How should a Christian vote? This should be a difficult question. Our immediate response to this question should not be to name a party or issue. Discerning how to use the influence afforded us in a democratic republic should raise serious questions about our ethics, values, convictions, and rights. I believe it is my role as a preacher and professor to equip Christians to make difficult decisions. It is not my job to make the decisions easy. We do not need a Christian voter guide or a list of candidate positions curated to reinforce our biases. What we need is an understanding of how our citizenship in the Kingdom of God should inform our citizenship in this country.
In this series I am examining the question, How should a Christian vote? I will not tell you which candidate or party to vote for. I will not make your decision easier. I will equip you to make the decision faithfully, with a better understanding of the relationship between Kingdom and Country.
There are three complex, highly nuanced steps for Christians to decide how we should vote.
Step 1: Understand the Kingdom of God. I examined Step 1 here. It’s foundational, so read it first.
Step 2: Determine how the Kingdom of God should influence the country. I started exploring Step 2 with two Separatist approaches, then continued with two Separationist approaches, and continue exploring Step 2 in this post and for several more to come.
Step 3: Make your decision.
I hope you will join me in this complicated and Christ-centered process of discernment as we prepare for the upcoming election.
Limited Partisan Compatibility
The starting point for limited partisan compatibility is the belief that Christians should be involved in the democratic process as part of responsible citizenship. In the US’s party system, most people, including Christians, find that they lean toward one political party based on a governing philosophy or a handful of significant issues. Christians, like most Americans, tend to align with a political party then support that party’s candidates, and possibly join the party, participate in campaigns, or even run for office. While participating in partisan politics, Christians will still hold differing views about the extent to which Christian convictions should directly inform public policy.
Christians who align with one party often do so out of habit (I’ve always voted ___), cultural conformity (I’m Christian, so of course I’m a ____), or family influence (My parents and siblings are all ___). Many Christians have received the message from their churches or Christian media that they are supposed to vote for one party, and that to vote for the other party is tantamount to betraying the faith. This approach to party alignment doesn’t require much critical thought, personal reflection, or engagement with current events. If you have never intentionally critiqued the reasons for your own political inclinations or party affiliation, I urge you to take this opportunity to do so. Even if you end up in the same party with the same political ideals, at least you will have arrived there thoughtfully.
If you decide that one party is more compatible with your Christian convictions and you choose to identify with that party, there is a faithful way to do so and an unfaithful way to do so. I’ll call the faithful approach “Salty Partisanship,” in which Christians maintain our distinct convictions while participating in party politics. I’ll call the unfaithful approach “Flavorless Partisanship,” in which there is no discernable difference between one’s Christian convictions and their party’s platform.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13). Have you ever watched a cooking show and wondered why they put salt on everything? It’s because salt makes things taste better. When Jesus says we are the salt of the earth, it means we add an essential ingredient that improves the overall quality of the earth. I believe this applies to partisan political participation. Politics ought to “taste” better when Christians are participating. If we identify with a political party – whether by running for office, or making campaign contributions, or simply posting on social media – we should do so in a way that adds a missing-but-necessary dimension to the flavor of the party.
In order to be Salty Partisans, we have to have a clear-eyed vision for the Kingdom of God that allows us to discern where our Christian convictions are and are not compatible with party platforms. We must be able to clearly articulate what we do and do not agree with about our political party. And we must bring our convictions into the public discourse in a way that adds much-needed flavor. People who engage with us should be able to tell that our convictions are formed by the Kingdom of God and applied to our political action, instead of the other way around.
Salty Partisanship requires us to be well-informed about what we believe and why we believe it, which means we need to be engaged with Scripture, theology, and Christian fellowship. A 2016 LifeWay research study found that more than half of American Protestants had read little or none of the Bible. LifeWay’s 2020 State of Theology survey found that 30% of Evangelical Protestants believe that Jesus was a great teacher, but was not God, indicating a lack of discipleship in fundamental Christian beliefs. According to the Pew Forum, 42% of Evangelical Protestants attend church between once per month and never. Christians cannot be salt if we are not formed by Christian faith and practices. If we are not well-informed about our Christian convictions, we will be unable to bring those convictions to bear on our political participation. Granted, reading the Bible, studying theology, and attending church do not guarantee that a Christian will be knowledgeable, but failure to do those things guarantees that they won’t be.
Salty Partisanship also requires us to be well-informed about current events and politics. In order to be well-informed, we have to be discerning about the way we consume information. We need to understand the difference between reportage and opinion, between analysis and punditry, between information and propaganda, between experts and amateurs. We also need to pay attention to a wide range of topics, not only those about which we feel strongly or that affect us directly. When we align with a political party, we tacitly endorse its entire platform; but, there will necessarily be points where our Christian convictions require us to deviate from the party. We need to be informed so we can engage current events through a Christian lens, then add salt to political discourse by clearly identifying points of compatibility and incompatibility with the party’s positions.
Salty Partisanship recognizes the limits of compatibility. It says, “I agree with my party’s position on X, but not on Y, for these reasons.” “I understand my party’s stance on X, but I think their reasoning is flawed.” “My party wants to implement X policy, but I don’t think they’ve adequately considered Y.” “I think the opposing party is right about X.” “I agree with my party’s policy, but I object to the harmful rhetoric they use to defend it.” “I agree with my party’s position, but I do not condone the misinformation and hyperbole they employ to promote it.” If you identify with a political party, but you can’t think of any issues that would lead you to utter these phrases, or if you can’t remember the last time you verbalized a point of disagreement with your party, you are probably not engaging in Salty Partisanship.
