Is it a sin to vote for Hillary Clinton? To vote for Donald Trump? To not vote for Trump? To not vote at all? To write in Ben Sasse? What’s a Christian to do? This presidential campaign has brought a lot of pained and strained arguments for and against a Christian’s duty in the voting booth. Some have been dogmatic, but most have been pragmatic. These practical arguments come down to one thing: the damage that “the other guy (or gal)” will do to our nation and world if we don’t act to stop him.
A common assumption behind all of these arguments is that Christians have a duty to vote, and that the failure to exercise this duty makes one responsible for the results. Not voting, or voting for a third-party candidate, is morally equivalent to positively voting for the other team. (Footnote: Christians in Germany could have stopped Hitler’s rise if they weren’t so submissive.)
This argument fails to grasp that the morality of a Christian’s vote is upstream of “Clinton versus Trump.” While the New Testament doesn’t directly address the question of how a Christian should vote, it does nonetheless present a uniquely Christian approach to civic engagement. Over the coming weeks, as we make our long, slow march to the polls, Christians should take this opportunity to reflect upon their unique callings in this world, and the deeper meaning and morality of the act of voting.
To wit, here are a few theological reflections on Christian duty at the ballot box, and why we need not vote for the lesser of evils.
1. Caligula, Claudius, or Nero? God Is in Charge
If you were a Roman Christian, whom would you prefer for your emperor? Caligula was murdered on January 24, 41 AD. Claudius died in 54 AD, probably from poisonous mushrooms. Nero “ruled” from 54 to 68 AD, when in the midst of a revolt he asked his private secretary to take his life.
The Bible tells us God used revolutions, poisonous mushrooms, and loyal secretaries to get his man (or woman) in office. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians living in the eternal city during Nero’s reign, telling them that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
God is in charge. Today in America, he uses votes. It might seem more civilized to us, but it is no different. The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.
2. ‘Submit’ Is the Most Direct Biblical Command about Government
The thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is the clearest teaching in the New Testament on a Christian’s civic duty. If you care about this election, please, take the time to go read it.
In it, Christians were called to submit to all these morally corrupt rulers of Rome, because they were instituted by the hand of God. This is not a command to submit to some ideal, Christian ruler. Paul — again, probably writing during Nero’s reign — calls civil authorities “God’s deacons,” or servants. He tells us God uses them for a limited purpose, as “ministers of his wrath” to be a terror to bad conduct and for our good.
By the way, Nero is rumored to have dipped Christians in oil and set them on fire to serve as torches in his garden. Some deacon you have there, Paul.
Are there exceptions to this submission? Absolutely. When we are directly commanded to disobey God’s law, we must obey God rather than man. But apparently, for Paul, suffering quietly under Nero isn’t such an exception.
3. Dual Citizenship and Christian Liberty
That same apostle Paul famously boasted of being a Roman citizen. He repeatedly invoked his citizenship to avoid imprisonment and beating, to claim the right to speak, and to gain a broader hearing for the gospel by appealing his case to Rome. He also boasted of being a citizen of heaven. Christians therefore have a dual citizenship.
How should that dual citizenship sort itself out in the voting booth? Clearly, our heavenly citizenship is primary, and absolute. God’s word gives us abundant instruction about our obligations as heavenly citizens — which can all be summed up in a single word, “love” — and often leaves us free to wrestle with ambiguity in our earthly citizenship.
As a pastor, I often emphasize this “Christian liberty” in matters where God’s word is silent, such as voting. Christians are free to wrestle with their consciences in this matter, yet as a minister of God’s word, I have no authority to bind their conscience, other than to urge them to walk in love, which “does no wrong.”
Christian liberty keeps us humble. It reminds us there isn’t necessarily a proper “Christian way” to do everything. Our duties as followers of Christ are specific, limited, and mostly local. Very often, the way of love is the way of not doing harm.
Christian leaders should recapture the humility and wisdom of Christian liberty before they give counsel on how to vote.
4. There Is No Specifically Christian Duty to Govern Or Vote
While Paul as a Roman citizen had the right to vote (ius suffragiorum), and may have voted, he never instructed his churches on how to use that right. Why? One way to summarize the argument of Romans 13 is that believers in the New Testament should no longer do what believers in the Old Testament were explicitly commanded to do. This is implied by the context of Romans 12.
During the reign of “burning Christian” Nero, Paul wrote to Christians in Rome: “Repay no one evil for evil, live peaceably with all… never avenge yourselves, leave it to the wrath of God.” This is a remarkable departure from the duty of God’s people in the Old Testament, who from Moses to Christ had a mandate to govern. They were to wage war on their pagan neighbors, and commanded to inflict penalties (God’s wrath) upon various civil offenses. He continues, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. … He is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath.”
The Christian takes no vengeance, but “leaves a space” for the wrath of God to be executed through the civil rulers he has instituted. This is not a prohibition from partaking in civil politics. But neither is it a command to do so. Such a command is lacking in the New Testament, and not merely because the opportunity was not at hand.
Those are famously Jesus’s words when Pilate asked at his trial, “Are you the King of the Jews?” These words can glibly be cited to argue for the spirituality and interiority of the Christian faith and life. That’s certainly not the point. It would be false to conclude that our faith in Jesus doesn’t affect the way we live in the world.
The point is that neither Jesus nor his followers has a mandate to rule or reign any longer here on earth. This, again, in contrast to what most Jews at this time thought. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting.”
