The United States of America is saturated with politics. Every four years a presidential election is held; every two years elections are held for Congress and many state offices. With the advent of 24/7 cable news television channels and the Internet it seems as if campaigning is a non-stop event: within weeks of one election people are already discussing the next. Citizens are bombarded with advertisements and appeals regarding various candidates. Great encouragement is given to vote and participate in the political process.
Christians who live in the United States of America and maintain their earthly citizenship under this nation-state therefore must grapple with whether and how they will participate in its political processes. Many are convinced that they must vote or they would be in sin; others are equally convinced that they have no right or standing in Christ to vote. Many are convinced that they must align themselves with one particular issue or ideology; some believe otherwise. We do well to turn to Scripture and see what we can learn from it regarding Christians and voting.
Can, or should, a Christian vote? From what we can see in the New Testament, Christians are at liberty in terms of voting. A Christian can choose to vote or choose not to vote; each must live by their own conviction, and each will stand before God based on the decision they have made (Romans 14:4-12).
Some countries have made voting compulsory. In any nation where voting is compulsory, the Christian is under obligation to vote because the Christian is obligated to honor rulers and submit to their authorities (Romans 13:1-7). Even then, Christians are rarely under any obligation to vote for a specific person or cause; they could hand in an empty ballot if need be. If a Christian were to be compelled by a nation-state both to vote and to make a particular choice, then the Christian has no real moral agency in such a situation, and the government authorities would be held liable.
The United States of America has not made voting compulsory. No one is forced or compelled to vote. Therefore, it cannot be argued that a Christian must vote in order to honor and respect the earthly authorities (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17). A Christian may decide that they want nothing to do with the political process of their nation. A Christian may feel that voting for any of the candidates for a particular office would be morally indefensible. Let all be convinced in their own minds. As Christians we still have the ability to point out the difficulties and challenges which exist in our nation on account of political policies whether we vote or not.
Voting can be defended according to the Scriptures as a liberty based on 1 Timothy 2:1-2:
I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity.
Paul here encourages Timothy to exhort everyone to pray, make thanksgiving, and intercede for and thank God for kings and those in authority so that Christians may lead a tranquil and quiet life according to God’s will unto His glory. Since Paul has already taught that all authority comes from God and thus civil government has authority from God (Romans 13:1-7), it follows that God should be the One to whom we pray regarding governmental authorities so we can continue to live a godly life. It can be inferred from the ability to make such supplications and intercessions before God that if we have the opportunity to participate in voting so as to secure the victory of a political candidate whom we believe will best and most effectively govern so as to allow us to lead tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and gravity, then we are authorized to do so. Just as we trust in God and thus seek to work to accomplish His purposes (cf. James 2:14-26), so we can pray to God and trust in Him to protect and watch over us, and also seek to vote to maintain tranquility and peace.
This inference can be made but it is by no means necessary; such is why voting remains a matter of liberty. The decision to vote for a candidate or issue should not be taken lightly; we have no reason to believe that because it is a matter of liberty God has no concern regarding for whom or what we vote. We will have to stand before the judgment seat for how we participated in political processes and for whom we voted, or for having refrained from doing so (Romans 14:10-12). And thus voting is a matter of liberty, a decision to be made by each individual Christian in full faith and confidence (Romans 14:22-23).
For whom shall a Christian vote? Americans end up using all sorts of mental arguments and gymnastics so as to justify their electoral decision. Christians cannot justify their decision purely based on political strategy or partisan logic; we must do all things by the authority of Christ (Colossians 3:17). Thus, the grounds upon which we should vote for a leader or a cause ought to be grounded in some Biblical reason and authority.
The New Testament provides no expectation for the political government to advance the Gospel of Christ; God’s people are to proclaim that message (Romans 1:16, 10:11-17). No passage suggests or even hints at the idea that a nation could become a “Christian nation,” for there is already the Kingdom of God in Christ, Jesus is presently its Lord, and is not going to be resigning His authority (Acts 2:36)! There is no Biblical basis on which to expect or demand the state to use its coercive power to compel people to practice Christianity, and so such should not be the basis upon which we decide to vote for a candidate.
