How should a Christian vote? This ought to be a difficult question. It should cause tension and disagreement. It is a consequential question that should lead us to consider and reconsider the ways Christian faith informs how and whether we engage with partisan politics. This question leads us to examine our ethics, values, convictions, and rights. I am not going to provide you with an easy answer to this question. I won’t present a chart or platform analysis or endorsement. I won’t attempt to assuage your concerns about whether your candidate is the “right” one. What I will continue to do in this series is help you understand how citizenship in the Kingdom of God informs citizenship in this country.
There are three complex, highly nuanced steps to how a Christian should vote. These steps won’t make your decision easy; but, they will help you make a faithful decision as we move toward election day.
Step 1: Understand the Kingdom of God. I examined Step 1 here. It’s foundational, so read Step 1 first if you need to catch up or be reminded.
Step 2: Determine how the Kingdom of God should influence the country. I started exploring Step 2 here with an explanation of two Separatist 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.
The Separationist Options
The language of Separationism is familiar to most Americans thanks to the First Amendment guarantees of disestablishment and free exercise. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The familiar verbiage of “separation of church and state” does not come directly from the Constitution, but rather from Thomas Jefferson’s interpretation of the religion clauses in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Addressing the congregation’s concerns about their religious liberties under the new Bill of Rights, Jefferson assured them that “a wall of separation between Church & State” would safeguard their “rights of conscience.” Interpretation of the First Amendment and the “wall of separation” has led to some of the most interesting and significant Supreme Court cases in U.S. history as the courts have sought to rule on what exactly constitutes establishment or free exercise. As fraught and fascinating as that legislation is, my focus here is on how Christians make decisions, not on how courts interpret the Constitution, so I’ll save legal analysis for another time.
For Christians discerning how our faith can or should influence our political engagement, the separationist options are founded on the belief that the role of the church is fundamentally different from the role of the government, and therefore the two should operate independently of one another as much as possible. There are two Christian iterations of separationism that share this principle, but that apply it in quite different ways. Historic Lutheran Separationism adopts Martin Luther’s “Two Spheres” or “Two Kingdoms” theology leading to a basic conviction that the church and the government should stay in their separate lanes and not interfere with one another. Historic Baptist Separationism focuses on the church’s free exercise and seeks to influence government in ways that strengthen the church’s independence from state interference. I refer to both as “historic” because they are rooted in Lutheran and Baptist theology and past practices, but largely seem to have fallen out of practice. Although each position is rooted in a particular denominational theology, one needn’t be Lutheran or Baptist to find either of these positions compelling. Likewise, a Lutheran or Baptist may not find these options appealing.
Historic Lutheran Separationism
This position originated with Martin Luther’s theology that differentiated the separate spheres of the Church and the government. This church-state division was influenced by Luther’s historical context where the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire functioned in close coordination, with the state having power to enforce church law, for example by making theological heresy a capital crime. Luther rejected this close relationship, preferring a system in which the state and the church each had clearly defined spheres of authority and responsibility, although both stood under the ultimate authority of God. According to Luther, “God has established two kinds of government among men . . .the one is spiritual, it has no sword but it has the Word by which men … may attain everlasting life. The other is worldly government through the sword which aims to keep peace among men, and this he rewards with temporal blessing.” The role of government was to maintain peace and do justice, while allowing the Church to guide in virtue, morality, and all things spiritual. Both have a positive and necessary role and are under God’s authority, but they have separate spheres of influence and should stay within their spheres.
Although Luther’s articulation of the two spheres or two kingdoms never really caught on directly in the United States, the basic idea was consistent with some of the Founders who envisioned a government based in natural law existing alongside religious communities that comported themselves as good, law-abiding citizens while practicing their religions unhindered. Christians could participate in partisan politics, hold public office, vote, etc, so long as their political engagement did not jeopardize their freedom to worship. Christians were encouraged to influence government in order to do justice and maintain peace, while acknowledging the fundamental differences between the worldly and spiritual spheres.