Flavorless Partisanship trades our Jesus-defined identity as the “salt of the earth” for a politically-defined identity. Flavorless Partisanship is ignorant and compromised. It is ignorant because it is un-informed about Christian beliefs (or only informed by proxy, rather than through intentional study) and is un-informed or mis-informed about current events and party positions. The Flavorless Partisan might not know that they are ignorant, because they might consume a great deal of information, but only information that reinforces their biases. Pew’s data shows that political partisanship strongly influences people’s media consumption. Thus, people of different political persuasions increasingly occupy media bubbles in which they are isolated from information and analysis that challenges their political perspective. Being ignorant allows Christians to be easily swayed by partisan punditry, to such a degree that not only does the Flavorless Partisan agree with everything their party says, but assumes that it is all compatible with Christian convictions.
When the Flavorless Partisan does not differentiate their political positions from Christian convictions, the result is a compromised faith. This compromise looks like baptizing political positions that are at odds with Christian Scripture and theology, taking Scripture out of context to justify their views about specific issues. A Flavorless Partisan is indistinguishable from a non-Christian who happens to be a member of the same party. A Flavorless Partisan is either unable or unwilling to disagree with, critique, or offer a different perspective within their own party. They will also adopt the reasoning and rhetoric of their party uncritically, often leading to sharing misinformation or disparaging groups of people. A Flavorless Partisan ultimately demonstrates a stronger allegiance to their party than to the Kingdom of God, and is therefore guilty of idolatry.
Choosing a Compatible Party
How does one decide which party is more compatible with Christian faith? First of all, we must keep in the forefront of our minds the fact that no political party is entirely compatible with Christian faith. Any party will, by nature, hold positions that run counter to Christian convictions because the United States is not and never will become the Kingdom of God. That said, there are a few things that can lead Christians to align more with one party than another.
First, one might agree with the party’s basic theory of the role of government. The Republican party has traditionally promoted a limited role for government, while the Democratic party allows for a more expansive role. A Baptist Separatist, for example, might choose to align with the Republican party in order to safeguard religious liberty or with the Libertarian party to protect all individual freedoms; on the other hand, a Baptist Separatist might align with the Democratic party based on a belief that the government serves the common good through social welfare programs. These general principles, however, tend to be selectively and unevenly applied by each party, so are not necessarily a reliable foundation for party support.
Another approach to party compatibility is comparing the foundational beliefs about humanity that each party presupposes. From a political theology framework, Republicans and Democrats both espouse the notion that people are inclined to act in their own self-interest, even at the expense of the community as a whole. For Republicans, concerns about corruptive self-interest lie primarily with authority to enact their self-interest through legal or violent force. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord John Acton famously said. Therefore, government needs to be limited and decentralized as much as possible in order to prevent the corruption that comes with too much power in too few hands. For Democrats, concerns about self-interest are focused on those with the financial means to enact their self-interest, such as corporations or wealthy individuals, and therefore the government is seen as a necessary regulator of individuals and businesses. The economic corollaries of these beliefs are free market capitalism on the Republican side and regulated capitalism on the Democratic side. Extremes exist on either end, from completely deregulated free markets on the right to varying levels of socialism on the left, but the vast majority of people live between these extremes (regardless of what fearmongers in either party would have you believe).
Another foundational belief to consider is an emphasis on liberty versus an emphasis on the pursuit of happiness. The Republican party emphasizes individual liberty. It tends to construct policy on the belief that people have the same rights and liberties, and the same opportunities to enjoy their rights and liberties, and therefore the government’s role is to get out of the way and allow people the liberty to pursue their ambitions unhindered and unaided. The Democratic party emphasizes the pursuit of happiness. It tends to construct policy on the belief that people have the same rights, but have different and inequitable constraints on their liberties and opportunities, and therefore the government’s role is to aid with leveling access to opportunities so all people can have the same liberty to pursue happiness. Consider how Christian faith informs your perspective on these points of emphasis, and listen for the way these presuppositions shape party rhetoric and policy.
The other approach to party compatibility is weighing and counting the party’s positions on specific policy issues. Christians may come to different positions on public policy depending on our beliefs about the degree to which public policy should align with Christian convictions. Christians place different levels of importance on different policy issues, and also come to different conclusions about what policies should be enacted. Some Christians will count and weigh the policies they care about, find that they agree more with the Republican party platform, and therefore consider the Republican party to be more compatible with their Christian faith. Other Christians will count and weigh the policies they care about, find that they agree more with the Democratic party platform, and therefore consider the Democratic party to be more compatible with their Christian faith. Christians who agree on theological convictions can disagree about whether that conviction ought to be the basis for civil law. For example, two Christians can agree that we have a responsibility to care for widows and orphans, but disagree about how and whether the government should share that responsibility. I’ll address more specific policies and how we weigh them when I get to Step 3 in this series.
A Note About The Current Conditions
Much of the above was written with normal political conditions in mind. Some of these categories, philosophies, or policy positions don’t hold true right now, especially in the Republican party. President Trump does not hold typical Republican positions and does not himself have a consistent philosophy of governance. The left flank of the Democratic party is also increasingly influential, although not as influential as the right flank of the Republican party. As Christians make decisions about how/whether to align with a party, it is more essential than ever to consider the current positions of each party and each candidate, not only what the party has stood for historically.
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