A man sits as many risks as he runs.” This was Henry David Thoreau's advice to people paralyzed by the belief that cautious inaction is somehow preferable to risky action. Whether one acts or does not act, Thoreau pointed out, he nevertheless contributes to the end result and cannot claim impunity. This advice would be hard-received by many of the Christians currently flummoxed by the difficult choice the upcoming election presents.
Many Christians dislike the options available in this presidential election. I'm not sure that there has been a more difficult political-ethical decision for Christians in America's recent past. But of course, our options are rarely ideal. More than a few Christians will be whispering in the voting booth the apostle John's succinct prayer, “come quickly, Lord Jesus.” As with all difficult decisions in life, however, the difficulty of the decision does not give us a free pass to opt out.
One of the most common ways for a Christian leader to respond to the current political dilemma is to rebuke fellow Christians for the sin of making idols out of their politics. We should heed this rebuke. Political idolatry and presumption, whether in the form of revolutionary fervor or some flavor of civil religion, is a theological syncretism—or mixing of beliefs—that the biblical prophets would not tolerate. A Christian's political platform must not be mistaken for the gospel of Jesus Christ no matter how closely tied his political conclusions are to biblical values. America is not the last great hope for mankind any more than classical Rome was, and the City of God has a remarkable way of surviving violent geopolitical movements.
That said, I am surprised by how many of my fellow Christians find the point about idolatry and presumption to be the end of the matter when there is so much left to say. Now that idolatry is out of the way, what is a Christian's responsibility as a citizen? How should a Christian steward his vote?
Apart from the political idolaters, there are two other groups of Christians to consider. They could be described in light of their political outlook as the despisers and the practitioners. The former is made up of those who for a variety of reasons avoid political discourse and have a general distaste for the American political scene. The despisers find jokes about corrupt politicians to be both humorous and deeply insightful. Because they are not politically engaged themselves, their political convictions are conformed to the opinions of the cultural figures that they do admire, usually from afar, via social media or other popular outlets. The latter group, the practitioners, is comprised of those who, either because of a sense of civic duty or actual vocation, care deeply about the political direction of the country and are working to move the country in a direction that will serve their fellow citizens. The government is not an idol nor is it a redemptive hope, but it does offer a way for practitioners to increase temporal peace and tranquility and to improve the common good. For them, the political decisions made in the voting booth will have practical real-world effects for which they will feel responsible.
The problem for both the despisers and the practitioners is that they are both responsible for how they steward the vote they have been given as citizens. It is not enough to throw your hands up in exasperation about the whole system and walk away, nor is it appropriate to despair that neither option corresponds with the values of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. To paraphrase a well-known lesson about stewardship from the Gospel of Matthew (25:14-30), you can bury your vote or you can discern a fitting investment of it, but as we learn in the parable of the talents, inaction has moral value.
Political idolatry is a pernicious temptation. Our television screens and social media feeds are filled with those few who make an idol out of politics by placing their hope for the future in the success of one party platform or another. As I live just outside D.C., I encounter political idolatry somewhat regularly. But I do not think the majority of the Christian church can be described as political idolaters. I think many more Christians in my city are practitioners who wish to improve the world through their work in the political sphere. This is not the only avenue for their love of neighbor, but it is an important avenue. For them, the election season can be a time of great anxiety and uncertainty regardless of whether their candidate is the incumbent or the challenger. Will their hard work continue or will it evaporate with the arrival of a new administration? Will the strides they have made survive into the next year? How about the next decade? Will they be part of an effective movement of reform or will the old obstacles frustrate them yet again? For the practitioner, political involvement is personal, as personal as any vocation, and imminently practical, but it need not be idolatry.
I am encouraged by the number of Christian leaders who are making strong and clear calls for allegiance to Jesus Christ in all of life, including in our political commitments. But it is not pious to rebuke a person for idolatry when they are honestly trying to discern how to make the right decision. Neither is it appropriate to tell them that making any positive decision apart from inaction is idolatry or some sort of sin of presumption. Life is filled with difficult decisions and much of the Christian life involves discerning what one will do by wisely applying the principles upheld in Scripture in an informed way. It's not always obvious what the right answer is, and sometimes the stakes are quite high—hence the difficulty of the decision. Your heart may cry out, “Stop the world, I want to get off,” but Scripture draws us forward: “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
Scott Redd is the president and professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
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