In May and June this year, we’ll get an opportunity to vote in local elections, in the European Union referendum, and for a Police and Crime Commissioner. Some of us will also be voting for a mayor.
Apathy and disillusionment
As a nation, we don’t get very enthusiastic about elections. In 2012, only about 30% of Brits voted in local elections, and half that in the election for the Police and Crime Commissioner. There’s probably a combination of factors behind the apathy. Disillusionment with politics is part of the issue, but other key factors include a lack of social responsibility, and that most people just don’t believe that their vote will make much of a difference.
It’s easy to get sucked into the apathy, and to stay at home – but I think that would be an unchristian response. Of course the Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly that we ought to vote, but how could it when there was so little democracy in biblical times? Nonetheless, the biblical principles are clear enough, and they point in the direction of taking up the responsibility to wisely exercise our vote.
The principles are these: First, we’re urged to respect and honour governing authorities (Rom. 13:6‑7), even when those leaders are bad (1 Peter 2:18). That means apathy and cynicism about our government is not an option. More importantly, we’re to pray for kings and rulers (1 Tim. 2:1‑2) because when they rule well, that’s good for the gospel. If we’re to pray for them, surely that implies we’re also to help them to rule well – the Bible doesn’t give us the luxury of praying for something whilst refusing to be involved in one of the key ways God might answer that prayer.
So Christians should vote. In fact, we should vote all the more when the rest of our nation is full of apathy. Christians don’t get too much influence in 21st century Britain, but if we take up our democratic responsibilities whilst others stay at home, then there would be local authorities where the Christian vote would prove decisive, and that may also be true in what is likely to be a very close referendum contest.
Weighing our options
The Bible doesn’t just suggest that we ought to vote, it also lays down principles that we can very easily apply to how we should vote.
The most important of those principles is Jesus’ summary of the commandments – that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.
This principle applies to every area of our lives, so clearly it applies to voting, too. It means that when we vote we must put God first, and mustn’t put our own interests ahead of those of other citizens. Let’s take those two principles in turn.
Put God first: When we vote, we shouldn’t ask, ‘What government/council do I want?’ We should ask instead, ‘What government/council does God want?’ Traditionally in Britain (and still in the United States), Christians have interpreted this as a call to vote for the party which is socially conservative (e.g. doesn’t promote abortion, homosexuality, divorce, drunkenness, etc.). These moral standpoints are certainly important factors to consider. But Christians are increasingly remembering that God also demands that we care for widows and orphans, and don’t oppress the poor. Morality and social justice go hand in hand. We should be as concerned about the latter as we are about the former, and we’ll need to weigh up which party is most likely to deliver policies that bring about good and not evil.
Don’t put your own interests ahead of others: If you earn a decent wage, it’s tempting to vote for a party that will reduce your taxes. If you’re on benefits or a state pension, it’s tempting to vote for a party that will guarantee your existing level of income won’t be reduced in the future. That’s how many people vote, but it’s not how Christians should vote. The question for us needs to be: ‘What’s best for our country?’ not ‘What’s best for me?’ Voting in this way is hard, because we have to set aside our prejudices and traditions, and we have to evaluate all the options wisely and impartially. Most of us find that difficult because by nature we are all self-centred, and we tend to value our own opinion above others. The politicians who agree with us talk sense, whilst those of the opposing party are idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about or haven’t lived in the real world! One practical thing that I’ve found helpful is to read a daily newspaper from the opposite political viewpoint from the one I normally support. So if you normally vote Conservative or UKIP, then read the Guardian or Daily Mirror. If you normally vote for Labour, LibDem or for the Welsh or Scottish nationalist parties, read the Telegraph or Daily Mail. Doing so will challenge your prejudices and help you to see politics from the perspective of others. It’s also great practice for the Christian life generally, where seeing things from others’ perspective is so important.
Putting it into practice
The principles then, are straightforward. We have a God-given responsibility to respect our leadership and help them lead well. When it comes to exercising our vote, we should put God first, and vote according to what’s best for our country, not simply what’s best for us. And yet putting those principles into practice is far from straight forward. There are two main reasons why this is tough:
No major party espouses all these values: As our nation moves further and further away from its Christian heritage, it’s clear that none of the major parties reflect all of the values that the Bible would commend. As a result, we have to balance positives against negatives when we’re choosing who to vote for. Some might be tempted to vote for one of the minor Christian parties. Personally, I’m not convinced that Christian parties are a good idea. Christians will naturally have different views on taxation, welfare, defence, immigration, and so on, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for any party to make judgements about these issues and label that as the Christian view. I’d rather Christian politicians sought to strongly influence the mainstream parties from within. But that’s something each of us needs to make up our own minds about.
It’s hard to know ‘What’s best for our country?’: Is it best for us to remain in Europe, or to leave? I honestly don’t know. When experts on the economy, charity bosses, politicians and other experts disagree, how are we supposed to decide? But we shouldn’t let the difficulty of the task stop us from attempting it. God calls us to ask for wisdom, and that’s what we need before we vote. If we’re prayerful, well-informed, and seeking to put biblical principles into practice, then we can be confident of God’s help and wisdom, and we can trust him to guide us in the way he would have us go.