Two figures traversed the country. The first came to prominence through cronyism, seemingly motivated by ambition alone. Most comfortable in the shade, as it were, here was the quintessential establishment character.
The other raised rabble. A loud nationalist appealing to a fed-up following, this one sought to purge the class of ruling elites from a system that had grown corrupt under their leadership. Here was the supposed outsider, the one seeking to restore the country to its former glory.
These two contrasting political figures were not candidates on the campaign trail in 2016; rather, they were Matthew the Publican and Simon the Zealot, disciples of Jesus. Under different circumstances, Matthew might have died wealthy but lonely, despised by his countrymen as a sellout to Rome. Simon might have died on one of the crosses next to Jesus. Instead they ended up as fellow citizens — magistrates, even — in a Kingdom not of this world.
If politics makes strange bedfellows, then the call of Christ makes stranger ones still.
How Then Should We Vote?
As believers, we are not metals in a melting pot’s alloy, but branches connected to the True Vine. His inauguration will be celebrated not with a dress ball, but with a wedding feast.
For Christians, the dual citizenship resulting from birth and baptism is a complex, if temporary, reality. In the American republic, as in other democracies, the magisterial office of voter adds weight to our civic behavior because we have direct influence over the government to which we have been called to earthly submission. This can be confounding. The Westminster Confession spends a chapter on the subject of civil government, but it does not speak directly to the issue of voting. The reason is simple: Popular democracy was relevant neither to their contemporary government nor to the human writers of Scripture. For direction in voting as Christians, then, we are left to more modern guides — or to ourselves.
The 2016 election cycle produced public rifts between Christians who have historically coalesced, even around candidates they recognized as flawed. With consciences troubled by both major party nominees for the office of President this year, believers were forced to reflect on the moral meaning of voting. Various Christian leaders of good faith arrived at different conclusions about voting based in part on different interpretations of what a vote means to the conscience.
Theologian Wayne Grudem, writing in Townhall, expressed his belief that voting for Republican Donald Trump was, in fact, a positive moral choice because it was a vote against a platform of abortion on demand and further restrictions on religious liberty (centered mostly on issues involving same-sex marriage and transgenderism now, but unlikely to remain fixed there). Grudem also cited a laundry list of boilerplate conservative issues such as tax policy, national security, and health care. After wavering briefly over some particularly unseemly revelations, Grudem solidified his position in October.
On the other hand, Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., acknowledged his plans to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton in an article for The Gospel Coalition. He found no redeeming qualities in either candidate, but regarded what he termed the “predictable” evil as less dangerous than the “unpredictable” one and felt compelled to vote in the manner most likely to stop it.
Though they supported different candidates, both Grudem and Anyabwile acted on the same consequentialist basis in voting. That is, they voted practically in anticipation of the expected result of either candidate being elected. They were far from the only ones to do so, nor was Grudem alone in arguing that others should do the same, with some form of “but what about the Supreme Court?” serving as the most reductive argument.
By this logic, voting is all but compulsory for Christians. Failing to take strategic electoral steps to prevent the worst conceivable outcome would render them complicit if it then occurred. But is this an appropriate perspective? Alan Noble believes the answer is no. Noble is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and a member of City Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oklahoma City. He also edits the online magazine Christ and Pop Culture. “The stance for American evangelicals tends to be that voting is a sacred act, if not in a biblical sense, then in a civic sense,” he says. “The rationale is that, because people shed their blood to defend our nation (and therefore the right to vote), we dishonor them if we don’t vote.”
The Westminster Confession spends a chapter on the subject of civil government, but it does not speak directly to the issue of voting. The reason is simple: Popular democracy was relevant neither to their contemporary government nor to the human writers of Scripture.
Noble does not share this view. Though he does believe Christians are obligated to participate in the political process, he insists that voting is not the only — or even the most effective — means. “Protests are also a means of participation,” he explains. “If I refuse to vote for a major party candidate, then publicly explain why, that is a signal.” In an age where nearly everyone has a social media megaphone, it may have an even greater practical impact than any single vote ever could because it might embolden others to make a similar choice.
This is the course of action Noble took in 2016. Rather than viewing his vote for a third-party candidate as a strategic blunder, he used his platform to write an article for Vox in June entitled, “Evangelicals like me can’t vote for Trump or Clinton. Here’s what we can do instead.” He has likened his choice to a boycott, a tool which some of his critical evangelical friends have, ironically, been more than happy to utilize in the past.
Put Not Your Trust in SCOTUS
It is worth considering that there may be more at stake in voting than meets the eye. Political scientist and author Matthew J. Franck wrote against the consequentialist outlook in a piece published by The Public Discourse: “Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever — except the shape of your own character. Vote as if the public consequences of your action weigh nothing next to the private consequences.” It would be foolish to argue that voting for a particular candidate is tantamount to an unqualified affirmation of everything that candidate says or does. But voting is nevertheless a voluntary alignment with a form of power. If it is not a full-throated endorsement, it is at least an alliance. This matters for people who are kings and priests in a holy nation.
Outside of politics, few Christians would argue that “the ends justify the means” is a valid moral construct for decision making. And asking His people to choose between unpalatable binary options has rarely been God’s modus operandi. In Exodus, the Israelites often reduced their options to dying in the desert or returning to Egypt. God had other plans, of course, starting at the Red Sea, where they had only to be still and watch His deliverance. Later, when the Assyrians threatened King Hezekiah’s Jerusalem, the king turned to Egypt for help. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, was even less impressed with this unholy alliance than was the Assyrian commander:
“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame,
and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.