This approach comes with risks, however, if the division between spheres rules out all attempts to influence government or policy. The church’s belief that it should not seek to influence government has borne disastrous fruit in history. The Protestant churches in 20th century Germany assumed a Lutheran position toward the state, whereby the church did not consider it appropriate to intervene with government function unless the government’s actions were infringing upon the church’s spiritual sphere. Thus, when Adolf Hitler came to power and implemented its anti-Semitic policies, the Church as an institution did not intervene on behalf of the Jews. The Confessing Church movement, of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an early member, focused on the preservation of doctrinal orthodoxy and preventing government overstepping into the Church’s sphere, but did not resist the government’s actions, which were technically legal. Frustration with this sphere separation led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to join an underground network of resistors in their plot to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup. Some members of the Confessing Church later regretted their inaction, admitting “the Confessing church resisted the Aryan paragraph in the church and separation of Jewish Christians out of the Evangelical church of Germany, but against anti-Semitism they uttered no word, and even at the time of the Jewish persecutions and of their extermination it could not bring itself to stand up against these acts of terrorism in the Third Reich.” If one is drawn to this model of separationism, they should carefully consider what the limits of the spheres are and under what circumstances the church should attempt to exert influence on the state.
Historic Baptist Separationism
The historic Baptist commitment to separation is rooted in the Baptist movement’s origins as a separatist church in Great Britain where it was persecuted for refusing to adopt the state’s Anglican religion. Baptists were, and are, insistent upon Soul Liberty, the idea that the individual person is responsible for accepting Jesus Christ and worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth, and therefore must not be coerced by any external influences, whether state-sponsored religion or denominational structures. This version of separation differs from the Lutheran in that it does not generally articulate a positive role for the government, but rather focuses on the guarantee of religious liberty and ensuring that the government does not overstep its boundaries. It tends to see government more as an unfortunate necessity. People who hold this position could lean toward Isolationist Separatism, except that they become very engaged politically when it appears that religious liberty is at stake.
Where partisan politics are concerned, Baptist separationism will generally assume that secular government is based on secular principles and should serve the common good, therefore Christians should influence government through generally applicable arguments based in scientific or natural law, rather than seeking to apply biblical norms to secular society. Since the religious liberty of Christians is only as secure as the religious liberty of all other faiths, Historical Baptist Separationism does not seek to impose Christian principles on society unless there are also compelling secular arguments for their application. One stark and possibly surprising example of this principle is the Southern Baptist Convention’s positive initial response to the Roe v. Wade decision, which it saw as a victory for individual liberty. If this description of the Baptist perspective on church-state relations seems unfamiliar to you, it is because many Baptists have left it behind in the past 20 years or so in favor of attempting to influence public policy more directly on a variety of issues.
How do Separationists Vote?
A separationist can lean conservative or lean liberal regarding the role of government, and therefore separationists can be found among supporters of all candidates and parties. Both would assume the principle that the government needs to allow the church to fulfill its mission and protect Christians’ freedom to act in accordance with their conscience. And both would generally hold to the principle that secular government should be based on secular reasoning, such that beliefs that are inherently religious should not be imposed legally. For example, separationists usually affirm that same-sex marriage should be legal, even if they reject same-sex marriage as a matter of faith, but would vigorously oppose any government action to force religious communities to officiate same-sex unions.
Lutheran and Baptist separationists might favor a limited role for government on the grounds that a smaller government is less likely to encroach on religious liberty. Moreover, religious liberty is sometimes conflated with individual liberty such that spiritual and temporal freedom become inseparable and the government is charged to protect both while encroaching on neither. I examined the pitfalls of this conflation here. The role of government is to preserve and enact justice, which primarily means maintaining peace and order, such as through law enforcement and military protection.
Conversely, Lutheran and Baptist separationists might favor an expanded role for government for the sake of seeking justice. In this view, religious liberty consists of the government not restricting the worship and faith practices of religious communities, but religious liberty is not conflated with personal freedom. When government is charged with doing justice, that includes maintaining peace and order, but also includes efforts to promote equity and the general health and well-being of society as a whole.
I believe separationism is a valuable principle for Christians living in a pluralist society. It pushes us to be aware of our rights under the First Amendment and how those same rights apply to Americans who do not share our faith commitments. It also requires us to consider ways we can influence American society through means other than public policy. It requires us the clarify the role of the church and the role of the government, and thus avoids some of the pitfalls of Christian nationalism. However, it can also be used as a reason to bifurcate our spiritual and temporal lives to such a degree that our Christian faith is a purely private matter that has no bearing on our politics, allowing us to think whatever we want to politically without considering points of tension or contradiction with Christian convictions.
So far I have explored Isolationist Separatism, Prophetic Separatism, Historic Lutheran Separationism, and Historic Baptist Separationism. There are still more approaches to Christian political engagement. I told you I wouldn’t be simplifying the question of how Christians should vote!
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