Many decide to vote for a given candidate or regarding specific issues on the basis of upholding God’s definition of good and morality. We do see that a function of government is to uphold what is good and right and execute judgment on what is wrong and evil (Romans 13:1-7); it remains true that righteousness exalts a nation (Proverbs 14:34). But we must be very careful about these types of decisions: they are rarely as black and white as they seem. No political platform fully and truly upholds what God would desire from rulers as manifest in the Old and New Testaments (Isaiah 1:16-17, Romans 13:1-7). It becomes easy to focus on one or two specific issues and elevate them above all others; yet sin is sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and one may end up voting for a terribly ungodly candidate because of a misplaced trust on account of promises related to those issues. Solomon was right: righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:34). Note that Solomon did not say “righteous laws,” but “righteousness.” Israel had the most righteous Law ever, delivered by the angels from God (Romans 7:12, Hebrews 2:1-3); yet Israel proved faithless and did not keep the Law. Sin, by definition, is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Therefore, no legislation can guarantee righteousness: one can be righteous even if the laws of the land are not the greatest, and one can be terribly sinful even if the laws are great. Furthermore, even if all the laws of the land were exactly the way God would have them, such by itself does not save a single soul. We do well to be wise and circumspect about the emphasis on righteousness, the good, and morality in the filthy and compromised work of politics.
What, then, would be the Biblical ground for selecting a candidate or issue? The reasoning Paul gives for praying for the government in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 is part of a theme in the New Testament: from the government we are to desire the conditions of tranquility and peace so we can serve God according to His will and purpose (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:12, 1 Peter 2:11-17). We are to pay respect, honor, and taxes; we are to be left alone and given an environment in which we can live in righteousness and proclaim the Christ.
Thus, as Christians, we do well to give strongest consideration as to which candidate we believe will provide that environment of tranquility and peace. Christians may disagree on that decision, emphasizing certain platform elements, policy views, or character considerations over others; each ought to act according to his or her conscience and convictions and recognize that each will stand before God for doing so. We have no right to judge or condemn others for their views or decisions, but we have every right to discuss the factors which go into these decisions and how we have come to believe that a given candidate will provide that tranquility and peace, and be willing to allow our conclusions and thought processes to be challenged and critiqued by fellow Christians. We must be careful not to condemn, bite, and devour each other, but we also know that iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17, Galatians 5:15). Our brothers and sisters in Christ may have noticed something we have missed; perhaps we have proven too willing to accommodate to political messiness and partisan identification and commend what ought to be condemned. It is a difficult balancing act to maintain properly.
When a Christian votes, the Christian is commending a candidate; this must be emphasized. Worldly wisdom would like to suggest that we can “vote against” someone by voting for another person; many speak of choosing the “lesser of two evils.” And yet the lesser of two evils is still evil; we have yet to see a politician who interpreted votes for him or her as really just votes against their opponent. As Christians we know that Jesus is not on the ballot; every candidate will be a sinful human being, and every politician will invariably disappoint as a leader (Romans 3:23). A Christian has every right to believe that all things being equal, one candidate will more likely provide tranquility and peace more than the other; in that case, the Christian is commending such a candidate for that reason (1 Timothy 2:1-2). If, in good conscience, we cannot commend a given candidate for leadership, then we have no right or basis upon which to vote him or her; it is better to not vote at all than to vote for someone contrary to conscience (Romans 14:23). When we vote for a candidate, we are partly responsible for their elevation to power, and therefore to a degree we will bear the responsibility for them.
Decisions regarding voting are rarely easy for the Christian. It is a matter of liberty fraught with all sorts of dangers and difficulties. We may choose not to vote when we would have been better served to help make our voices heard so we could maintain peace and tranquility; we may choose to vote when we would have been better served to refrain so as to keep ourselves pure from transgression. We may choose to vote for a particular candidate and they disappoint and act contrary to their promises; we may choose to vote for a particular candidate who does follow through with his or her promises and we may regret the consequences! May we, as Christians, pray and deliberate regarding any choices we make in regards to voting, seeking to live in tranquility and peace so as to be able to live righteously, proclaim the Gospel, so all who will can be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry