On Christians and Politics: Some Thoughts for Election Day

It’s election day, and I just returned from voting. In the months leading up to this day, I’ve heard and read plenty of arguments from other Christians about what to do today. Some have made appeals for Obama, some for Romney, and some for not voting at all. Almost all of these appeals, when they’ve been from Christians, have been on the basis of faith. A few arguments, from both Christians and secularists, have tried to convince that our faith should not play a part in our political decision making. In pseudo-response to all that I’ve read and heard, here are some of my thoughts about what it means to be voting as a Christian:

1. Jesus tells us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” As citizens in a democracy, we live in a context in which “Caesar” has asked us for our participation and input in determining our leaders. Our vote may be just a drop in a bucket, but our participation in an election is part of our calling as followers of Christ.

2. We should never shy away from allowing our faith in Christ to influence, or even determine, our vote. Our faith is not merely a hobby or a private opinion. It’s a gift from God, and a gift not merely to ourselves personally but to the world. Our faith is an invitation to see our country and world from heavenly perspective, and that perspective blesses our society (even if that blessing is unacknowledged or denied).

3. Even as we vote according to our faith in Christ, we should fully expect Christians to make different decisions in the voting booth. Our system of government is complex, and the application of our beliefs to our voting will differ depending on how we understand our government. I know Christians who are deeply concerned for the unborn, but believe that Obama’s economic policies are more likely to create a culture in which abortions are less desirable. I also know Christians deeply concerned for the poor but who believe that the poor will ultimately be better served under Romney’s plan.  I also know Christians with an orthodox understanding of marriage who nevertheless oppose any federal legislation on the topic, thinking that it’s a matter best left to individual states. Any of these decisions may be incorrect in terms of their logic and how things will/would actually play out, but poor logic is different from unfaithful.

4. For Christians, voting should never be motivated by desire for power. I’ve heard plenty of evangelical Christians this year lament the lack of an evangelical candidate. (“Am I OK with voting for a Mormon?” “How Christian is President Obama really?” etc.) Our calling in Christ, though, is not to strive after power for ourselves, but to bear witness to God’s Kingdom. Whether or not our president is “one of us” is not our operating question. Rather, the questions we need to ask are, “How do we live faithfully in the context of the person’s administration?” and “How do we bear witness to this person about Christ’s concerns for his world and this country?”

5. For Christians, our participation in politics is an invitation to humility and submission. A victory for the candidate we support is not equal to a victory for Jesus. The candidate we opposed is not the incarnation of evil. If Paul can say that the Roman empire that was persecuting him and the church was established by God, we can say the same of our president. Whether we’re pleased or not tomorrow morning, our calling remains the same: bear witness to the cause of Christ, and submit to the authorities in place, even if the combination of those two things leads to a cross.

Advertisements

Could a President Keep These Vows?

Chris and I sat in Arefa’s today and watched the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. A lot went through my mind. I was deeply moved seeing the faces of older African Americans watching the events of the day and wondering to myself how significant this day is for them. I found myself grateful for the country I live in when Chris reminded me how rare of an event it is in our world to see power change hands so easily and peacefully. I was honored when Marie, the owner of Arefa’s, entrusted me with the TV remote control during the inauguration. (Okay, so this last point pales in comparison with the others…)

 

What caught my attention most, though, was the actual oath President Obama took. My first thought was, “That was… short.” In fact, the Presidential Oath of Office is shorter than the Vice Presidential Oath. (Anyone know why that is?) When I shared this observation with Chris, he commented, “Yeah. Our ordination vows are longer the Presidential Oath of Office.”

 

This sent my Presbyterian mind racing. Being raised Presbyterian, one of the things I was always taught to appreciate about our heritage was the Presbyterian influence on the American political system. The representative democracy of our country derives from the Presbyterian practice of congregations being ruled by a ‘session’ of elders, and the larger denomination by elders and pastors from churches across the country. We have Presbyterian polity to thank for our American political system. What if, though, oaths of office were influenced by Presbyterian ordination vows?

 

When I was ordained back in September, I had to give an affirmative answer to each of these questions:

 

1.)    Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

2.)    Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?

