How should a Christian vote? This should be a difficult question. There are multiple Christian organizations that will try to make the decision easier for you by distributing “non-partisan” voter information cards. What we need is not a simplified rubric for the right way to vote. What we need is an understanding of how our citizenship in the Kingdom of God informs our citizenship in this country. This series on How should a Christian vote 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, followed by two Separationist approaches, then an examination of Limited Partisan Compatibility. This post continues analyzing Step 2.
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.
Some Christians approach politics and voting with the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian men who were rooted in Christian convictions that guided their legislative priorities. This is a widely contested premise among historians, but a powerful one for many people who understand politics through the lens of Christian beliefs. Since America is a Christian nation, it is appropriate for Christians to directly influence the legislative process, bringing Christian beliefs and convictions to bear on policy, resulting in a country that is “Christianized” or “re-Christianized” in its laws, if not in individuals’ beliefs. There are several approaches to Christianization. Some Christians advocate a simple one-to-one correspondence between certain Christian convictions and public policy. Others adopt a more complex political and theological framework and advocate for constellation of interconnected policy imperatives.
Christianization efforts tend to arise in response to shifts that cause the Christian majority to fear a loss of cultural and legislative dominance. For example, the 1950s saw a surge in Christianization in reaction against Communism. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was officially adopted as the national motto, for example. More recently, some Christians have reacted against Supreme Court decisions in favor of same-sex marriage that raise concerns about a broad cultural shift away from Christian values. Many of the “Culture Wars” issues from the 1990s to the present are responses to real or perceived diminishment of Christian cultural and political influence, but there are also much more subtle legislative responses to these shifts.
I differentiate three approaches to Christianization: legislating Christian conviction, Christian Nationalism, and Dominionism. Though they tend to espouse overlapping legislative aims, the origins, motives, and ultimate goals differ. The first is a common a potentially valid approach for Christians who are discerning what course their political engagement should take. The latter two, I will argue, are not options for Christians who prioritize their Kingdom citizenship. My commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and my academic background in theology, church history, political science, and sociology have led me to conclude that Christian Nationalism and Dominionism damage the Church’s witness, neglect the Church’s mission, and compromise Kingdom citizenship.
First Approach: Legislating Christian Convictions
Some Christians approach political engagement with the goal of implementing or retaining policies that are consistent with their Christian convictions, especially ethical convictions. Both political conservatives and progressives can take this approach. Both can decry the moral decline of the United States and see policy changes as a means to improve the country, but they tend to focus on different aspects of ethics. They also have different visions for the degree to which Christian convictions should form the basis of public policy.
In general, conservatives who seek to legislate Christian convictions believe that it is appropriate for Christian values to be legally enforced because God’s law is absolutely good, true, and right for all people, everywhere; therefore, it is a reliable guide to what all people ought to do in society, regardless of personal religious faith or lack thereof. Some also argue that since the majority of Americans self-identify as Christian it is appropriate for the law of the land to uphold Christian ethics. Christian conservatives who take this approach tend to focus on specific issues of individual or relational – and often sexual – ethics. Key issues include abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, bathroom use or military service for transgender persons, abstinence-only sex education, etc. Some of these issues have real or potential religious liberty implications, while other issues do not. One of the problems with this approach is the internal inconsistency with regard to which Christian convictions should and should not be legislated. Christian conservatives who take this approach to some ethical issues often affirm a limited role for government in which the state is not responsible for care of widows and orphans, for example. I have not yet seen a Christian theory of government that presents a consistent framework for which Christian convictions should and should not be enforced legislatively.
Progressives who seek to legislate Christian convictions generally do so when the common good coincides with their Christian faith and a secular argument can also be made for their political position, and therefore this approach is not technically Christianization. Progressives might refer to Scripture or Christian faith as the source of a particular conviction, while at the same time arguing that a policy is consistent with natural law, human rights, or other non-religious approaches to governance. In other words, they see Christian convictions as a valid reason to hold a particular political view, but not a sufficient or appropriate foundation for legislation in a pluralist society. People who take this approach tend to focus on issues that effect social well-being, such as healthcare access or safety net programs like TANF. They tend to argue that if a belief is uniquely Christian or cannot be defended on a secular basis, it should not be enforced through legislation.
Second Approach: Christian Nationalism
As I stated above, I reject Christian Nationalism and believe that it is irreconcilable with citizenship in the Kingdom of God. It is a powerful and popular vision for the relationship between church and state, so I will explain what it is and why I so fervently reject it.
Nationalism is an ideology that identifies specific traits as intrinsic to national identity. Traits such as language, birth place, political ideology, ethnicity, and religion are common elements of national identity. Think about the traits that make someone American, or French, or German, or Chinese. The combination of traits that make up national identity differ widely, but play an important role in national cohesion. National identity can be a harmless and even positive source of national unity; but, it can also become deadly. National identity becomes “nationalism” when it encounters an “other,” the identifying traits harden into requirements for inclusion, the boundary between “us” and “them” solidifies, even if the “them” lives within the same nation-state. Nationalism can then can be weaponized in order to the exclude the “other” from the nation (think Nazi Germany rescinding the German citizenship of ethnic Jews). Exclusion can be legal, such as limiting rights, militant, such as genocide or imprisonment, or social, such as exerting cultural pressure to conform. When Christian religion is the trait required for inclusion in the nation that is Christian Nationalism.
In the United States, Christianity has always been the majority religion, and therefore has always exerted more political and cultural influence than other religious groups. Christian religion plus Western European ancestry were the two traits the majority of American citizens shared for hundreds of years (citizens, because enslaved persons and Native Americans were excluded from citizenship). Western European ancestry plus Christian religion became so closely linked early in America’s history that one could scarcely imagine the one without the other. Thus, individuals and groups who are non-Christian and/or non-European have a long history of marginalization in the United States, including cultural exclusion and legal discrimination. Christian nationalist attitudes and activism spike any time non-European or non-Christian communities appear to jeopardize Euro-Christian dominance. Consider lynchings of Black Americans by white Christians in the years following reconstruction, internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and efforts to curtail immigration from majority-Muslim countries in the present. Christian Nationalism is often cloaked behind terms like “heritage” or “western civilization.” Christian Nationalism is not identical with White Nationalism, but neither is there a clear boundary between them.
The Christian Nationalist approach to politics seeks to reify Euro-Christian identity through legislation. This goes beyond a desire to legislate Christian convictions. Christian Nationalists promote legislation that benefits Euro-Christian Americans while harming non-Europeans and non-Christians. At best, Christian Nationalists are isolated bigots. At worst, Christian Nationalists are active members of violent hate groups.
Theologically, Christian Nationalism is not Christian in any proper sense of the word. Jesus’ call to “go into all the world,” the Holy Spirit’s work of breaking language barriers at Pentecost, and the Apostle Paul’s admonishment that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” preclude the possibility of limiting Christianity to any geographic, national, or ethnic group. Christian Nationalism is not an option for people who submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and who are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Christian Nationalism is fundamentally incompatible with Scripture, and its fruit is rotten. (I have also written on Christian Nationalism here.)
Third Approach: Dominionism
The Dominionist approach to legislating Christianity is based on the belief that God has mandated Christians to have dominion in all spheres of society. Dominionists take their initial cue from Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15, in which God instructs humans to have dominion over the created world. This combined with some other theologically dubious interpretations of Scripture led to the developed of an entire theological system revolving around the idea that Christians ought to have power. It is a post-millennial theocratic movement that believes Christ’s reign will be realized on earth through bringing politics and culture into alignment with the law of God. D. James Kennedy (d. 2007), a leading advocate for Dominionism, explained, “Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. As the vice regents of God, we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors—in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”
A great deal has been written in the past 15 years or so about the influence of Dominionism in American politics. The networks of influence are vast and the policy outcomes touch many aspects of public life, including healthcare and public education. Secularism is seen as the great enemy of God’s reign, and therefore social movements with secular origins are inherently suspect. Consider the virulent anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric that mentions “secular philosophy” or Marxism. Another example is suspicion of public education – listen for the claim that it is influenced by secularism and doesn’t inculcate good morals – and the concomitant efforts to redistribute education funding in favor of parochial schools.
The goal of Dominionism is not simply for people to live according to their Christian convictions in their home, work, and public lives. Rather, the goal is to enforce the Dominionist vision of Christian morality such that America becomes a country in which people live in accordance with [a particular interpretation of] God’s law, whether they are professing Christians or not. As people conform to the law of the land and of God, which become one and the same, God reigns over the United States.
There are two major theological points this movement gets wrong: mission and power. The mission of the Church is to make disciples, not moral conformists. The Good News of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with legislating conformity and everything to do with submitting the Lordship of Jesus Christ. That submission has moral consequences, to be sure, but moral change is an outcome of a life transformed by the Holy Spirit. Rarely, if ever, does one come to faith in Jesus Christ as a result of having been legally forced to live under Christian-inspired legislation. Indeed, the attempt to enforce moral conformity is as likely to turn people away from Christ, adding to the Church’s reputation for bigotry and hypocrisy.
All temporal power is relativized and redefined by the way Jesus himself exercised power. All authority in heaven and earth belonged to Jesus as the Son of God, and he used that power to sacrifice his life. He refused to take political dominion when given the opportunity to do so. The power mediated to Christians by Jesus Christ is the power to demonstrate sacrificial love for others, to advocate for the poor and oppressed, to humbly regard others as better than ourselves, as Jesus did; the power sought by Dominionists is fundamentally at odds with the model of Jesus Christ.
Problems with Christianization
Christianization conflates the United States with the Kingdom of God. The first step for Christians discerning their political engagement is to understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. This requires us to recognize that the United States, or any country, is not now, never has been, and never will become the Kingdom of God. Attempts to legislate the United States toward conformity with the Kingdom are futile at best, harmful to the Church’s mission at worst. The conflation of Kingdom and country leads Christians to misplace our hope in things that are fleeting.
Christianization reduces the Christian faith to a moral code. Christianization presents Christianity as a code of conduct, which has nothing to do with salvation through Jesus Christ or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I remember once being asked whether I would be a Christian if the resurrection of Jesus Christ was proven to be untrue. The answer is no! Without the resurrection there is no Christian faith. To claim that the resurrection ultimately doesn’t matter is to say that all Christianity calls us to is a set of behaviors. Christianity is not a mere moral code! The Gospel has moral implications, and those who submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ ought to live in a way that is consistent with the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. Christianization implies that it doesn’t matter what people believe, as long as their behavior conforms to Christian morality.
Christianization ignores some Christian convictions for the sake of implementing others. Each approach to Christianization elevates some Christian convictions, then sacrifices or ignores other convictions in the pursuit of Christianized legislation. Compromise is inevitable, and not inherently bad, in the US political system. Since no political party aligns entirely with Christian convictions, if we engage in the political system at all we will have to choose which issues we promote and which we deem less essential. But Christianization tends to elevate its chosen issues, align with the political party that agrees with them on those issues, then reject anything the opposing party promotes even when it aligns with Christian convictions.
Christianization seeks dominance and power instead of meekness and sacrifice. Christianization, by the very nature of its methods, rules out the possibility of following Christ’s example of laying aside one’s own rights and privileges for the sake of others. One simply cannot read the Christian Scriptures faithfully and come to the conclusion that the Christian’s goal should be to gain political power, do whatever is necessary to protect that power, use that power to expand one’s own rights while limiting the rights of others, and wield that power to force behavioral conformity. That simply isn’t what Christians are called and commanded to do.
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