We find ourselves on the day of an election that is reflecting much of the fraying social fabric of our national life in the United States. It seems especially clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated those dynamics, rather than drawing us closer together.
Surely there are a variety of factors that explain how we have arrived at this moment. Some will point the finger at elected officials and lay the fault entirely at their feet. Others will warn of the cultural transformation induced by secularity, now showing itself in more conspicuous forms than we would have imagined. Of course, both of these explanations can be simultaneously true.
We should be especially grateful for the many brothers and sisters who have shared their public reflections on how Christians should approach the current election decision. While some may see those exchanges as a reason for frustration, it seems to me that quite the opposite is true. Conversations marked by grace and truth, motivated by brotherly and sisterly love, and focused on how to best love God and neighbor in our political engagement seem to be a sign of health within the people of God.
I don’t presume to have anything to add to those exchanges. By now, voices far more thoughtful than mine have already made their cases for their candidates of choice. What follows is not an argument for any candidate or platform, but rather an attempt to retrieve some foundational principles.
Your vote matters more than you think
We inhabit an age of cynicism and disillusionment. Within American life there is a palpable sense of suspicion about our most established institutions, along with a shared sense of fatigue, prompting many Americans to conclude that their voice and their vote are simply going to be drowned out by the rancorous chorus of our public square.
But we should not fail to acknowledge what a remarkable thing it is that we get to vote. It is a precious freedom won and defended at great cost. We dare not presume upon the freedoms we enjoy. Indeed, for Christians, our concern must be one of stewardship unto the Lord, as we seek to leverage those freedoms for the glory of His name, animated by the love of neighbor.
Different Christians will arrive at different conclusions about what political choices best serve those aims. The stakes are certainly high. We dare not deny that public virtue, justice, the rule of law, the defense of freedom and a great many other priorities are increasingly contested in a secular age.
The apostle Paul exhorted first-century Christians living in Rome – the center of political and cultural power – to fulfill their proper duties as citizens, even as they were to submit to the pagan regime and to do so out of conscience.
“And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor” (Romans 13:6-7).
The exercise of our right to vote is one way for Christians in the United States to pay their obligations to everyone. It is a small but significant way in which we can steward the freedoms entrusted to us as citizens for the common good, shaped by Christian conscience, motivated by love for others.
This is no casual or insignificant thing. Later in the letter, Paul reminds the Roman Christians of the universality of our accountability before God. Indeed, we will one day give an account to the Lord: “each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). This echoes his warnings earlier in the letter about the nature of God’s coming judgment when there will be a judgment, a “repayment,” of every single human being “according to their works” (Romans 2:6-8). Our voting is not exempt from that accountability before God. The Christian thus enters the voting booth with a sober fear of the Lord.
In this regard, we also need to be reminded of a robust doctrine of Christian liberty. We will most certainly give an account to the Lord for every one of our words, thoughts and deeds. But there’s a corollary truth as well: each of us will give an account “of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).
So discuss, even debate, who represents the best candidate for consistent Christian witness. Within the household of God, as brothers and sisters redeemed through Christ’s atoning work and filled with His Spirit, we should certainly be capable of having those exchanges in love, even if passionately.
But when all is said and done, you will give an account for your vote, not for anyone else’s. May the Lord give each of us wisdom for the task. After all, we are commanded to ask for wisdom and assured that He “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly” (James 2:5).
Your vote doesn’t matter as much as you think
I realize this could sound inherently self-contradictory but bear with me. Your vote matters a great deal. But it doesn’t matter to the extent we are tempted to believe or even in the way the world would suggest.
For one, the fate of western civilization does not rest on your shoulders, Christian. Research your options, have godly conversations with wise believers, pray and vote. And then go to sleep, resting in the good and loving providence of our gracious Heavenly Father. The Lord is the one who sovereignly rules over His creation. He is the one who “removed kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:21). The Lord “makes nations great, then destroys them; he enlarges nations, then leads them away” (Job 12:23). Perhaps most gloriously of all, we are assured that Jesus Christ is Himself “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).
Christians can go to the polls, thoughtfully and prayerfully, taking their responsibility with an appropriate sense of sober duty. But we can also then go home in perfect peace, knowing that the Lord is not distant from His creation, nor indifferent to our needs. He is in control of all things and has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Finally, the Christian hope of the gospel reframes our sense of what matters most. In contrast with the secular zeitgeist, Christianity refuses to reduce everything to politics or to try to politicize everything. As we seek to be faithful citizens and to steward our freedoms well, we are also mindful of our status as “elect exiles” who await the consummation of Christ’s kingdom and our eternal home. We are, indeed, pilgrims passing through.
That means that what happens in your local church on any given weekend is far more consequential to eternity than any earthly political development. When the Word of God is proclaimed faithfully and truthfully, the Holy Spirit works a miracle of grace to bring strangers home to God. Those that were once dead in sin are now made alive to God in Christ. The family of God is built, one block at a time, through the power of the gospel. The good news of salvation from sin and the hope of eternal life with God is not dependent on any election. It is a settled victory, secured by a risen and reigning Christ who is Lord of the universe and is coming again.
Practically, this might caution us within our local churches against allowing an election season – or its aftermath – to divide us. If we are indeed one in Christ, and united in His gospel, then surely we can show forbearance, charity and humility when it comes to our political engagement. Again, we should never shrink back from bringing a comprehensive Christian framework to bear on the moral questions of our time. But we should be wary of anything that would sow sinful discord within the family of God.
We also need the constant reminder of what is most ultimate in God’s economy. One of the toxic demands of secularity is that religious commitments – especially those that refuse to conform to the spirit of the age – be excised from the public square. We certainly must contend for the religious liberty of all Americans. We must not fail to stand for truth, no matter the cost. But as Christians, we can and must remind ourselves that the kingdom of Christ advances through the proclamation of the gospel message. Jesus Christ is keeping His promise to build His church, right now, including in these trying times (Matthew 16:18). Carl Henry, a prolific theologian of 20th-century evangelicalism, put it well when he wrote, “There may not always be a U.S.A., but there will always be a church.”
None of us knows what to expect today. But we do know what God has called us to be about. Love of God and love for neighbor compel us to steward our responsibility faithfully, to pray for peace and righteousness and to speak the truth in love.
Even as we commit our leaders and our political process to prayer, our ambition must be “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:2-3).
Christians should never evacuate the public square or apologize for speaking out with political conviction. But our chief concern, our supreme priority, must always be to be found faithful in our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. So put your campaign sign in your front yard, by all means. But perhaps Election Day would be an especially good day to make sure your neighbor knows “the reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Matthew J. Hall is provost and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.)