Politics and Piety

September 30, 2020

The new wave of the political scene is upon us. In America, when election fever heats up, it sure gets hot. Angry Facebook posts. Tirades on Twitter. Inflammatory airtime slots on terrestrial TV, and who knows what on cable. It’s going to get fiery, especially this year. For various reasons that for many will be obvious, and for those for whom they are not obvious would take too long to repeat, the current election season is hotter than hot. The candidates on either side are vilified. Some are viewed as idiots, some as morally debased. Some view one side as righteous; others view the other side as righteous. And that is not even to mention the policies: an at least overt commitment to decreasing or ending abortions versus an at least overt commitment to decreasing or ending racism and social injustices. The prevailing principles of the individual electorate are already likely to be highly divided just by the policies, and that’s not taking into account the divisive figures that sit atop the heap of political power.  

Evangelicals have long walked a somewhat uncomfortable line. On the one hand, evangelicals subscribe to the commitment that what people really need is a personal relationship with Jesus—and that real change comes as people are really changed, born again. Our message is the evangel (from the Greek word for gospel), not the polis of any particular political party. 

But on the other hand, certainly since the 1970s in America, evangelicals as a movement have recognized that in order to protect religious liberty and advocate for important moral issues (like the pro-life movement), it is necessary that they should encourage each other to make moral choices when casting their votes. This has all become more difficult in recent years because the moral choice option is no longer as clear as it was—or actually, to put it better, the moral choice option has become increasingly clear, but no one agrees what that moral choice option is. For some it is right, for others it is left; for some, I suspect, it is neither. The issue then is not a blurry confusion but rather a fiery war of conviction, and that war is increasingly not a “culture war” between Christians and non-Christians, but a “conviction war” among Christians themselves.  

I am one of those people who thinks that this is probably a good thing. I was always suspicious of the too easy consensus that inevitably evangelicals must vote towards the right or the left (ironically, in some parts of the UK where I am from, evangelicals are as likely to feel equally passionate about voting to the left as some evangelicals in America feel about voting to the right).  

The best line I ever heard on this came from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. As I repeat this line, I must be careful to say it is a line handed down to me by the person to whom it was spoken, not something that was said in public. But as far as I know, it represents what the great Doctor thought. To someone who was about to embark on a career in senior level politics, Doctor Lloyd-Jones gave his blessing and encouragement, and only added this caveat: The one thing you must never do is give the impression that a Christian must only vote for your party.  

I have often thought those were wise words. It is one thing out of Christian conviction to end up voting a certain way, and it is one thing to encourage other Christians to do so too, but it is something else altogether to make a litmus test of Christianity which political party you vote for. Such Shibboleths should not be among us; our standard of faith is Christ, not right- or left-wing politics. No one is saved by whom they vote for in an election. 

Now that being said, some would counter the argument above by making the point that things have changed. They would say that things are so bad now that actually a Christian can only really vote for one party. Fine. Make that case. But do not be surprised if some other Christians make a countervailing case.  

The one thing, in other words, that we must never do is give the impression that someone gets to heaven by voting a certain way. That is heresy. And not only that (if we can ever say “not only that” regarding heresy), it is deeply dishonoring to Jesus and the blood he shed for us at the cross.  

So go ahead and make your case. We live in a democracy, and it is the unheralded but extraordinary privilege that we in the West enjoy to argue about politics. But as you make your case—even a case that I agree with and support—don’t give the impression that those who disagree with you are un-Christian for doing so. Our unity is not around party politics.  

It may well be true that if a certain candidate wins, there will be deep damage done to the Christian church. I can foresee such eventualities too. Politics do matter. But not as much as heaven and hell. And if you make your case for your political views without an eye on the higher priority, you may, in God’s sovereignty, end up alienating people who otherwise you might have won to heaven. How sad it would be to win an election at cost of the elect. 


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