Many have written about the word “evangelical” being emptied of meaning. Questions about what it means to be an evangelical are not new, but the issue has taken on new urgency when it comes to our political engagement. For much of Christian history, this was not really a factor, because representative government did not exist. While the question of political involvement is not unique to the United States, the current atmosphere has believers rethinking what it means to be a politically involved follower of Christ. One question it has raised (again) for me, should Christians vote?
Many will dismiss this out of hand. Of course believers should vote, and be engaged in civic life. We have a duty to God to be good stewards of what he has given to us. Part of that is citizenship in a representative democracy. Exercising that stewardship is not only a privilege but a responsibility. That is one stance, and I don’t dismiss it as unreasonable or even unbiblical. It may be difficult to find specific Scripture that points to this, but the application of biblical principles is legitimate.
The other side of the argument is, as Paul writes to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we await a savior.” (3:20.)
The word translated citizenship is πολίτευμα (politeuma) from which we derive “politics.” Similarly, he wrote to Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) Both of these passages point to the truth that although we live in this world, we are not of it, and our citizenship is elsewhere. Peter, also refers to the time of our sojourning, which is elsewhere translated alien, foreigner, stranger. The Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions have taken this as a clear indication to maintain a separation from the world and its systems. To abstain from voting is a manifestation of that.
The argument for voting usually rests on political engagement as a means to an end. That end is to engage the culture for God, to influence public policy to protect the vulnerable and to ensure liberty. Much of this ethos hearkens back to the 1980s, and the Moral Majority. Similar organizations grew up to join this fight, but what have we gained by this? Has there been a reversal of the trend toward greater secularism? What has public policy been enacted that Christians can really get behind and say, at last, we have stemmed the tide of departure from God? The “culture wars” have not been kind to Christians, despite any “get out the vote” effort.
On the contrary, we have recently witnessed a casting aside of the distinctive testimony of the gospel purely in the interest of retaining power. Evangelicals have supported candidates who, were they members of our churches, would come in for discipline by that local church. The justification is, we need that vote. We need to ensure we get the right justices on the court, and no matter how personally distasteful a candidate may be, how poor an example he may be, we must still vote for him.
It is an open question whether using public policy to achieve such ends is even desirable. The gospel does not need government to accomplish its ends. The transformation that the gospel brings is entirely inward, and it then shows itself outwardly. But public policy effects no inward change whatsoever and runs the risk of deluding us into thinking we have achieved something for God. He has not called us to establish a theocracy, nor to Christianize society. Rather, we preach the gospel, and men and women are saved out of this world.
I know the argument that as long as we are in the world, we are called to faithfully influence our culture for the gospel and for God’s kingdom. But there is a difference between engagement and entanglement.
When we set aside faithfulness to the truth, and fidelity to all that the gospel encompasses for the expediency of power, is this not idolatry? What have we sacrificed in the testimony of the gospel when prominent Christians put political power above the witness of the gospel. This is not theory, but it’s happening before our eyes.
I am not saying that anyone who is a Christian should not vote. But I am saying that the argument for Christian influence in politics is weak, and getting weaker all the time. I am also saying that the more I consider it, the more I see the logic and consistency of the non-voting position from Scripture itself.