Monday, September 27, 2004

Q-and-A: What is the Christian's Responsibility When It Comes to Voting?

This past week, an acquaintance of mine wrote kind words about my article on the Holy Trinity, one spurred by a question I’d received on the subject. Then, he himself posed a question. Actually, two requests.

First, he wondered if I would write something about what he called “the Christian’s duty to vote.”

Then he asked if I would also write a column telling people how they should vote in the upcoming elections.

I’m dealing with his first request in this article. (I have already addressed the question of whether it's appropriate for a pastor or a church to endorse a candidate or a party here.)

I certainly think that it’s a good idea for Christians and other citizens to vote. Since casting my first votes in 1972, I doubt that I’ve missed more than two general elections and less than a handful of primaries. So, voting is something I regard as important.

For the follower of Jesus Christ living in a democracy, the call to be a good neighbor, I believe, includes responsible citizenship. And responsible citizenship, in turn, can entail voting.

I say that it can entail voting because merely casting a ballot is no sign of being a good citizen.

The right to vote can be abused or misused as easily as other privileges we have in life. To cast an uninformed vote, to vote for a candidate simply because of their party affiliation, or because we like the sound of their name, or because a friend told us that they were going to vote for so-and-so, are among common ways in which we can misuse the privilege of voting. I myself have been guilty of these abuses on occasion in the past.

(Although I’ve never voted a straight partisan ticket in my life. Back in 1972, I remember that accounting for all the races---federal, state, and county---that were on the ballot that year, I voted for six Democrats and five Republicans. I was a registered Democrat at the time.)

So, in answer to my friend’s quesiton about the duty to vote, I say that if we’re basically uninformed about a particular race, we should do the responsible thing and not vote in that contest. A responsible citizen should only vote in those races or on those issues about which they feel sufficiently informed to make a good judgment.

But if we do feel so informed, then we should by all means, vote. One could even say that we have a duty to do so.

This raises another question: What do we do if after fully informing ourselves, we feel so disgusted with all candidates that we don’t want to vote for any of them? (I hear this a lot among Christians and others these days.)

Here are a few points to consider.

First: Remember that politicians are people too. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve heard voters complain that, “This year, the choice is between the least of two evils.” In a way, that has always been the case. Politicians are members of the human race of whom the Bible observes: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one...” (Romans 1:10) Perfection is not the benchmark standard for us to apply to our political leaders. I’m certainly not suggesting that you overlook what appears to be an overtly rotten character in a candidate. But I do suggest cutting candidates some slack for being human. Remember that even George Washington, as great as he undeniably was, didn’t start out out on Mount Rushmore.

Second: Understand that no candidate is the perfectly Christian one. When I ran for nomination to the Ohio House of Representatives earlier this year, I tried to emphasize that just because I am a pastor didn’t mean that I was more Christian than any of my opponents. It’s possible that some candidates who like to tout their Christian faith aren’t Christian at all, but spiritually-proud legalists (like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day) or even worse, opportunistic pols pushing buttons to get votes from a desirable demographic group.

Third: Pray about your vote. Ask God to clarify your thinking. After a time of reflection, decide if you feel pulled to vote for candidates A, B, Y, or Z. Unless you feel that by voting for any candidate, you’ll be encouraging corruption, mismanagement, or political machines (as some of my conservative friends who are Christians are feeling this year), you could quite legitimately decide not to vote.

Finally: “Sin boldly.” This strange bit of advice came from Martin Luther for Christians sincerely weighing decisions. Luther advised Christians to read God’s Word, talk things over with trusted Christian friends, and to pray. If your course remains unclear, do what you think is right. Your judgment could be wrong. But you can have a clear conscience because you know that your intent was to do the right thing. After all, you're imperfect too.

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