The Morality of Christian Political Engagement

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There’s been some talk in the last few weeks about the morality of certain political candidates. Wayne Grudem made a case for the morality of voting for Donald Trump. Others have rebutted Grudem’s view. Others have offered their support. But several key issues surrounding morality, Christianity, and politics haven’t been addressed.

The Morality of Government

The biggest obstacle for any biblical argument for a political candidate is making a biblical argument for Christian participation in government. Though the bible clearly teaches that we ought to respect the government and even pray for the government, we are not ever commanded to participate in the government. When the Israelites demanded a king, God acquiesced, but did not approve.

Within the Churches of Christ there has been a debate about whether or not it is permissible (or mandatory) for Christians to vote and participate in government. Perhaps the most famous opponent to such participation was David Lipscomb.

In his response to the argument of that Christians must vote, Lipscomb concluded:

[Jesus] set the full example for the Christian to follow, and if he refrained from political affairs it was because he desired Christians to do likewise. So far from Bro. Jones’ or Pinketon’s articles convincing any one that Christians can go into politics, we are certain they confirm all thoughtful Christians there is no ground for it. Brethren, let us get clear of our partisan prejudices for human institutions and look plainly at the teachings of God and learn of them the truth as it is in Christ.
David Lipscomb, “Voting,” Gospel Advocate (1876) 543-546 (with thanks to John Mark Hicks)

We must ask ourselves as followers of Christ how our participation in the political process is in line with our citizenship in God’s kingdom before we make moral demands of other Christians to participate in a certain political manner.

The Government of Morality

It has become axiomatic that it is impossible to legislate morality, but underlying that axiom is an important question for all Christians to wrestle with: Should Christians advocate for moral laws?

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says:

And, of course, Jesus never intended it to be such a plan. For all their necessity, goodness, and beauty, laws that deal only with actions, such as the Ten Commandments, simply cannot reach the human heart, the source of actions. “If a law had been given capable of bringing people to life,” Paul said, “then righteousness would have come from the law” (Gal. 3:21). But law, for all its magnificence, cannot do that. Graceful relationship sustained with the masterful Christ certainly can (pg. 155 emphasis original).

We must make a clear distinction between the religious laws that Jesus and Paul were referring to and the political laws of modern, secular governments. We must also assert, as Willard did, that laws can be necessary, good, and even beautiful. But there is no law that can produce righteousness. There is no religious law and there is no secular law that can make one right with God.

As followers of Christ, not only is our citizenship not of this world, our goals are not to make nations and kingdoms righteous. Whether or not the United States has laws that mirror the morality of Christ, our citizenship is in God’s kingdom. So, even if you were to answer the first question and assert that Christians should participate in government, you would also need to answer the second question and assert that such participation ought to be for the purpose of aligning the government with the bible.

The Party of Jesus

If you wrestled with both of those questions and you are still convinced that you must participate in government and that such participation must be to align the government with the teachings of Jesus in the bible you are left with a third question about which political party accomplishes that.

It is common for the Republican Party to be aligned with Evangelical Christians. This alliance has more history and nuance than is necessary for this article. In most recent history the alliance has been based on opposition to gay marriage and abortion. The Republicans use words like “family values” to identify with the Evangelical Christians who have, in large numbers, supported them.

Does it then follow that the major opposition to the Republican Party is anti-Christian? In recent history (because both political parties have changed their views many times over the years) the Democratic Party has supported abortion rights and gay marriage, positions which are anathema to many Christians. But at the same time the Democratic Party has opposed war and the death penalty (to name just a couple positions) while the Republican Party has advocated for both. A follower of Christ asserts that the peacemakers are blessed and that vengeance belongs to God alone so there seems to be some alignment between the teachings of God and both of the major political parties in the United States. Leaving us with the question of which party is the most Christian, or which party is the least opposed to the teachings of Christ.

What Must We Do?

I can’t tell you that you are morally obligated to vote. I can’t tell you that if you vote, you should vote for laws and lawmakers that want to enact biblical laws. I can’t tell you which political party, if any, represents the teachings of Jesus. And neither can anyone else.

If someone tells you that you must vote, they are not speaking along with the bible.

If someone tells you that you must vote for laws that support biblical teaching, they are not speaking along with the bible.

If someone tells you that you must vote for one political party or candidate as the representative of Christian values, they are not speaking with the bible.

Now we live in a world that is filled with daily decisions not expressly governed by scripture. Which movies should we watch? Which companies should we work for? What schools should we attend? What products should we buy? But that is not really very different from any other time in history. The bible was not meant to give us an instruction manual for every aspect of life, but to give us a relationship guide to bring us closer and closer to the heart of God. All of its rules and stories are summed up in love.

So, must you participate in government? The bible doesn’t say. Instead you ought to ask: How can you best love God and your neighbors?

Must you vote for laws that support biblical teaching? What is the most loving law for your neighbor?

Does one political party or another represent Christ? Which party could be summed up by its love?

Jesus said that his followers would be known by their love.  Not by their votes, not by their laws, not by their party affiliation, but by their love. So, what must we do? We must love. We must love those who choose differently than us. We must love those who participate in government and those who abstain. We must love those who vote for the laws they deem biblical and those who do not. We must love those who align with a political party and those who do not. We must love each other.

Immediately after Paul told the Romans to respect the governing authority (Rom. 13), he instructed them to bear with one another through disagreements about disputable matters like eating, drinking, and observing holidays (Rom. 14). Since our participation in government is even less-well addressed in scripture than those topics, I think it’s fair to apply the same practices of love and respect to voting as we should to eating and drinking.

Romans 14:

13 Therefore we must not pass judgment on one another, but rather determine never to place an obstacle or a trap before a brother or sister.14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself; still, it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean.15 For if your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy by your food someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you consider good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people.

19 So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another  (NET Bible).

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