Jesus doesn’t deny he’s a king. He is. Christians also confess that one day — a day of his choosing — every knee shall bow to his dominion. But ours is not to fight for this heavenly kingdom, but receive it in faith when it comes.
Let us remember that the Christian faith is founded upon the Roman government’s capital execution of Jesus. We confess that by that death he saved us from our sins, and modeled Christian love. It doesn’t exactly follow that our ability to faithfully pursue the Christian life — described as “suffering with Christ” — is hampered by the outright opposition of the state.
6. ‘Live Peaceably With All’ Might Be Incompatible With Our Politics
The command to “live peaceably with all” might be incompatible with modern partisan politics in America. Peaceful coexistence is really the dominant theme of New Testament civic engagement. “Turn the other cheek.” “When reviled, bless; when persecuted, endure.” “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” “Do your work quietly and earn your own living.”
Yes, voting is a peaceful act. We believe in “ballots, not bullets.” But often political engagement is fueled by a hateful rhetoric that often leads to demonizing the other party. We’ve all seen this. My sweet, loving mother — a dear Christian woman — has been thoroughly convinced that her political opponents are the antichrist. Okay, I confess. Sometimes I am, too.
We should acknowledge that engaged participation with our political process makes it more difficult to think and behave like Christians should. It creates an obstacle to pursuing peace with all our neighbors, and to submitting willingly and lovingly to our rulers as God’s appointed servants. In short, it’s bad for our sanctification and mis-shapes our character.
Perhaps the most Christian thing to do at this point in our history is to abstain. If your conscience is leading you to abstain, by all means, don’t let anyone compel you otherwise.
7. You Can’t Love Through Government or Politics
Many Christians are quick to point out that government welfare programs aren’t equivalent to Christian charity. Seizing monies by taxation power and redistributing them to the needy — or politically supporting programs that do so — is not morally equivalent to voluntarily and charitably caring for the poor. Christians on the Right like this argument when it is deployed against higher taxes or welfare programs they oppose.
However, they fail to see how the same logic limits the kind and nature of goods government can accomplish in general. Government always works by force, and compulsion. So let’s not fool ourselves: at the ballot box voters seek to deploy force. If we can marshal a majority, we plan to force our candidate, our policies, on the minority.
But Christian love — which both Jesus and Paul say fulfills all the law — does not, and cannot, work by force. We can’t love our neighbor by spending other people’s money at gunpoint (i.e., “government”).
8. Not Voting for Trump Does Not ‘Give Your Vote to Clinton’
This is a simple moral distinction that others have clearly explained, but it still exerts a pull on evangelical voters. This reflects how powerfully the church in American has been held captive by the Christian Right and the Republican Party.
No party owns a Christian’s vote, such that to withhold it is to add to the opponent’s tally. Not voting in this election is not a de facto vote for the other guy or gal. Not voting doesn’t subtract, it doesn’t give away, what hasn’t been earned in the first place.
The real question is how a Christian can ever vote for a civil ruler who is seeking the power to compel? The power to wield the sword of God’s wrath, to command armies, to tax. How can a Christian ever endorse a human kingdom of power seeking to subject by force those who oppose it? As Christians, we are called to the weakness and folly of the cross, to love and serve in humility. Yes, even to submit to evil for a time as witnesses to its eternal victory in Christ.
We should, in short, hesitate before we vote for anyone. Yet we may vote—so long as we recognize the very limited, merely civil good of this act.
9. But What About Abortion?
Abortion is the ace in the hole for Christian political activism. It is impossible to refute the horrors of a civil regime that not only permits, but enshrines and defends as a right, wrenching little children alive from the womb and cutting them to pieces. Yes, we enlightened moderns live in horrific times.
I recently watched a portion of this extremely graphic video documenting the most vicious practices of abortion. I had never seen it before in my 44-year, post-Roe v. Wade life. I couldn’t watch the whole thing. Be very, very careful before you click on this link. But if you think abortion is a medical decision we must tolerate, a constitutionally protected right, please do.
Yes, this video shows extreme cases, the worst of the worst. Yes, a typical abortion is far more clinical and invisible. But the defense of on-demand abortion up to the moment of delivery leads to these results. They are the unavoidable conclusion of our current regime. Abortion politics today demands that we either defend unborn life as life, or we subject it to this torture.
If this issue doesn’t command our votes, what does? Given the choice of voting against that, you suggest a Christian may abstain? Yes. Why? Because, in part, I’m afraid abortion is something of a gateway drug to politics. If Christians can use the power of the state for anything, surely they must use the power of the state to stop this. From there the slope slips.
Why? Because Rome, too, enshrined horrific evils. Crucifixion is arguably as horrific as abortion. Yet Paul urged Romans to submit to this government and pay their taxes—taxes that in part bought the nails for crucifixions, even, by extension, the crucifixion of Christ.
Why? Because ancient abortion — the Roman practice of infanticide — was not conquered by politics, but by the costly and loving act of individual Christians picking up individual crying babies from individual trash heaps. Selfless love was modeled, not imposed. Because it can’t be imposed.
Christians are of course free to vote their consciences on abortion. But our culture will only embrace anew the sanctity of life when Christians model this sanctity as much as they vote for it. That’s when we express our opposition to abortion in other, more costly ways.
I’ve cited a lot of Scripture here in hopes that Christians spend some time in God’s word before we cast our ballots over the next few weeks. If we do, we may realize that the New Testament picture of civic engagement is radically different than what we have inherited from the Christian Right.
Perhaps this election has a silver lining. Perhaps it will begin to break the church’s addiction to politics. Come, Lord, quickly.