economy, crime, abortion, not to mention competency. These issues are, while not strictly religious in nature, are nevertheless answered by the religiously minded. No wall between church and state is high enough to divide the voter from his own faith in the booth. How should we then vote? Should we examine all amendments, initiatives, bonds, recalls, and referendums as matters of faith? Should we take into account our candidate’s faith? Should a “C” at the end of a candidate’s name influence our votes?
To my knowledge, no Biblical mandate exists either way—which is not surprising, considering the issue of democratic voting never comes up in either testament. But it is important that we be consistent on this point. Understandably so, we are tempted to think back to the “good old days” and vaguely remember when America used to be “a Christian nation.” Given our human propensity to romanticize the past, it is easy to fall prey to the mistaken notion that everything was good and pure fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, or at the founding of our nation—this is especially true when we discuss the state of the church. People who nostalgically reminisce about the past rightly recognize that yesterday’s culture is vastly different from today, and they are vaguely correct in believing that the culture used to be more or less Christian, as confirmed by outside observers like Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835, 1840). But may I suggest this was not necessarily the ideal for the church. In fact, may I suggest that there exist no ideal conditions for church growth; there is always rocky soil and fruitful soil to be found in every condition.
William Wilberforce, the abolitionist popularized in the film, Amazing Grace, wrote a book titled Real Christianity (1797). He discusses the concept of cultural Christianity, which exists when religion is inextricably linked to government and society (i.e.: congress, schools, even the post office or mass media). While this marriage sounds attractive to those of us who commemorate the golden age, Wilberforce goes on to state that such a relationship can actually become a cancer. Coming from a man whose stated purpose was to abolish the slave trade, disincentivize animal cruelty, and to “reform manners,” he correctly acknowledged that government cannot make people more Christian—it can punish them if they do not follow the law, but it cannot force them to love Jesus or to actively do good to their neighbor. Cultural Christianity easily becomes a hiding place for the pagan to give the pretense of godliness without conforming to Christ, and for the Christian it encourages complacent ritualism. And though I eagerly desire for our culture to be more receptive to Christ, this transformation begins with me and not with the legislature. Real Christianity instead is practiced by the volition of the individual who freely chooses to follow and obey Jesus.
Justice, not religion exclusively, is the cornerstone to an effective—and perhaps even godly—society. The West has historically drawn its concepts of justice from Judeo-Christian ethics in the sacred tradition, and from Greek philosophy in the secular. This classical standard requires not that everyone receive the same, but that each receives his due in accordance with the law. In the Old Testament, when Israel was a theocracy, the true application of godliness was the administration of justice (as described in Jeremiah 7:6-7), which applies also in the New Testament (James 1:27). But, in America at least, the church is not the same entity as the state; thus, laws of godliness are to be applied at the individual level, not on the governmental level. Jesus’ teachings on divorce, on loving one’s enemy, on giving to the poor, were meant to be practiced by people in interpersonal relationships, not by the state over all relationships.
In fact, if we apply, say, giving to the poor at the governmental level, we will certainly find, but inaccurately apply, scriptural precedent for the unjust, bankrupting practice of redistributive justice (i.e.: the practice of taxation for the purpose of advancing social welfare programs). If the government taxes forty percent of my neighbor’s income and gives it to me with the justification of WWJD, it is neither Christ-like nor just, nor does it help either of us become a better Christian. This truth, by the way, does not mean that no welfare should exist, but it not exist to such an extent that it disincentivizes labor nor degrades the dignity that comes with it. One—and, most importantly, only one—benchmark for the success of the church is how well it meets the physical and spiritual needs of others. If I can help meet his physical needs, my neighbor will see the love of Christ in me, and he may then be more receptive to help fill his spiritual hunger. But when government feeds the hungry, man will not turn to the church but to his congressman. This approach not only inflates the size of government, and consequently the number of needy people because of the inefficiency of government to tackle this task, but it also fosters laziness in the church so that when a truly needy person comes to our doors, we instinctively close our hearts and our wallets and instead recommend them to the unemployment line or nearby shelter. In such a case, an unjust economic policy divides neighbor from neighbor.
So for the Christian debating internally with herself, wondering if she should pull the lever for the Democratic or Republican candidate, I would advise her to obey not the dictates of scripture—for she will find none—but the dictates of reason. We should select candidates and policies that advance true justice, not class warfare and redistributionism nor feigned religion and political piety. Reasonable people may disagree about what this should look like—and should, if we are to keep one another from obeying the excesses of our own desires. But if politics is the statecraft of deciding well, then in a democratic society this means the burden of my vote falls to selecting an economics most consistent with reality, a political structure keenly aware of the psychology of fallen man, and a public policy that promotes justice.