We are in the midst of a presidential election that, even to this political junkie, becomes tiresome with the bombast and vitriol, cliques and platitudes, polls and pundits. Every election, brave candidates step forward for public vetting, reminding us of the deep flaw and corruption present even in the best of humanity.
At times, Christians are tempted to despair, wondering if it’s even worth voting, if the politicians and the programs offered are even worth engaging. Perhaps its better, some muse, to simply sit out an election. Others wonder if, by voting, they are usurping the sovereignty of a God who works through the affairs of men to put in power whom he will (Rom. 13:1; Dan. 2:21; Psa. 75:7).
I understand the temptation toward disengagement in the voting process, but I believe every Christian should vote. Here are three reflections from Scripture that might help inform your decision:
1. We should vote out of love for neighbor. The prophet Jeremiah told the Jewish exiles in pagan Babylon to “seek the welfare of their city” by building, planting, creating and cultivating. This was difficult instruction for the people of God, thrust into a culture where their way of life and their values were out of step with those around them. What’s more, false prophets were telling the Jewish exiles that soon they’d be delivered from Babylon and would have their kingdom back. Jeremiah was tasked with the job of telling them that, no, they would not get their kingdom back, that this exile would last for many years, and that the kingdom they sought would be fulfilled, ultimately, in the everlasting kingdom of Christ.
New Testament Christians are not Jewish exiles, but there is something we can learn from the words of Jeremiah. We, too, are exiles in a world that is at odds with our beliefs. We too face the temptation to withdraw into our ourselves and disengage from the world around us. But because we are born again into Christ’s kingdom, we are called to live on mission in our communities and in our country.
Thankfully, many evangelicals are beginning to see their surroundings, not as the Promised Land, but as Babylon, as a mission field, as a place where God has called them to reflect, in part, the coming Kingdom of God. This movement is a movement of God—but what I fear, when I talk to many missional Christians, is a reticence to engage the politics that affect the cities they love. Jesus told us that we should love our neighbor as ourselves—how can we love our neighbor, how can we seek the welfare of our cities, if we sheepishly abdicate the opportunity to choose the people who lead us? How can we love our neighbor if we ignore the policies and structures that affect him?
This doesn’t mean Christians should turn their church lobbies into political party headquarters. It doesn’t mean Christians should pledge allegiance to a candidate. It doesn’t mean the church should lose its prophetic voice to both political parties. What the Scriptures do teach us, however, is that taking our vote seriously is one way, an important way, in which we love our neighbors and love our cities.
2. We should vote because God has given us a stewardship for which we will be held accountable. In a representative republic like the United States, citizens are given a share of power—we are tasked with electing our local, state, and national leaders. This isn’t a perfect system and history has shown that even in a great country like the United States, the system can at times be gamed and manipulated. And even the best politicians often pander to the worst fears and base instincts of the people in order to win their vote. But this is the system we have.
In Romans 13, Paul reminds us that all civil authority is granted by God (Rom. 13:1-7). This power to vote—this is a God-given divestment of authority to the voter. This means that not only will government officials be held accountable for the way they rule—those who vote are also held accountable for the choices they made or didn’t make come election time. In a sense, Christian citizens in America are not only the subjects; they are also, in some sense, Caesar (Mark 12:17).
This responsibility should change the way we vote in two ways. First, it should move us away from the idea that to vote is to put your full faith and power in a candidate or movement. We vote, not because we believe our man or woman will usher in the Kingdom, but because we are fulfilling a God-given stewardship. Secondly, it should remind us that, even in the best election with the most inspiring of choices, we are choosing between two fallen sinners. Every election is about the lesser of two evils.
3. We should vote because it can help speak up for the vulnerable and help gospel advance. On issues of human dignity, a vote for or against a candidate can be a vote for or against human dignity. It is a way the powerful can speak out for the powerless on issues of life, dignity and religious liberty. It’s a way to love our neighbor by seeking the common good. We shouldn’t vote, of course, because a candidate or a party is going to make America a theocracy. We shouldn’t project onto the White House what only the church should fulfill. Civil government, at best, protects its people, seeks justice for the poor and vulnerable, and guarantees religious liberty.
Some well-meaning Christians take a defensive posture, arguing that Christians should not work for religious freedom—but this is at odds with Jesus, who told his audience that there are limits on the authority given by God to governments. The conscience belongs, not to Caesar, but to God (Mark 12:17). This is also at odds with Paul, who told Timothy to pray for a government that would protect the freedom of Christ followers so the gospel could advance (1 Tim. 2:1-3).
Sure, history has shown that the advance of the kingdom of God is not dependent on governments and has, at times, thrived under severe persecution. But Christians should not wish for government pressure nor abdicate their God-given role in influencing the government. In some ways, those who advocate for freedom are “holding the ropes” for missionaries both here in American and overseas.
Elections are messy and often unpleasant affairs. There is an incivility and dishonesty in some of our politics that is at odds with a Christ-shaped witness. But as Jesus said in his prayer in John 17, we have not been parachuted out, but have been sent into this world, as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.