Mixing Religion and Politics

John Dickson considers the factors that should and shouldn't drive Christians when they vote

Introduction: Mixing Religion and Politics

He who says politics and religion do not mix understands neither one. – Mahatma Gandhi

I am the true ‘swinging voter’. In the numerous elections of my life (beginning with the Federal election of July 1987), my personal votes have been fairly evenly split between Labor and The Liberal, or Coalition, parties. As I write, in the week or so before the 2013 Australian federal election, I do not know which party/ies I will support. In what follows, then, I have no hidden agenda. The last thing on my mind is to influence which party you vote for. 

I do, however, want to insist that people who identify themselves as Christian should vote in a way that is informed by their faith, whatever decision they finally make. While Christianity is not party political, it is political in the broader sense. At a fundamental level, faith concerns life in society—the word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek politeuō, meaning to live as a citizen. Everyone who is concerned with the life of our wider community (as every Christian must be) is ‘political’ in the larger sense of the word. 

In essence, what I want to do in this short article is outline how some basic Christian beliefs should – and should not – influence a Christian’s vote. I write with a dual audience in mind. I want to encourage Christians to be more thoughtful about their political opinions and I hope to demonstrate for the religious ‘spectator’ that, despite some rather potent counter-examples in North America, the ‘Christian vote’ is a vote for the good of the nation not an attempt to impose religious law on a secular society. 
I begin with how a Christian ought not to vote.

A) How Not to Vote

1. Precedent: ‘how we always vote’

Voting patterns are sometimes based on little more than family heritage (‘We have always voted for x’) or geographical location (‘Most people vote for y where I live’). I want to suggest that voting by personal or demographic precedent is not a thoughtful vote, and whatever else a Christian vote must be it must be thoughtful. Something as important as the way, and by whom, we are governed must be approached with seriousness and due reflection. Otherwise, believers are hardly loving God “with all the mind.” Christians must also resist the temptation, born of cynicism, to disengage from their responsibilities as voters and citizens.
That would be to retreat from “loving one’s neighbour.”

2. Christian favouritism

Secondly, and perhaps a little controversially, voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian, or our brand of Christian, is morally suspect; it is a religious form of favouritism. Having Christians in parliament is no guarantee—or even indicator—that our nation will be marked by peace, justice, compassion, truth and so on. Sadly, history is littered with counter-examples.

Voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian is morally suspect.

By all means, a Christian may vote for Christian candidates who also have a track record for diligence, leadership and justice, but it would be irresponsible to favour men and women simply because they are known as ‘Christians’, attend churches or frequent prayer breakfasts and the like. Theologically speaking, good government is not the special preserve of believers. Chapter 13 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans makes clear that even the pagan governments of Rome were to be thought of as ‘established by God’. Indeed, secular, non-Christian rulers are described by the apostle as ‘God’s servants’. The point deserves deep reflection.

3. Economic prosperity

Thirdly, the main parties and most of the major media tend to make ‘economic prosperity’ a central election issue. This is a window into the soul of a country. However, Christians must seriously question a fixation with the ‘bottom line’. In a society such as ours, one without deep faith, economic prosperity may be the only measurable form of success, but the follower of Christ ought to think otherwise.

Naturally, if one sincerely believes that national prosperity happens also to be the best way to achieve other, more important, goals for society, then the Christian will appropriately vote with this in mind. However, the believer should always remember the way the pursuit of wealth is given very short shrift in the Bible:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

If precedent, favouritism and prosperity are faulty grounds upon which to base the Christian vote, what factors should inform such political choices?

B) How a Christian ought to vote

1. Vote for others

Firstly and most importantly, a Christian vote is a vote for others, not oneself. It is fundamental to the Christian outlook that life be devoted to the good of others before oneself:

Honour one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)

In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

In the political realm Christians should use whatever influence they have to contribute to others, to ‘consider others better’ than themselves. This is a foreign concept for many. Typically, the small business operator decides to vote for the party that promises to do more for small business. Union members vote for the party guaranteeing more power to the Unions. Corporations with staffing issues tend to support the party offering the most flexible industrial relations policy. Aspirational voters favour the party they think will best help them climb the ‘ladder of opportunity’. Such voting considerations may not be wrong but they are inadequate for the Christian. Those who follow the One who gave himself up for us all will endeavour to put their private interests aside and seek instead to serve the wider community.

In their vote Christians must “consider others better than yourselves”.

In short, in thinking through the policies of the Government, the Opposition and the minor parties, the Christian should not be thinking of him or herself—my family, my industry, my way of life. He or she will instead consider the wider public good. In their vote Christians must ‘consider others better than yourselves.’

2. Vote for the moral health of the community

Secondly, the moral health of our community provides another motivation for the Christian’s vote. Personally, I think the church has no right to seek to impose a Christian way of life on a largely secular society (‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?,’ said Paul in 1 Cor 5:12). Having said that, as citizens who believe that a society’s health depends (in part) on living as the Creator designed, Christians will want to ponder: which party and/or policies will promote the values applauded by the Creator, the values of justice, harmony (nationally and internationally), sexual responsibility, honesty, family and mercy.

In this regard, we will want to think through such issues as abortion, environmental responsibility, stem-cell research, treatment of asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, care for the elderly and so on, and then factor our conclusions into our voting patterns. For the Christian, moral health far exceeds economic prosperity as an honorable goal for society. As the book of Proverbs says:

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. (Proverbs 14:34)

This moral concern of the Christian will invite the description (by some) ‘right-wing’ or ‘conservative’. The tag is partly accurate, though in other respects the Christian stance will appear ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’. It is true that those with a classical Christian view of family will resist party support for same-sex marriage. Equally, though, Christians will be pained at the thought of punitive measures being meted out to genuine refugees and/or their separated family members. ‘Right’ and ‘left’ are incomplete descriptions. One of the blind spots of our modern public discourse is an inability to recognise nuance. We do not have categories such as ‘right-wing liberal’ or a ‘left-wing conservative’—Jesus, of course, was both and more.

3. Vote for the poor and weak

Thirdly, in voting for the ‘other’ the Christian will principally have in mind the poor and powerless. We will use our vote for those who need our vote more than we do. The mandate for this throughout Scripture is overwhelming:

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.  Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:3-4)

He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God. (Proverbs 14:31)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress. (James 1:27)

A Christian vote is one sincerely motivated by a concern to see the disadvantaged cared for — whether they be the elderly, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, the unemployed, the homeless, or drought-affected farmers.

Voting for the underprivileged in Australian society has traditionally been seen as a vote for the Labor Party—this is certainly how that party has historically understood itself. Others, however, argue that the most effective way to help the poor and weak is to increase overall prosperity, generating wealth across the economy and lifting the standard of living of everyone. This has traditionally been an argument put by the conservative side of Australian politics. I do not want to make a judgment about either model. I simply want to insist, in the strongest terms, that a Christian vote is one sincerely motivated by a concern to see the disadvantaged cared for—whether they be the elderly, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, the unemployed, the homeless, refugees, or drought-affected farmers. Whatever socio-economic model Christians believe in, they ought to vote for those who need their vote more than they do.

4. Vote for the gospel

Fourthly, almost by definition, Christians are to live for the eternal good of others (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1). Concern for the advancement of the Christian message throughout Australia, therefore, will potentially play a part in a Christian’s voting patterns.

Is one party better for the gospel than another? Probably not. Hence, I raise this purely as a ‘hypothetical’ issue. One day, however, a particular policy may (humanly speaking) work against Christian freedom to promote Christ – the ancient Christians faced this in the harshest terms, as do many in other lands today. In our context, it may be that one day a major (or minor) party will propose banning voluntary religious education lessons in state schools. Christians would be within their citizenly rights to seek to use their democratic privilege—the vote—to affect this policy. However such an issue will probably not be determinative for the Christian’s vote, since ultimately Christians believe the message of Christ moves forward by spiritual rather than human power and the other factors mentioned above must also be given their due weight.

5. Vote prayerfully

Finally, a Christian vote is a prayerful one. The Scriptures urge believers to pray for leaders and for governments. And, ultimately, believers will see this as more important even than their vote.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

The connection between these sentences is subtle and fascinating. God’s people are urged to pray for those in power (vv.1-2a) with the result that ‘we’ (God’s people) can get on with the business of living peaceful and godly lives (v.2b). Moreover, this outcome somehow works to the pleasure of the God who wants all people to be saved (vv.3-4). In other words, good government enables the church to live its life of good works and God’s missionary desires to be fulfilled. This comes about not through the vote—as important as that is—but through prayer. Christian activism is expressed most pertinently on the knees. There is nothing here about praying for a ‘Christian society’—whatever that is—only that prayers should be offered for the (secular) leadership of a nation so that God’s people can get on with their core business of living lives of peace and goodness and seeking to promote the news of ‘God as Saviour.’ It is a mistake, in other words, for Christians to pin their hopes for a nation on a political process. The ‘Christian vote’ will always remain a secondary tool in the church’s repertoire of involvement for the good of the world.

Dr John Dickson is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia).