Politics and Christian Faith in an Election Year
Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler,
Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics
The relationship of Christian faith to political life is part of a larger theological issue: namely, the relationship of God’s Kingdom to the kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world include various social institutions (i.e. economics, education, entertainment), but clearly the political sphere is the one with the greatest power in society by virtue of its ability to enact and enforce laws, and to preserve order and peace.
Through the ages Christians have had varying views on how to relate the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, particularly the political dimension. Some have seen the two spheres in such opposition that withdrawal or non-involvement is the only recourse. Others have believed that the kingdoms of this world, including the state, can be transformed towards the values and virtues of God’s Kingdom. And still others have held the two kingdoms in some kind of creative tension.
Wherever we land on that spectrum several observations can be made from a biblical perspective. First, the ultimate hope of Christians is not found in the state and the political process, but in the Triune God. Second, we do belong to both kingdoms, for Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17). Moreover, we are called by Christ to be light, salt and leaven in the world, and that includes the kingdoms of this world. There are various ways that Christians carry out that leavening process, but in a democracy voting in elections (national, state and local) is clearly one of them.
So the question naturally emerges for Christians, “How should I vote?” I would suggest three sets of criteria to guide believers as they go to the voting booth on election days.
The Character of the Candidates
Scripture clearly lays out specific criteria for Church leaders, and character is at the heart of those requirements (I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). But can we expect the same for political leaders operating in the sphere of the earthly kingdoms? History and experience certainly point towards the significance of character virtues for political leaders, such as: integrity, trustworthiness, personal morality, courage and kindness. These character traits are significant because leaders by nature are an example to others, and thus the tone of a whole society is set by the virtues or vices of its leaders. In addition, good governing requires trust among the various constituents of a society, and trust cannot be established without high character among those governing.
Aristotle, the ancient philosopher argued that character was one of the primary means of persuasion. In his classic work on Rhetoric he saw persuasion established by three elements: ethos (character of the speaker), pathos (emotional influence) and logos (logical arguments). If indeed the character of a person is essential to persuasion, then its applicability to political life is evident. Personal virtues inevitably manifest themselves in actions and are essential for all forms of leadership, including politics.
The Positions of the Candidates
When we explore the positions of political candidates we quickly recognize that as Christians we must often break with conventional politics. As believers we must hold together commitments that frequently are not held together by the major political parties. For example, Scripture is clear that followers of Christ must care for the poor and for the intrinsic dignity of human life from beginning to end. Similarly Christians must be committed to justice, including racial justice, and to freedom of religion. Christians believe that the family, as defined by Scripture, is a bedrock of society and also believe that personal freedom flows from being made in God’s image. These kinds of commitments are not frequent bedfellows in today’s political world.
In sorting through these issues we should recognize the difference between our ethical commitments and the strategies for attaining them. For example, Christians may agree on the importance of poverty alleviation, and yet may recommend differing strategies for attaining their goals.
All of this demonstrates that politics is complex in discerning our commitments, the best strategies to achieve those commitments, and in deciding on which candidate best reflects the positions we hold dear. Rarely will we get everything we want in a single candidate. This should not surprise Christians, for we believe that humans are finite and fallen, and our best efforts (even righteous and just ones) fall short of God’s designs. In politics we make not absolute moral judgments, but prudential judgments, discerning the best we can get, but frequently accompanied by positions we reject.
The competencies of the Candidates
A final set of criteria in how we vote is the competencies for the job. Here we explore skills, past experiences, knowledge, and temperament to carry out the vast, complicated requirements of political life. Christians care about competencies, because God desires that humans flourish in all dimensions of our existence, and political aptitude is essential for enabling the political process to function well for the common good. Competencies for public life are particularly essential in today’s world because foreign policy, domestic challenges, and the political process are highly complex, requiring vast understanding, astute leadership qualities and a temperament to work with varying and even opposing parties and positions.
One issue that arises in the competency criterion is whether Christians should favor fellow Christians in how they vote. This question was posed to the late Chuck Colson in a lecture he gave at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the eve of a national election several elections ago. Colson, I believe, responded wisely when he said, “You should never vote for someone simply because they are a Christian, because they may be totally incompetent to carry out the job. Being a Christian does not ensure political capabilities.” No one person will ever have all the capacities needed for the job, and thus part of their competency set should be the ability to draw on the wisdom, experiences, and knowledge of others.
From these sets of criteria it is clear that Christians will never get all they hope and pray for in any single candidate or political party. It is frequently noted that politics is the art of compromise, not necessarily of our most deeply held principles and virtues, but of the strategies for achieving those commitments, including sometimes the lesser of two evils in our voting. In politics there is frequently ambiguity and ambivalence in how we should vote. But that after all reminds us that politics is not the main thing in the Christian agenda. Our primary allegiance is to a Kingdom that far transcends the kingdoms of this world, but nonetheless gives us a framework and motivation for engaging the world–even the messy, embattled, yet noble world of politics.
Note: This essay was first presented in a forum on Christianity and Politics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on September 29, 2016. Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D. is the President and Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell.