How Should We Then Vote?

How Should the Church Engage a Politically Divisive Culture?

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The question of how Christians ought to engage a politically divisive culture is a microcosm of the age-old debate over the roles that church and state play in society and in the other’s realm. While the debate rages, what both the church (for our purposes, Christianity) and the state (for our purposes, American liberal democracy) have in common is both a shared constituency and, yet, the fundamental understanding that each is its own, separate, and distinct entity. Herein lies the challenge of church-state relations: two entities comprised of the same members, yet distinct from each other, each with its own purpose, leading to different roles in society.

While the Church is called to the Great Commission, the state is not; while the Church seeks the redemption of souls, the state seeks the preservation of the tenets of liberal democracy: individual liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law. Prior to his death, Jesus reminds Pilate that his kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36), the notion seemingly emphasized by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, where he affirms that government’s reach cannot interfere with one’s right to worship. Nearly 150 years later, in his dissenting opinion in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Wiley Rutledge would describe church and state as existing in two separate and distinct spheres.

In considering how Christians engage politics, then, we must be mindful that the Church is not the state. At times in our history, the two have mirrored each other, given their shared constituency. The Gospel, however, is not the American Dream. Eager to win the coveted evangelical vote, campaigns are quick to adopt the language — the right appealing to life and marriage, while the left emphasizes compassion and serving the less fortunate — making it incumbent on the Church to parse the difference between the Gospel and political expediency.

How Should We Think about Policy?

If we take Christ’s command to “Follow Me” seriously, then Christians must be pursuers of truth. Notably absent from Scripture is Jesus introduced as a teacher of truth. Rather, he states that he is the truth (John 14:6). A follower of Christ, therefore, ought to be in constant pursuit of truth — following it wherever it may lead, even when it makes us uncomfortable or challenges our core convictions.

This pursuit of truth requires an honesty with reality, unbridled by our personal preferences. For example, on the question of abortion, while we can debate questions of choice and, perhaps, personhood, undebatable is the reality that abortion stops a beating heart. Fetal heartbeats can be detected one month into a pregnancy and abortion stops that heartbeat. The same is true for capital punishment. We can debate questions of justice, but, as is the case with abortion, the cessation of a beating heart is an unescapable truth. Any debate we do have — over choice or justice in our examples here — are only productive if rooted in the honest reality that is truth.

In the same way, we must be honest with ourselves. As humans, we all have our own convictions and biases and we are at our best when we are truthful about them. Our urge toward confirmation bias leads us to share views we find favorable, while looking for any and every reason to dismiss views that challenge our own and even dissociate from those asserting them. Yet, this attitude reflects the height of human arrogance — that our knowledge is so superior that we cannot learn from those who hold differing views — and stands in stark contrast to Scripture’s reminder that the truth shall set us free.

Truth is not relative — Flannery O’Connor reminds us, “Those who have no absolute values cannot let the relative remain merely relative; they are always raising it to the level of the absolute[1]” — but it can be unknown and it is often nuanced. While we often view policy debates as a war between good and evil fought with one-liners and talking points, truth is not confined to mere facts, let alone rhetoric. Our pursuit of truth leads us on a journey from information to knowledge to understanding and, ultimately, to wisdom. Herein lies the great tragedy of our politics and our discourse today: we spend the majority of our debates focused on the entry level of information, sparing over “fake news,” never proceeding toward understanding and wisdom.

For example, when was the last time we considered the standard employed in an argument — is it appealing to a standard of legality, morality, or wisdom? How often do we conflate ideas with the arguments that support them and the people who articulate them? Our tendency to embrace or dismiss ideas based upon the individuals articulating them or to do likewise with arguments based upon our favorability of the idea they support is anything but honest, leading to the rampant revisionism we see of both our history and the present. Consider, for example, two popular approaches to our Founding Fathers: one seeks to dismiss them and their contributions to our nation due to their moral failures, such as owning slaves. Another seeks to dismiss those moral failings toward immortalizing these founders in our history and folklore. Neither approach leaves any room for the complexity of humanity, but both replace an honest pursuit of truth with the comfort of our personal biases.

