This is the second in a series of posts during election week 2020, titled, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement. Read the Introduction, Rule 2, and Rule 3.
To be a good Christian you have to be a good American. Let me explain.
The Bible says that God put you right where you are. “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). Assuming you are reading this in America as an American, that means God put you inside the borders of America to be an American for this period of time.
What does that mean for you? Among other things, it means that you have specific civic responsibilities as an American. It’s biblical for me to say that to you. When the Sanhedrin asked Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar, remember his reply, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That means that a Christian can take up residence in any number of civic contexts. We aren’t tied to any one nation. It also means that our responsibility to worship God is not incompatible with our responsibilities as citizens here. If we consider the difficulty of living under Roman rule, we should be inclined to work hard at making these two allegiances work.
It’s biblical to talk about our responsibilities as Americans, but what about “our rights as Americans?” Yes, that’s biblical too. Admittedly, that doesn’t always seem like the right emphasis as Christians who are called to lay our lives down. In an age when many of our fellow Americans are contesting those rights, it even feels a little culture-warish. But what if laying down our lives includes appealing to our rights as Americans? Where are we going to get a Bible verse for that? Remember what the Apostle Paul did when he was taken before the Roman tribunal? “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts. 22:25). He knew the answer, and so did the officials, so they let him go. Paul took up his cross and followed Jesus, but that doesn’t mean he was trying to get killed as fast as possible. No, he’s the one who told us to pray for kings so that we could lead “a peaceful and quiet life” so that all people might “come to a knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:2–4). In other words, Paul’s strategic appeal to his rights saved his life and made way for the gospel’s advance. It also checked the state at that point of intrusion. He was right and they were wrong.
The American preoccupation with rights is not just an American thing. It’s an American thing because it’s a human thing. Biblically, rights are tied to the basic structure of the created order that God has made in which there are humans who have inherent dignity, families that are the basic building block of society, and government, each with their own distinct role in relationship to God and one another. Paul appealed to his rights as a means to the gospel’s advance.
Here’s where I’m going with all of this: faithfulness to God as Christians means faithfulness in the civic context in which he has placed us. Which brings us to our first rule of political engagement: understand what you’re doing as an American. I am arguing that Christians in America have a certain responsibility to hold America to its promises. Not only because many of our rights as Americans precede the state, but because the state has made certain guarantees concerning those rights enshrined in the Constitution and the rule of law.
There are two other parts in this series to follow. In those posts I will get into our specific concerns as Christians and our broader outlook as the church. Here, I want to help us understand two things: our civic context and our civic responsibilities. These are important and neglected topics, so let’s settle in for a civics lesson.
Understand your particular civic context
You and I are citizens of The United States of America, along with some 328 million other people who call this home. Unless anarchy or fascism rule the day, large groups like this live together somewhere on the spectrum of personal freedom and government control. What kind of government do we have?
In a sentence, we have a beautiful, balanced, and frustrating kind of government. My goal in this section is first to inform you, since you are an American, and secondarily to make you see the wisdom in it all as a Christian.
What Is a Constitutional Federal Republic?
What form does our government take? We have a constitutional form of government. We are not ruled by a king whose authority is derived from blood or force or the words of some Lady of the Lake, but by a constitution. We do not have a ruler, but we are instead ruled by law, the fundamental law of which is the Constitution. More specifically, we are a constitutional republic, which means our representatives are democratically elected by the people. Their authority is derived from the people they lead. More specifically, we are a constitutional federal republic. Hence, we are not the United People but the United States. It’s for this reason that our election of a President is not by popular vote, but by means of the electoral college, a way of ensuring national schemes do not subsume the interests of local communities.
What is all this government machinery constructed to do? The Founders had a precise answer to this question: the government is here to secure the rights of the people, rights which are universally held and preexist government. Those inalienable rights alluded to in the Declaration of Independence were made explicit in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The Constitution has been amended many times, and the first of those are called the Bill of Rights, which guarantee our civil liberties. These amendments outline our rights in relationship to the action of our government and make explicit what the government cannot do to us or take from us. The first of these is important enough to cite, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Lose one of these and lose them all. That’s why they are collected together in one amendment. Other amendments deal with due process, ensure that we are innocent until proven guilty, and protect our right to property. At their best, these amendments are just a way of making explicit a commitment to keep government in its place as God’s servant.