3.)    Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

4.)    Will you be a minister of the Word and Sacrament in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and continually guided by our confessions?

5.)    Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

6.)    Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

7.)    Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?

8.)    Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

9.)    Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

 

Could these vows be adapted for a president, or any political ruler? A few references would need to be changed. The church would be changed to the American people, the Scriptures to the constitution, and the confessions perhaps to the rulings, decisions and policies of Supreme Courts past and present, and previous presidents. This does, of course leave one more reference that would need to be changed, but I can’t think of anything comparable to Jesus Christ or the Triune God that could be substituted where reference is made to them. (Perhaps this shows the weakness of government in a religiously plural society. There’s no Higher Power apart from an abstract concept to which the country’s leader can be expected to submit. But we’ll save that for a different blogpost…)

 

What do you all think? Would it be reasonable for a president to take vows comparable to these? What if the presidential oath of office included vows to work for the reconciliation of the world? Or vows to further the peace, unity and purity of America? Or vows to serve the American people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? Would this matter?

Incarnational Ministry as Submissive Defiance

This evening at Upper Room, I’m preaching a sermon on Luke 2:41-52, the story of the boy Jesus in the temple. What struck me most about this text is how the incarnate Jesus interacts with his surrounding culture of religious institution and his family.

Firstly, Jesus is in some ways defiant to the culture. Jesus in the temple does not act like your typical 12 year old boy. Most 12 year olds don’t impress religious experts. He defies the expectations of the religious institution and remains in the temple even after the Passover feast has ended and everyone else goes home. He defies his parents and does not leave with them so that he can be “about his Father’s matters.”

Yet, Jesus is also submissive. When his parents find him, he submits to them and his role as their child. It seems to me that the text implies that Jesus was in some way punished by his parents for remaining behind. In other words, even though he was defiant, Jesus accepted the consequences of that defiance.

This is the pattern the church takes in Acts. Consider the example of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4. Peter and John’s testimony before them is this: “You must judge whether in God’s sight it is right to listen to you rather than God, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” In other words, Peter and John won’t stop preaching the gospel, regardless of how unpopular the message is. Yet, they also submit themselves to the consequences of that defiance as their culture dictates. They leave the judgment to the Sanhedrin.

I think one of the problems of post-Christendom churches is that they have forgotten this pattern of “submissive defiance.” As the Church loses it’s place in the center of culture, some churches have refused to be submissive to the culture, and attempt to assert their “rights” or whatever cultural influence they have left. Consider my previous post on the Focus on the Family Action statement regarding Obama’s election as an example. To what extent are such statements, largely coming from the right wing side of the church, nothing more than failed attempts to assert a power and influence the now-marginalized church does not have?

On the other side of the coin, there are churches that have lost their sense of cultural defiance. These churches have become so used to being at the center of the culture that they are willing, it seems, to go wherever the culture goes to remain in their place of privilege. Consider churches that have given in to “every wind of false doctrine” with regard to biblical standards of sexuality, or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s Lordship.

For the church to be faithful in the 21st century, it needs to recover this sense of “submissive defiance” that we find in Jesus’ incarnation and in the pattern of the Acts church. It means being relentless in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the holiness of God, even when that message is an unpopular one. It also means submitting to the surrounding culture’s reaction to that message, even when that means being pushed to the margins of the society.

Why? Why? Why??!!

As I explained in a previous post, I’m really not a fan of pastors endorsing political candidates. Lately, it’s been grieving me to see some Christians putting more enthusiastic hope into either Obama or McCain than what I’ve ever seen them put into their Lord. Neither candidate is the Messiah. Both are human and imperfect, and Christians need to take a realistic approach to candidates.

That being said, I should probably still make the disclaimer that I’m not a fan of Barack Obama. Though I’m still, frankly, undecided about this election (mainly because I just haven’t taken the time to read upon either candidate fully), I have a hard time seeing myself voting for him. Although, the thought of voting for John McCain doesn’t really appeal either.