Truth embraces not merely outcomes, but also questions of purpose and process. Given these layers of nuance, our pursuit of truth often leads to a place of tension and discomfort. Our human instinct is to resolve this tension, often in favor of our personal biases. To do so, however, is to seek to resolve truth. Truth does not resolve, it simply is. Rather, it is we who must resolve to the place of truth, learning to live with the tension and embrace the journey wherever it may lead.

How Should We Think about Politics?

There exists a fundamental difference between policy and politics: people. No matter our insistence that we “vote on policy, not for the person,” we are a representative democracy, meaning we cast our votes for a person. This engagement of people is not merely the candidates who run, either, but the voting public as well. James Madison emphasizes in Federalist 39 that the foundation of our republic is that the people select their leaders, Abraham Lincoln reminds us in his Gettysburg Address that ours is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.[2]

Oft-quoted in conversations on church and state is Jesus’ fame words to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that our God’s” (Matthew 15:21). While ministers often tie this reference to tithing, Jesus’ question preceding his famed line is imperative: “Whose likeness is this [on the denarius]?” The answer, of course, was Caesar’s. This then raises the question, who or what bears God’s likeness? The answer, of course, is people.

Christ’s command to “render to God the things that are God’s” exists at the intersection of our faith and our politics and leads us to some inescapable truths:

1) We bear the image and likeness of God and, thus, are rendered to God. The Messiah complex we cast on our leaders (ie, the “Obamessiah” or Eric Trump declaring his father, President Donald Trump, “literally saved Christianity[3]”) is reflective of our practice of rendering to Caesar the things that are God’s.

2) We are the Church and, thus, are called to render to God. Throughout Scripture, it is clear that God’s covenant and call is for his Church. Yet, today, we instinctively punt that responsibility to the government, expecting the state to decide all matters from marriage to poverty, again rendering to Caesar the things that are God’s.

3) Our political adversaries bear the image and likeness of God and, thus, are rendered to God by us. We would be rightly appalled if our social media feeds were filled with memes mocking God. Yet, we gleefully share these very memes mocking God’s image and likeness, because they appear in the form of our political opponents. From the same lips that claim Christ, we mock his creation and his image, all to score a few points in Caesar’s palace.

It is no secret that politics appeals to our selfish ambition; yet, it is precisely that self-absorption that makes Calvary necessary. Consider Christ’s command to love both our neighbor and our enemy. How was that command reflected in our last political debate? In your last social media post? We often gripe about the state to which our politics has descended, a gripe that is often accompanied by finger-pointing to the other side of the partisan aisle. Yet, a representative democracy is precisely that — representative of its people. Our politics — both the good and the bad — reflect us, the people. We are quick to appeal to our candidates’ better angels, but, perhaps, we ought to appeal to our own.

In Federalist 51, James Madison writes that, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.[4]” What the great American experiment in democracy got right was not its united leadership (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were bitter rivals in the Election of 1800 and, four years later, Vice President Aaron Burr assassinated Alexander Hamilton), nor its unwavering moral compass (slavery was written into the Constitution), but its recognition of the fallen nature of humanity.

Ours is a government built upon the ideals of federalism and separation of powers — both dividing the authority and power of government, that each sector of government would hold the others in check and, in doing so, preserve the liberty of the individual, the equality of the society, and the stability of the state. That a government designed to hold itself in check would rise to become a world power among the unitary governments of the world emphasizes Madison’s astute observation of humanity’s fallen nature and serves to remind the Church of our calling within that fallen, and thus divisive, state.

[1] Flannery O’Connor. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1969. Page 178.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863, https://rmc.library.cornell.edu/gettysburg/good_cause/transcript.htm

[3] Eric Trump, “An Interview with Eric Trump,” Interview by Scott Hennen, What’s On Your Mind (radio), October 2, 2020, https://www.am1100theflag.com/show-episodes/22643-10-02-20-whats-your-mind-hour-1.

[4] James Madison. The Federalist Papers, №51. The Avalon Project. 1788 https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed51.asp

SAMUEL CHEN is an award-winning political scientist, analyst, and strategist and is the author of the forthcoming book E Pluribus Unum: The Scope of Church and State in American Liberal Democracy (Kendall Hunt).

Chen is the founder and principal director of The Liddell Group and serves as Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northampton Community College (PA). He additionally serves as host and anchor of the news journal talk show “Face the Issues”. You can follow him on all social media at @SamChen220.

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Principal Director, The Liddell Group

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