– Isaiah 30:1-3
Engagement in politics is one thing; pushing the political panic button is quite another. If the legions of Pharaoh and Sennacherib were no match for God’s power, what have we to fear? God does not need another conservative justice on the United States Supreme Court in order to preserve religious liberty in America — if indeed He desires to do so. His elect, then, should choose their allies carefully. One judicial appointment does not cover a multitude of sins, nor are convenient yokefellows necessarily equal ones.
Sovereignty and Submission
The Westminster divines may have lacked the prescience to lay out principles for voting, but they had a great many thoughts on how Christians should behave with respect to an established government. Contemporary American Christians would find little controversy in most of what they had to say: that government exists under God’s ultimate sovereignty, that its sphere of authority should not overlap that of the church (and vice-versa), and that believers ought to obey laws that do not contradict God’s word.
Our responsibilities do not end there, however according to the Westminster Confession: “It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates (1 Timothy 2:1-2), to honour their persons (1 Peter 2:17), [and] to pay them tribute or other dues (Romans 13:6-7).” American Christians rankled by leaders for whom they didn’t vote can be easily tempted to reduce the command to “pray for magistrates” to something more akin to asking God to thwart a particular policy initiative. Similarly, “honoring their persons” might morph into esteeming an office rather than its occupant, and “paying tribute” could become instead the sanctimonious virtue of not cheating on one’s taxes.
The Apostles most likely had a more exacting standard in mind. Considering who was likely the Roman emperor at the time the Epistles cited in the Confession were written, their exhortations seem nearly scandalous. For all their shortcomings in the eyes of conservative Christians, neither President Obama nor President-elect Trump is less deserving of respect than Nero.
The results of the election neither surprised nor dismayed God, who ordained it for His pleasure and good purpose. If Paul and Peter could call on the church to offer prayers and honor to Caesar, and if Jeremiah could encourage the exiled Israelites to work for the peace and prosperity of immoral Babylon, then American evangelicals cannot get off the hook with a grudging “respect for the office of the Presidency.”
“Fundamentally, we need to desire good for our leaders and their decisions,” says Alan Noble. “For example, I want to desire that the President-elect will follow through on his pledge to appoint constitutionalist judges and institute policies that show respect for human dignity and care for the vulnerable. Even though I do not see much evidence that he will do these things, they are things I can pray for rather than against — through a lens of hoping for all things.”
Noble argues that failing to do so has consequences in the political realm. “If I decide in advance what the Trump administration will be like and refuse to pray for him, I close down the possibility of ministering to and persuading him and his supporters,” he says. “This also encourages me to show him respect, recognizing that he was elected under God’s sovereignty.”
Engagement in politics is one thing; pushing the political panic button is quite another. If the legions of Pharaoh and Sennacherib were no match for God’s power, what have we to fear?
Christ’s Body, Politic?
With a president few of them are entirely comfortable with soon to take office after a divisive election, conservative evangelicals may feel more like sojourners and exiles than ever before. What now are their political responsibilities that go beyond mere submission to ordained authority? The common discipleship of Matthew and Simon provides a clue.
We can only speculate about the degree to which these two one-time political antagonists may have changed their views. Certainly they rejected the theft and violence of their former compatriots. Even more importantly, we know of at least two other radical changes in both. First, they came to see a vision of the common good through the lens of the Gospel. Second, they grew in love of their neighbor — including each other. A change in worldview and a change of heart are, after all, things that happen when the Holy Spirit works in a person’s life.
If Christians do not constitute a monolithic voting power large enough to win elections by themselves, there are still plenty enough to effect much public good. “Evangelicals are still a huge political force,” says Noble. Rather than viewing politics as a fight between ideological opponents (a culture war with winners and losers), Noble prefers the idea of taking dominion over issues of justice and mercy. “What policies, laws, practices, and language will help us live at peace with our increasingly secular neighbors (the context of 1 Timothy 2 and the reason we should pray for both neighbors and rulers)? That’s the reality.”
In addition to his role as a professor and writer, Noble is a founding member of Public Faith, which launched this summer. “We believe that neither political withdrawal nor reinvigorated culture wars by Christians will help our nation and communities through the difficult challenges we face,” says Public Faith’s vision statement. “Instead, we seek to offer a different voice: confident and hopeful, equally full of conviction and grace. As Christians, we believe that our faith has something essential to contribute in this moment.”
Public Faith’s members include people who have worked in government in both major parties. They do not all agree on every issue. But they are united in the faith and in a desire to apply it, together, in the public sphere. As an example of their work, this past September they released two policy statements. The first was a call to reject the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, the legal provision that prohibits direct funding of abortion by the federal government. The second was an appeal for reforms that address persistent racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. The very fact that two such statements could come out simultaneously from the same organization offers a glimpse of the power Christians have both to work within the political system and to transcend it. Neighbor love, rooted to a Gospel worldview, is a powerful thing.
Out of Many, One
The American model of government depends on a kind of unity that is deeper than our political divisions, deep as they are. Fundamentally, the system has legitimacy because the people respect the democratic process. Christians in this country are right to be grateful for this, maybe even to marvel at its unique place in history. But we must be careful to keep it in that place. For in our ultimate state of unity we are not metals in a melting pot’s alloy, but branches connected to the True Vine. His inauguration will be celebrated not with a dress ball, but with a wedding feast.
As we anticipate that feast, we can know that God’s sovereignty applies every bit as much in our American democracy as it did in the Roman Empire. The Spirit that brought Egypt and Assyria to their knees is the same Spirit that brought Matthew and Simon to Jesus’ feet. In both the public and private sectors of our lives, may our primary impulses be to strive in obedience while we rest in trust.
Phil Mobley is a consultant and writer living in Lilburn, Georgia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science.