The Pennsylvania primaries are only a week or two away. The presidential nominations have already been decided, of course, but many other elections are up for grabs, and Christians who understand their responsibilities as citizens are getting ready to vote. Participating in the electoral process is one of the many ways we not only “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” but also offer “unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
Apparently, politicians are well aware that many registered voters identify themselves as Christians, because one name that keeps popping up on the presidential campaign trail is Jesus. We have heard, for example, a candidate identify his personal hero as “Christ, because he changed my heart.” We have heard candidates make reference to their past religious experiences, such as being born again, attending divinity school, preaching the gospel in prison, doing evangelistic work for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, being delivered from alcohol abuse, and the like. We have heard candidates discuss their prayer lives, and had their pastors step forward to say that they are “faithful in worship attendance.” We have even heard a presidential candidate introduced as “a man who deeply loves the Lord.” At times there is so much talk about God that one is tempted to wonder whether Jesus himself is running for office!
Some political commentators worry that all this talk about religion threatens to corrupt our political process. Out of misguided zeal for the separation of church and state, they want to exclude religion from public discourse altogether. They fear the election of candidates who are outspoken in their religious beliefs.
My fear is almost exactly the opposite. I worry less about what religion will do to politics than about what politics will do to religion. The attempt to get out “the God vote” has a way weakening the importance of religious commitment in American life. Christians are especially vulnerable to allowing the gospel message of faith in Christ to be co-opted by some political agenda. The fact that many Americans view Christianity as a front for party politics says as much about the evangelical church as it does about the secular media.
As an example of what politics can do to religion, consider the recent flap over one candidate’s visit to Bob Jones University. The candidate was branded as intolerant because, among other things, the university’s doctrinal position explicitly rejects Roman Catholic doctrine. There are many reasons I cannot endorse Bob Jones University—not least its history of racism—but the institution can hardly be faulted for its opposition to Roman Catholicism. Of course they disagree with the Roman Catholic Church; that’s why they’re Protestants! One would no more expect Bob Jones to endorse Catholicism than one would expect Notre Dame to espouse Reformation theology. It is not a question of bigotry, but of honest disagreement about biblical teaching. But that disagreement is a theological issue, and not a political issue. My point is that there is as much danger of politics corrupting religion as there is of religion corrupting politics.
Voters can be corrupted, too. During campaign season, religion becomes another way to manipulate people, and a highly effective method at that. So be careful! Remember that candidates are trying to tell you what you want to hear, so that you will think that they are who you want them to be. The relationship between political candidates and the voting public has never been very conducive to telling the truth.
Consider the candidate who used the Bible to explain to a campaign audience how important his faith is to him. His favorite verse, he said, is John 16:3. No doubt he intended to say John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” On the other hand, maybe John 16:3 was more appropriate after all. It reads: “They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.” When politicians start quoting Scripture, be sure to check their references.
Not everyone cares about a candidate’s religion. In fact, Americans are about equally divided between voters who think a candidate’s religious commitment matters and voters who don’t. One presidential candidate, who has since dropped out of the race, went so far as to say that discussing religion is “inappropriate on the campaign trail.” He argued that a man’s religion is a private matter that has no bearing on his competence to serve in public office.
The problem with this view is that most political decisions have a moral dimension. It is important to know something about a politician’s faith commitment because is important because it will have a bearing on his approach to moral issues. It will also have a bearing on his personal conduct, as the current administration has reminded us.
Nevertheless, when you step into the voting booth, you need to know more about a candidate than his religion. Even if you could figure out which candidate was the best Christian, he might not make the best President. By way of comparison, consider the way you choose a plumber. If you have a leaky faucet, you want to hire a workman who will treat you fairly and honestly. That being the case, you might well be interested to know whether or not he is a Christian. Nevertheless, your primary concern would be whether or not he can stop the leak.
The same holds true for public office. A candidate’s religious commitment is has some bearing on his position on, say, gun control, or welfare reform. But a public official also has to be competent to handle the affairs of state. Realize, too, that there is more than one Christian answer to most political questions. Even when we agree about our goals—that we are opposed to abortion for example—we often disagree about the most effective way to reach those goals within our political system. This often makes it difficult to know what how to be a good citizen as well as a good Christian. One thing we know for certain—especially in an election year—is that God has commanded us to make “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving… for all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
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