Weapons and Balances
This form of government is utterly unique in human history. The history of nations is a story of tyranny, as our Founders admitted in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. By contrast, the theme of our constitutional system is restraint, or limited government. Several principles built into the Constitution help to limit the power of the government. For instance, we took the power usually given to one man (the king) and split it into three parts (separation of powers): a legislative branch to make laws, an executive branch to execute and enforce the laws established by the legislature, and a judicial branch to interpret the laws. Then we gave weapons (checks) to each of those branches to allow them to keep their powers balanced (checks and balances). The President can veto laws, but Congress can override the veto. The Supreme Court can declare laws unconstitutional, but Congress can impeach justices and the President can appoint new justices with congressional approval. Separation alone would not keep any one branch from dominating the government. Checks must be given to each branch to keep the others in line. All of this keeps government doing its job.
That’s a summary of the form, the structure, and the theme of our government. Now, which Americans get to run this ship? The Bible is clear that governing authorities derive their power from God (Ro. 13:1, 4). They are his minsters doing his work, whether it be patrolling the streets or signing bills. But the Bible does not speak to how this or that person comes into this authority. More must be involved than someone deciding they should be king. The process is left to prudence and the people.
What about Rhode Island?
America’s electoral process is built on John Locke’s understanding of social contract theory, an idea that is not derived from the Bible but that does not contradict it. That is, the idea that the government’s just powers are derived from the consent of the governed.
How this works out to balance a large nation’s consent involves some deliberate intricacies.
As one example, the legislative branch, or Congress, is made up of an upper and lower chamber. The lower chamber is the House of Representatives where each state elects representatives in proportion to their populations. The upper House is the Senate, where each state regardless of their size elects two representatives. This ensures that Rhode Island’s interests are not functionally irrelevant at the table because its relative size. Shorter terms in the House keep our elected officials accountable to the people while longer terms in the Senate protect against the intrusion of short-term political interests and ensure stability. The Presidency, as we know, is limited to a maximum two-term office, which keeps us from crowning a king. And justices on the Supreme Court, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, serve for life, insulated from political pressure so that they can check both the Presidency and the Congress.
Even our two-party system is very American even if it isn’t a part of American law. What is it exactly? It’s a way of facilitating a negotiation between millions of people. It gets a bad rap at times, and that’s understandable. It delivers us less than ideal candidates. We don’t generally get to vote for who we would pick if it was just us. But that again is a design feature. Because America isn’t just us. Narrowing our whole process down to just two candidates before the final pick fosters cooperation, concession, and compromise among people with differences, but with enough in common to go in together. Things can get weird, as we know. Given human nature and in the absence of true religion, these collections of interests can become a functional religion unto themselves. And we can get swept up or lumped in with the phenomena. Party slogans don’t help. Certainly, Christians must be disciplined about how we relate with our respective parties. But my point is this: there is much to appreciate in even this part of our system for how it fights our natural tendency as a large group to fragment.
Let’s bring this section in for a landing.
Difficult by Design
The American system of government is frustrating, and that’s the point. It is frustrating to human government’s time-tested tendency to totalitarianism. Rome moved from a republic to a dictatorship and that keeps happening. If ever the political process seems frustratingly slow and inefficient, that’s on purpose. Our government is designed to slow things down. It’s calculated to make power frustratingly difficult to accrue, arrest, and abuse. The purpose of government is not to perfect humanity or the human experience. The purpose of government is, among other things, to protect humanity from itself. Or, as Peter put it, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14).
Paul knew his rights and held the officials to honor them. That’s part of what we are doing in our political process as Americans.
Understand your civic responsibility
Americans will engage in the political process in different ways and to different degrees. But voting is the thing all of us can do. I’m calling it a responsibility, which is a touch short of an obligation. You don’t have to vote, and yet I think it’s fine to say not doing so is in most cases irresponsible given our role as citizens. This responsibility is the second thing we will focus on in this piece. This is also where some of our work to this point in the series will begin to payoff.
We rightly speak of wanting a clear conscience in the voting booth. Important for a clear conscience is a clear understanding of what we’re actually doing when we vote. You don’t need to feel bad about stealing third base when you’re playing baseball. That’s because it’s baseball. I’m convinced that many of our disagreements—especially in this election—come down to prior and less obvious disagreements about what a vote does.
I’ve read a dozen articles on this subject over the last year and I’m rarely happy with how a writer outlines evangelical voting patterns and priorities. So, let me take a shot and join the club. Best I can tell, there are three approaches evangelicals take to their vote for the President.
