Voting With a Christian Conscience

A conversation with Colson Center's John Stonestreet

 
A young man votes in the presidential election in Arlington, Va.

*Interviewed by Decision managing editor Jerry Pierce

Q. How do we prioritize the various issues through the lens of Scripture and a Christian worldview? Do some issues supersede others in order of importance?

A. As Christians, our primary allegiances are to the priorities clarified in the Biblical narrative, which may or may not be the issues and concerns that are the noisiest in our cultural moment. I remember talking to Chuck Colson about this a few times before he died. He was deeply convinced of a hierarchy of importance among the various issues we face, and the most important is the sacredness of human life. Where candidates, political parties, laws and government policies stand on human life—from conception through natural death—will inevitably shape their approach to all other issues.

And there are other issues that reflect what we believe to be true about human identity, dignity and value. For example, religious freedom is essential because it is based on the idea that as humans, we answer to God before we answer to the state. Also, marriage is an essential issue for at least two reasons. First, when we deny the historic understanding of marriage, we deny fundamental aspects of reality—that marriage is a created, not invented, institution, and that male and female are biological realities, not social constructs.

So life, marriage and religious freedom are fundamental issues. Other issues that are hotly debated—like jobs, gun control, terrorism, health care—are prudential issues. For example, all candidates want to create jobs, but they differ on how to do that. All candidates are for public safety, but they differ on which approach works best. These issues matter greatly, and often they are shaped by how we understand the proper role of the state in relation to other institutions of society.

But life, marriage and religious freedom are essential. No one can coherently argue that abortion promotes the dignity of human life, or that forcing bakers to cater same-sex “weddings” promotes religious freedom.

 

Q. We are citizens of Heaven. Why be caught up with the concerns of temporal government when we have Gospel work to do?

A. What is Gospel work? “The two greatest commandments are these,” Jesus said, “to love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” When Paul was in Athens (see Acts 17), he was grieved to see people worshiping false gods. Government is part of culture, and it should grieve us to see God not honored anywhere.

And what is love of neighbor? We cannot truly love our neighbor without sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, or feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoner. Neither can we truly love our neighbor if we are indifferent to good governance. Government, after all, was established by God to foster the sort of flourishing He wanted in His creation and among His image bearers. Of course, after the Fall, it took on the additional task of restraining evil. The way government is working these days, it’s easy to see in government sure signs of the Fall.

In his speech in Athens, Paul states that God determines both when and where we each live. It is no accident that we are Americans. I have to be concerned about the rights and liberties of my fellow citizens. After all, of all people, Christians have the theological grounding for what the Declaration of Independence proclaims: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Q. What are some vital concerns believers must consider before going to the polls in the 2016 presidential election?

A. First, that our deepest problems are not political, and so no politician or election is the solution for our deepest problems. Every four years in the American election cycle, we are tempted by what French theologian Jacques Ellul called “the political illusion.”

Second, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn prophetically clarified in his brilliant Harvard commencement speech of 1978, one sign of a decaying culture is the lack of great statesmen. Political calculations are often pragmatic by necessity, but Christians are called to read the times. We ought to ask God for mercy, and lead the way in repenting of our national sins: our perpetual chasing of immediate gratification, the trivialization of human life on the altar of sexual autonomy, our comfort and ease in the midst of grave evils, and our unwillingness to stand for truth out of fear and compromise.

Third, that the most important election decisions we make are not the ones that often get the most attention. News media always focus on the presidential race, but local elections matter, too. For example, the weakening of authority at the state and community levels has created more opportunity for an ever-encroaching federal government.

 

Q. How should voters proceed in an election season in which neither major party presidential candidate would be considered a moral example?

A. One of my colleagues often says that the five scariest words in the Bible are, “And God gave them over …” God sometimes lets a people reap the consequences of their choices. In our country, we often get the candidates we deserve. It may very well be that these presidential candidates are God’s judgment on our country.

Now, I’m not as concerned about their lack of Christian testimony. Martin Luther was reputed to have said that he’d rather be governed by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian. I struggle to vote for anyone who finds it nearly impossible to tell the truth—a grave moral flaw that afflicts the major candidates.

That said, I respect those Christians who have settled on their vote out of a practical calculation for the good of the country. And I respect those who are unsettled about supporting the lesser of evils. All I can say is pray and vote your Christian conscience. To be clear, Christians should vote. It’s an opportunity to participate and, as Scripture says, when we can do good, we should.

 

Q. How do Christians gain (or regain) the ability to think critically and Biblically about the important issues of the day?

A. First, we must be clear on our Christian convictions. The legal status of something does not alter its moral status, nor does it change our responsibility to the truth. Churches must disciple believers in the public application of Christian truth.

Second, I highly recommend that we spend time in 1 Peter. This epistle is so relevant to our moment. In it, Peter called a church dispersed by growing cultural pressures, including persecution—which was only about to get worse for them—to stand firmly on the hope of the resurrection. That hope was not optional, Peter said, but rather was to define them.

As Richard John Neuhaus once wrote, Christians “have not the right to despair, for despair is a sin. And … we have not reason to despair, quite simply because Christ has risen.” ©2016 BGEA

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John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and co-host of BreakPoint, a daily commentary on faith and culture. Find more of his work at breakpoint.org.

Photo: Alamy.com