American Christians have traditionally considered voting for a president a sacred duty. Every four years the question was not whether to vote, but for whom to vote – typically a Republican or a Democrat. Two election cycles ago, Ted Lewis edited a collection of essays, Electing not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Few paid attention. But today, during a bitter and controversial primary, more Christians are wrestling with the option of not voting. At the same time, many continue to argue for one of the two main candidates, while others are opting to vote independent. Whatever our decision, we need to engage the political process wisely and virtuously.
Christians must strive to honor God’s word in everything we do. When we vote for a political candidate, it must be as an act of witness to the principles of Christ’s kingdom. This Christian vote as witness needs further explanation. The witnessing vote is a reticent vote, a restrained choice; it is not about which candidate the believer can endorse one hundred percent.
The believer confesses that every politician and political system this side of the new creation is flawed. By its very nature this reserved voting is a witness to the better world that the Bible promises. We can only support what we can celebrate in a candidate’s character and platform (not the entire character and platform). In acknowledging flaws, the Christian bears witness to the broken human condition. What if the character of the candidates is so defective, that there is little left to celebrate? Then the believer must carefully weigh the option of not voting.
The restrained way in which a Christian votes, or does not vote, is a witness to the political system’s imperfection and a witness to God’s impending righteous reign. Such reticence about voting is a witness because its very standoffishness speaks of confidence in another citizenship, in another sovereign. The Christian’s restrained participation is an acknowledgment that the vote is just a vote, and not a bowing of the knee. The Church’s hope ultimately lies in a different Candidate-Elect! He is the only one who can fully bring justice and peace to a broken world.
Criteria to consider
While the believer takes seriously his or her vote, or the decision not to vote, its significance is not to be exaggerated. More important than the vote is the Spirit’s bringing of the kingdom, however provisionally, through the mission of the Church. Together Christians should also seek other and better ways of concretely modeling kingdom life, of manifesting in seed form the culture of the world to come. This restrained political engagement bears witness that the Church still waits for the kingdom whose builder and maker is God.
Such an orientation toward politics leads the Christian to a virtuous set of criteria for voting. For example, one yardstick we use to make a judgment about better or worse political positions must be God’s special provision for the poor and marginalized. Our criteria are not fundamentally about what will make my life better, or America stronger, or about what will protect the middle class. Instead, we ask which policies are more or less likely to provide some measure of care for those who are unable to care for themselves. Determining the consequences of a vote can be notoriously difficult, but we need to be cautious when political slogans are out of step with biblical values and when candidates display a lack of essential virtues.
The importance of virtue
Even the world’s philosophers have understood the importance of virtue to political leadership. In the Platonic dialogues of the Republic, the philosopher Socrates made the case that leaders should be just, wise and self-controlled, as well as courageous. These are virtues that the Bible also affirms. Christians must work for the cultivation of these virtues in our political life, and we should vote for candidates who exhibit them. In this way, we bear witness by our political life to the virtues of the gospel.
Participation as witness
There is a final “witness” inherent in the Christian’s voting practice. The believer faithfully participates in what ways he or she can in the political process, but does so with a repentant spirit. In this way the Christian bears witness to his or her own finite and fallen condition – and likely failure of good judgment. The believer bears witness to the grace that heals society’s sickness (even the political one) and atones for people’s sin (even the sin of a poorly cast ballot). So the Christian acts, even if not one hundred percent sure of how to vote, believing that God may be pleased to the humble act of faith to make a difference for good. The vote as witness points to the coming Kingdom of Christ, but it also acts responsibly to make a difference now.
When the believer can in good conscience participate in the political process, he or she votes to bear witness to God’s grace and to the full hope that can finally and only be found in the good news of Jesus Christ. When the time is such, that any vote would deny the gospel, the believer does not vote, and in that way still bears witness to the Lord of all the earth.
Daniel J. Ebert IV, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs and Affiliate Professor of NT at Trinity International University (Kendall) he can be reached at [email protected]