Here are three words which ought to describe the way Christians use their vote.
Winston Churchill took the rather jaundiced view that democracy is a terrible system but it happens to be much better than any other system. For one thing, democracy is inherently selfish: it is about the majority getting their own way. This must be right because the alternative is rule by a minority which, in most cases, means injustice and oppression against a powerless majority, as was seen for so long in South Africa. But it can be compounded by our sinful tendency to use our individual vote selfishly, resulting in short-sighted short-term policies and forcing minorities to become unpleasantly vociferous if they are not to be marginalised.
It is very easy for us, as Christians, to fall in with the worldly assumption (encouraged by the politicians) that we should vote for purely selfish concerns. But Christians are by nature to be unselfish and therefore our voting should be unselfish. So if, for instance, you believe low taxes are good in themselves, by all means vote for them. But do not just vote for low taxes because you want more money for yourself. There is much good that can be done through higher taxes.
How you vote will reflect on your Christian witness. Politics is a favourite subject of conversation and if, in this conversation, you make it clear to your non-Christian friends that your voting patterns are dictated by purely selfish concerns you are undermining your own credibility as a witness to the self-giving Christ.
We live in an appallingly cynical age and we ought to resist cynicism. Public opinion regards politicians even lower than journalists, and a depressingly large majority of voters are sure that politicians will always put party interests above national interests. There is a strong temptation to write off all politicians and to withdraw from the process altogether. Christians ought to be realists but we also ought to be optimists, seeking to improve society. I recall one theologian putting it this way. ‘Christians ought to be those who warm society.’ We should take the opportunities to make the world a nicer place to live in: warmer, gentler, kinder, fairer.
However disappointing we may find our current politicians, we should not condemn them all with one cynical sweep of our armchair philosopher’s pen. I have met a vast number of non-Christians of great integrity and goodwill who are sacrificing themselves to work for justice and harmony in their society and who are well worth voting for. There is, I believe, good reason to vote for an individual whom you judge to be of sound moral character, even if you do not agree with all his or her political views.
Nor do we have to feel bound to vote for a Christian just because one’s name appears on the ballot paper. It depends who it is. There are certainly some Christian MPs from a variety of parties that I might vote for. On the other hand there are some who, although they are my brothers in Christ, are reputed to be such nasty pieces of work that I have little doubt there are better candidates for whom to vote.
But Christians need to be realists as well as optimists, and we need to be realistic about politics. Politics is often a crude business and party politics is cruder still. There is in the life of every politician that uncomfortable two-minute period when the voter is in the polling station and cannot be got at. So much electoral effort is therefore directed at this most basic level: will the voter remember your name long enough to find it on the voting slip? (You have to be at an election-night count to appreciate the bizarre way some people vote!) And have you got them to feel well-enough disposed towards you and your party for them to want to find your name?
This low-level aspect of politics can seem demeaning and in a perfect world it would not be necessary. But as Christians we know we live in a fallen world and politics is never going to be entirely pure and noble. Christians should be able to recognise the necessary crudity of some of the political process and not let it stop them focusing on important issues.
But what are the ‘important issues’ for Christians? We can so easily trot them out because as Christians we can have very narrow agendas: abortion and euthanasia, marriage, pornography…. But here again we should be realistic. Politics is about more than a narrow band of ‘moral issues’. Good government and the Christian gospel are both about human life in all its breadth and richness. In our voting we should be looking for that noble Christian aim of wisdom, something rounded and rich, that takes account of the particular but also looks beyond to something broad and strategic.
Here I would enter my most impassioned plea. Christians should beware of single-issue politics. It is a tempting moral trap because your favourite candidate may happen to be very sound on your pet political issue: but he or she may be grossly out-of-order on other issues. When, in the 1980s, American right-wingers tried to rate senators on what they had decided were the key moral issues of the day (including sovereignty of the Panama Canal!), a leading Christian senator scored virtually nil while a high-scoring senator was later indicted for fraud.
Only a mono-maniac will assert that the legislation on abortion totally outweighs political issues in economics, law and order, education. Abortion may strike at the very base of a civilised society but some would counter that civilised society has already disappeared from some parts of our cities, and changing the abortion laws is not a realistic way of dealing with vast and complex problems.
Christians should resist the sad but convenient modern tendency to blame all ills on the government. We ought to recognise the limitations of what civil government can do. In some ways government has great power to affect our lives. In other ways it can hardly touch us. As Christians we know that life is about relationships. Civil government can do some things to improve human happiness, such as ensuring adequate provision of housing, health care, law enforcement, etc. But so much of our happiness and sadness comes from the way individuals relate to each other. Civil government may cut your taxes but it is your relationships with your family that really matter. No matter how many teachers the schools have, it is the parents who most profoundly influence the child.
As Christians we know that so much sin and suffering is the fault of individuals in the community. Yet so much good can be done by individuals. Christians should vote wisely and prayerfully, but we should also recognise the limitations on government and the responsibilities we have towards our neighbours in society.
This article first appeared in Grace magazine.