Voting in Babylon
A few years ago, in one weekend, I had two paradoxical experiences. The first, on Saturday morning as I stood in line for breakfast following a prayer meeting for pastors and church leaders. The two men behind me were discussing the political issues of the day. One of them asserts, “I don’t know how anyone professing Christ could vote Republican.” The very next day, in a conversation about something which had political implications, another Christian said to me, “I don’t know how anyone could be a Christian and vote for the Democrats.”
In our current election cycle, pastors on both sides of the political aisle have said that must vote according to their persuasion. A common, yet sinful tendency is to vilify one’s opponents. This is true even among Christians. If we can declare such people with whom we disagree “un-Christian,” we have, at least according to the faith we profess, pronounced the worst possible condemnation on them. Indeed, we have “damned” them. The pastor and church member mentioned above would argue biblically for why they felt the way they did. I am sure both pastors mentioned above could also make a “biblical” argument for their case.
How can people with a common Christian faith have such differing opinions on voting? Is there one way for a Christian to think politically? The answer certainly requires more than this blog contribution can accomplish. However, I will attempt to speak to some of the issues in play.
The first issue is one of loyalty. In the American political system, parties call for our allegiance, our loyalty. It’s us vs. them. The Christian, however, has but one supreme allegiance and it is political. Our supreme allegiance is to a King (that’s political). His name is Jesus. We have but one city that will satisfy our longings—the city of God. Speaking of Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, the author of Hebrews writes,
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:13-16 NIV)
Although we have but one city that will satisfy our longing for justice and peace, it is not uncommon for us to put our trust in the earthly city to do so. This is an issue of faith, of allegiance (faithfulness). Christ’s kingdom will always cause the believer to be at odds with any worldly political system. If we were at home, we would be at odds with Christ’s kingdom. As I have said before, if we don’t go into the voting booth holding our nose, so to speak, then we are not thinking Christianly about what is at stake.
Peter’s first letter makes clear the fact that we are not at home in this world.
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia… She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. (1 Pet. 1:1; 5:13)
Peter picks up on the imagery of the exile to Babylon in his opening and closing lines of letter. “exiles of the Dispersion” refers to those Israelites that were scattered in the Babylonian exile. Apparently Peter was writing from Rome and so concludes “She who is in Babylon” referring to the church (“chosen together with you”) in Rome. A Christian is always an exile in this world.
A Christian cannot be so loyal to a party that they buy into evil for the sake of some other “good.” For the Christian, the end doesn’t justify the means. In fact, the means that will often achieve the proper end often involves suffering on our part (e.g. the cross). In order to remain faithful, the church must speak to issues of conscience and morality without selling out to a system.
Christians must be united in our loyalty to Christ, but our experiences are vastly different. Therefore, how we apply that loyalty will vary greatly. Whatever knowledge we profess to have will be in part (1 Cor. 13:9-10). Loyalty to Christ requires us to love those whose knowledge is different than our own (1 Cor. 8:1-2).
Loyalty to Christ requires us to love those whose knowledge is different than our own (1 Cor. 8:1-2).
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor. 1:20-25)
I really enjoy the comforts brought about by the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313 AD. If you are a Christian living in the West, you do too. It may seem hypocritical of me to say that by making Christianity a legal religion, eventually the legal religion, Constantine’s edict has led Christians astray in many ways. That edict aligned the power of Christ with the power of the sword which has been a dangerous mixture ever since.
Christians have since come to believe that they can use the power of the sword to enforce a religion that was begun by the laying down of One’s life. Since the power of Christ is the power of the cross (laying down one’s life) the power of Christ cannot truly be wed to the power of the sword. One gives up the power of the cross to gain the power of the sword, even if it is done in the name of Christ.
One gives up the power of the cross to gain the power of the sword, even if it is done in the name of Christ.
In the first three centuries of the Christian faith, Christians were under-resourced and stood largely on the outside of positions of power. Jesus came into a world in which, ironically, He was an outsider (John 1:10-11). He was despised and rejected by people, a man of suffering and familiar with pain (Isa. 53:3). The Gospels themselves were written by and to people in similar life circumstances. To understand them properly, those who live in positions of power and affluent communities have additional hindrances to overcome.
In Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have come out of the furnace without a hair on their head singed and without the smell of smoke on them (Dan. 3:27), but few if any politicians or voters have achieved such an experience in the fire of worldly power. We are all influenced by the fleshly desire for either gaining or retaining power and the fire of that desire burns and smells.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. (Psa. 20:7)
I’ve heard this line from the Psalm sung. I’ve heard it quoted. I dare say that most Christians are at least familiar with the words, but applying it in a year of an election for American Christians is not so common. Could we apply this by saying, “Some trust in Democrats and some in Republicans, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God”? You may retort, “Fine, but don’t we have to vote for someone?” Yes, assuming you vote, then you do have to make a choice, but voting for someone should not be the same as putting your trust in them or their party.
Are you trusting in Christ to rule over the world and bring about His kingdom of righteousness and peace, or are you afraid that God’s good way will be thwarted if the opposing party wins the election? Do you have more confidence in a free market to solve issues of poverty than in the sacrificial giving to which Christ calls us? Do you have more confidence in government redistribution than in the sacrificial giving to which Christ calls us? Are second amendment rights as important to you in the election as Christ’s righteousness?
Both political parties are keenly aware that fear is a great motivator, and use that to their advantage. Both parties want you to believe that if the other party wins, you are going to suffer great loss. If they can cause you to fear, you will not be motivated by love but by self-preservation (1 John 4:18). Election years in the United States are years when fears are heightened through manipulative rhetoric from the political parties.
If political parties can cause you to fear, you will not be motivated by love but by self-preservation (1 John 4:18).
We all battle different fears and trust in different substitutes for God at varying levels. These differences influence how we view political matters.
Some may ask, “Are you saying it doesn’t matter how we vote?” No, it does matter. As believers we should vote prayerfully and wisely after examining the issues and seeking to do what is just. However, we also know that earthly government cannot bring about true justice in this world. That does not mean we cease to work for what is just. But our primary work of justice must be as the church doing the works that Jesus has commanded regarding our neighbor.
The Bible does not tell us how to function in the American political system. To whatever degree we as Evangelicals have supported politics as a group, we have jumped back and forth over the last century and a half as to which side of the aisle we support. At least one reason for this is that we are often manipulated by forces we do not even recognize. In the 90’s, many Evangelicals demanded that character matters and may be the most important factor in determining for whom we vote. In recent elections, those same Evangelicals argue that God uses unbelievers too, like Nebuchadnezzar. Their conclusion is that character is inconsequential. God does use unregenerate people, but wasn’t that also true in the 90’s? Why wouldn’t character still matter? What has changed?
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, nor this age, and is therefore spiritual. This has never meant (at least in the Reformed tradition) that it did not make any material difference. Rather, it means that Christ “regenerates and governs his own people by the influence of the Spirit.” This influence of the Spirit will have tremendous material affect since the Spirit forms generosity, compassion, and love that expresses itself in actions and truth in the believer (1 John 3:18).
Abortion, racial and economic justice, war, and immigration (to name a few) are all issues about which Scripture has much to say. Unfortunately, one cannot line-up behind one party and be on the right side of all issues. Like it or not, our perspective is heavily influenced by what affects us (or doesn’t) personally. This accounts for much of the differences in how we vote.
We’d like to think we are voting on principle, and no doubt principles factor in, but a good case can be made that we vote largely on perceived self-interest and justify it morally. We quite easily see the self-interest of those with whom we disagree but are far too often blind to the self-interest which influences our own thinking (Luke 6:39-42). Christians in the American political process will continue to lead one another into the ditch until we can begin to see the log in our own eye. Many can’t believe that such a log exists in their own eye and that is central to the problem.
We should not be surprised that the world is unable to have real dialogue about the issues at stake. We should be deeply concerned that the church seems unable to have real dialogue about the issues at stake. Maybe a good starting point would be to stop vilifying one another and begin to hear what each other is saying. Doing so will not solve all the issues, but it will help us to obey Christ’s command to love one another and it is to this that we must have ultimate allegiance.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
 John Calvin, Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16.