For the pietistic view of voting, what matters most is what a vote says about me before God. This view adopts a secular religious framework for the action of voting. With the receding influence of Christianity in our culture, politics and political leaders have moved into that space. Politics is how Americans, having lost their religious moorings, express their hopes and aspirations for themselves and humanity. Which is why our political discourse takes on such strident overtones. As with all religion, in this secular civil religion of politics we identify with the individual who gets our vote. Because religion requires purity, the purity of this selection is crucial to our spiritual and moral standing. Our vote is a statement of faith, so it has to be just right. True to the nature of religion, to vote for a candidate is to be all-in with that candidate, to engage in a form religious self-expression, a kind of secular sacrament.
If your candidate can do no wrong and their opponent can do no right, you may be a pietistic voter. Or, alternatively, maybe you’ve said, “I could never vote for Kandidate Karl.” Depending on the reason, you may have accepted the all-in sacramental framework that supercharges your association with the candidate with spiritual implications that lead either to personal defilement or salvation.
All Eyes on Us Voting
For the public relations view of voting, what matters most is what a vote says about me or us to others. It treats a vote as an important public statement effecting one’s reputation and, by association, the reputation of the church and of Christ. It is a signal to others of virtue. I don’t mean to say that in a cheeky way, but to describe the function of a vote in this mindset. To vote for a candidate is a decision in which all eyes are on me or us. When polls report on blocks of voters, they do so in a way that ignores the textured motives of voters. Those polls generate headlines, and those headlines generate reactions. Maybe you don’t want to be one of thosepeople.
If it is especially important for you that others know who you voted for and why—or who you did not vote for and why—you might be trying to persuade your peers, which is fine, but is is also possible that you are treating your vote as a signal to others of the kind of person you are. That focus on you and the perception of others means you may be seeing your vote in these terms. It also makes you vulnerable to manipulation, as public square opponents of your values know how to drive you away from the partnerships that would advance your interests.
Both of these voting approaches are often held together, and both can be held with good motives. In the first case, we want to honor our Lord. In the second case, we don’t want to misrepresent him before the world. Yet, our tendency to pietism in voting can be a form of worldliness. The world makes government its God, an election its sacrament, and the President its king. It divides humankind into red and blue. We don’t do any of that. That’s not the game we’re playing, constitutionally or theologically. Yet when the accusations of a compromised character follow, we easily accept this pietistic framework.
Our tendency to prioritize how others perceive our vote comes with the good intention of preserving our witness. But before which of my unbelieving neighbors? And before which generation, the one we’re in or the one fifty years from now? Today’s evangelical pundits are rightly hard on nuance before abolition or the end of Jim Crow, and yet lean into nuance when it comes to our day’s grossest human rights violations. The common theme is perception and reputation. When the accusations of an inconsistent witness follow, we easily accept this public relations framework.
My own take is that there is a better approach, an approach with more integrity. That is, an approach that is truer to the kind of game we’re actually playing, regardless of what Twitter thinks. Here’s how to vote.
All Things Considered Voting
For the principled pragmatic view of voting, what matters most is not what a vote says about me or to anyone else, but what a vote actually does. This view, also called a functional view of voting, sees a vote as a strategic move to advance the greatest good given the circumstances with a special emphasis on the role and goals of government. In other words, a matter of prudence. For a book-length treatment on this subject, read Clarke Forsythe’s, Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square. Our vote gives power to some people to make and carry out and enforce laws over the rest of us. What matters is who is getting that power and what we expect them to actually do with it. If we were the only ones voting for a President, we would need to approach it like we choose a babysitter. But it is not like that at all. It is 328 million people not like that. It’s much more like blob tag, an image that has stuck with me recently. This is an all things considered approach in a system designed for concessions.
Let’s add some more p words to the argument here, which I am borrowing from Andrew Walker. Do the platform promises matter? Yes, it matters what a candidate intends to do with our support. Do their promises strengthen or undermine our constitutional structure? Do their promises honor or undermine our basic rights as humans and as Americans? So, we might carefully read the republican party platform and the democratic party platform before voting. Does the person matter, that is, their character? Yes, character matters because it matters whether they will keep those promises. We watch their life, listen to their words, consider their history, listen for inconsistencies, and don’t forget about what they intend to do with the power we give them. That’s a matter of character too. Does it matter who the alternative viable person is? For this approach, yes that’s a meaningful factor. How about the personnel they will appoint to judge’s seats, cabinet positions, etc.? Yes, also a factor. How about specific policies? Yes, those are also important. How these all fit together will depend on the moment and our unique judgments about what’s at stake. Whatever a vote is in this case it is not a sacrament or a signal of our virtue. It’s a strategy decision based on many factors, some of which we will explore tomorrow.
Okay, I’m done.
Perhaps that will help you in the voting booth this Tuesday. For all the noise of the political season, we have it pretty good.
Remember, God put you in America. Be sure to vote.