Despite my hesitations about Obama, this REALLY makes me angry. Focus on the Family has published a “letter” written by “a Christian in the year 2012,” at the end of Obama’s would-be first term. Just a few of the things that describe a post-Obama’s presidency America:

  • Legalized same-sex marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states, which results in the dissolution of the Boy Scouts of America, the resignation of all evangelical Christian teachers from public schools (because of the mandated teaching in 1st grade of homosexuality as a legitmate option to choose), the closing of all Christian adoption agencies, and churches losing their tax-exempt status, among other consequences.
  • The forbidding of any and all Christian speech in the public square, resulting in all religious organizations being banned from school and university properties. So, church plants have been forced to close, parachurch ministries have been forced off-campus, and ‘see you at the pole’ is put to an end.
  • Abortion is made even more accessible, to the point that doctors and nurses cannot object to performing them on the grounds of moral conscience.
  • Pornography is now freely accessible and unmonitored, even forms of pornography now considered illegal.

Don’t get me wrong. A country that looks like this would be miserable to live in. But, even if Obama is elected, the chances of all of this happening to this degree are just slightly more than 0%.

On top of that, why should Christians be so concerned? We don’t bow the knee to our government, we bow only to Jesus Christ. Even if all this were to happen, God’s purposes of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth will not be stopped.

So, as much as it grieves me to see Christians place hope in false-messiahs running for office, it grieves me just as much when Christians place undue fear into fellow Christians. Obama’s certainly not Jesus. But, odd’s are, he’s probably not the antichrist either.

Pastors and Politics

Yesterday was the primary election here in Pennsylvania, and it got me to thinking…

I remember the 2004 election well. I was in my final semester at Grove City College, one of the most republican colleges in the country. The college administration was even kind enough to have special inter-visitation hours (normally reserved for the weekends) so you could watch the election results with friends of the opposite sex (I’m laughing as I type this sentence). People were watching the election results (probably on Fox News) with great cheers every time Bush was declared the victor in a new state. I remember talking a couple days later with a friend who happened to be Democrat. She was ridiculed by a lot of her peers, and in some cases her Christian character was questioned, because clearly a vote for ‘W’ was a vote for Jesus. This atmosphere wasn’t sitting right with me.

The Sunday following the election, I had the opportunity to preach in a small Congregationalist church outside of Mercer. It was a friendly church, and one of the few that I’ve ever preached in where members of the congregation actually referred back to points of my sermon in conversation after the service (as opposed to the cliché “nice sermon” or “thank you for that message”). I loved this church, except for one thing. During the sharing of joys and concerns, the pastor and several in the congregation agreed that we needed to thank God for putting the “right man” in office, and acknowledged how hard they had been praying that this would happen. Now, I had voted for ‘W,’  and even I felt awkward at this point. I can’t imagine how anyone who voted for Kerry would feel in the context of this church.

As the Pennsylvania primary was drawing closer over the past month, I saw the opposite side of the pendulum here at Pittsburgh Seminary. I’ve seen as many Obama pins here as I saw ‘W’ pins at Grove City. I also saw and read in the news of somewhere around 100 local pastors officially endorsing Barack Obama for president. I wonder how the republicans and the Clinton supporters in their congregations feel?

Don’t get me wrong, pastors have every legal right to participate in the political process and to express their opinions. I would also argue that they, and any Christian, ought to allow their faith to inform, even dictate, their voting and political action. The problem is twofold. Firstly, no presidential candidate is Jesus, and there are valid, Christian reasons for voting (or not voting) democrat or republican. Secondly, pastors are called to the vocation first and foremost of proclaiming the gospel. When they associate too closely with any one presidential candidate, pastors run the risk of isolating themselves from those of a different political persuasion.

Perhaps it would better, rather than pastors (and Christians in general) attempting to endorse a particular candidate, to focus their political energies on speaking to particular issues. Maybe if instead of pastors talking about Obama, Clinton and McCain, they should focus on speaking about the need to preserve the life of the unborn, to be better stewards of the planet entrusted to our care, to correct the wrongs of racism still present in our society, and so on.

This would be a counter-cultural move; it would mean Christians refusing to be put into a particular political box defined by this-worldly standards. So long as we allow ourselves to be defined politically by our endorsement of particular candidate, we’ll misrepresent the gospel of Jesus Christ.