There is an unpleasant smell adrift in American evangelicalism. It goes unnoticed by those who are willing to look the other way or knew to pinch their noses before our ship came in to harbor. It reminds me of a scene in the film Amazing Grace which tells the story of the great evangelical British politician and abolitionist, William Wilberforce. He and sympathetic members of parliament charter a vessel for an exquisite luncheon and concert which eventually docks beside a very recently emptied slave vessel. The stench is horrific. He tells them to “breathe it in” and to never forget that smell. You see, the key to “holding one’s nose” is that he or she must clinch his or her nostrils before the stench reaches the olfactories. If we haven’t, then we will recognize what we smell on 2016’s campaign trail is the rotting corpse of American democracy. And as Wilberforce famously stated, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Wilberforce himself exemplified what it means to be a gospel-driven evangelical who is politically engaged and especially what it means to do the right thing even if you are in the overwhelming minority. He would spend his life fighting a vile institution that was dying a slow death and he did not live to see the day of race-based chattel slavery’s eradication across the globe.
Today, we will see “Another big name evangelical author/theologian/former denominational leader/para-church ministry head/mega church pastor tells Christians ‘you must vote’” (implicit here is always voting a certain way). This is not a daily but hourly headline that will make one dizzy just keeping up with it. I will admit the best of these has been written by a theologian I greatly respect, Wayne Grudem, so if you are interested in the line of thinking to which I am currently questioning please read his. If your conscience follows with Dr. Grudem’s I understand and encourage you to follow your conscience but I respectfully disagree. I do not believe history, scripture, or plain reason makes this reasoning (voting and voting a certain way) a tenable must for the American Christian.
Voting, the way we do in the United States, has not been and is not currently available to a vast majority of the world population and has not been available to a large population of the United States for more than one hundred years. Plainly, registering to vote being an option to all American citizens is a relatively young enterprise and has happened within the lifetime of many of those insisting it is something we must do. Many African Americans were barred from voting until 1965 (though they could vote in theory beginning in 1870). Women could not vote until 1920. Native Americans could not vote until 1924. So to say being a Christian means you must vote doesn’t make any more sense historically than to say being an American means you must vote.
Voting for one of two parties has not always been the case historically and I hope will not be the case in the future. Dark horses and party splits have sometimes been the turning point for the better in American politics (enter Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt). The two party system as it currently exists is an unfortunate byproduct of water under the bridge and would disappoint our first and second presidents to say the least:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” – George Washington
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” – John Adams
Christian discipleship transcends time, region, and culture. The things all Christians must do will be evident in Scripture and will make sense to all those born of the Holy Spirit and will be things he or she can do as evidence of his or her walk with Christ in whatever time, place, or culture. When it comes to citizenship it is plain in Scripture that we are to pay taxes (Matt. 22:15 – 22, Rom. 13:7), pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:2), and be good citizens for the purpose of pointing to our Heavenly Father (1 Pet. 2:13 – 17). Any Christian, anywhere, at any time can do these things.
When “searching the Scriptures” for an imperative which requires 21st century Christians who are citizens of the United States (already a very narrow category limited to time, region, and status) the best they can come up with is “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” It would seem those appealing to this line forget the second half of the same Scripture as soon as they say it, “render unto God what is God’s,” which by far is the point of that passage. Rendering unto Caesar certainly applies to at least paying taxes because this the context of Matthew 22:15 – 22 and is corroborated plainly with other texts and the opposite of which is used as a lie in the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:2). Simply, paying taxes, tribal dues or tribute (which does translate in to most cultures) is not exactly equal to voting in a free republic (which does not translate in to most cultures). If that is our proof text demanding voting as a must for mature discipleship then we must look somewhere else.
To state that one must vote and vote a certain way is the duty of a discipled Christian is to impose a legalistic weight upon the shoulders of believers that is impossible to carry at all times, in all places, and in all cultures.
If voting in a free republic was a step in Christian discipleship then there would be a text that points us here but there is not. What are we to say for Christians seventeen and under? What are we to say to legal immigrants not yet able to vote? What are we to say to penitent ex –cons who have not received the right to vote back yet? What are we to say to many African Americans before 1965? What are we to say to American women before 1920? What are we to say to Native Americans before 1924? What are we to say to none land owners before 1870? Would we say they are/were “bad” Christians? Oh, and what about the rest of the world?
Or, what about the individual who has a family emergency the night before election day? Is she guilty of being a bad Christian because she did not avail herself of early voting? What about the one who dies before he has a chance to vote? Will he be accountable in judgment because he failed to vote absentee when he could have? Could both this man and this lady be tax payers who pray for those in authority and be those who seek the welfare (Jer. 29:7) of their communities and still not vote (or gasp, vote for a third party candidate)? Or is voting (and voting a certain way) the litmus test for a good disciple of Jesus Christ who is an of age, eligible, 21st century citizen of the United States of America (now of any race or either gender)?
We are told in defense of this reasoning of a must vote, “You are voting for a platform not a person.” Well maybe the sample ballots in other states differ from those in my state but I do not see “X party platform” on the ballot I see the nominee of X party. If we were actually voting for platforms then it stands to reason perhaps we would not even know who it is we are voting for (who wants to vote like that!?). A nominee of a party with a platform should ideally be an individual who embodies that platform (and has the proven character to carry it out). It has been agreed by almost all commentators worth their salt that neither of the two major parties really did their best in this regard. The past three debates have looked more like daytime talk show family dramas (or late night parody skits) than the real engagement of political discourse the American people deserve. Still, we are belabored with those telling us we ought to vote for someone who just might have the chance to beat the other candidate because “our candidate” is our best hope.
This tactic is frankly pugilistic and reeks of chariots and horses dung rather than a wafting sweet aroma of the name of the Lord our God.
To the men I greatly respect on many levels who have plainly stated in their hourly opinion pieces that you do not respect “namby pamby Christians” such as myself who would not follow behind you lock step, I hope your conscience is just as in tact publically alienating fellow believers as much as it is in the privacy of your voting booth. I believe I speak for a lot of us millennial evangelicals (and similarly minded spanning the generations) in saying we still respect you, but just because your nominee calls dissenters names does not allow for your labeling of us as poor disciples, bad Christians, and worse.
To those who instead search for a better way, may we break free from the yoke of legalism that enslaves disciples of Jesus to a cookie cutter approach to American [sic] Christianity.
Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the opinion of men in these matters, for they have contradicted each other (and themselves) – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. (HT Martin Luther)