What I Think About This Year's Election

I want to speak as a pastor about the presidential elections. I believe that the gospel applies to all of life, even the way we think about things like national, state, and local politics. What I have to say may surprise you. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for since for me to do so is wrongheaded for all kinds of reasons. I learned a long time ago from Billy Graham that ministers of the gospel need to stay focused on their primary calling—preaching the gospel.  So let me provide what I think is some helpful pastoral counsel for all of us during this year’s election. I want to encourage you.

 

1. I think we need to keep the kingdom of God first!

 

“Seek the kingdom of God above all else” Jesus said (Matthew 6:33, NLT). The world of the first century was no less political than our own so Jesus would say the same thing today, perhaps even louder. Augustine taught us a long time ago that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man are not the same.  We have a dual citizenship in two kingdoms.  I’m an American and I love my country, but I am also a follower of Christ and I love the kingdom of God more. This country will not last forever. The kingdom of God is eternal. 

It may be that this year’s election will help us more clearly demarcate between the city of God and the city of man (to borrow Augustine’s appellations). Whether we realize it or not, since the late 1970s, many American Christians have been heavily influenced by the political ideologies of Rousas Rushdoony (1916-2001), D. James Kennedy (1930-2007), Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), and Pat Robertson (1930-    ). These leaders meant well, and I think they did some good things (others might disagree with this generous assessment), but they blurred the line between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. Their rallying cry was “Take America back for God,” and they convinced many conservative Christians that the way to change the heart and soul of America was through conservative political activism.[1]   

This worldview needs to be reappraised. It effectively makes the kingdom of man more important than the kingdom of God and the power of government more important than the power of the gospel. Christians therefore spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over political developments as though the kingdom of God is somehow at stake. I love this country and our culture, especially baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie, but America is not the kingdom of God. (Neither is Canada, or the United Kingdom, or Kenya.) Seeking the kingdom of God “above all else” means that our greatest passion in the world is following Jesus. It also means inviting the world—regardless of political persuasion—to join us in a kingdom that will never end.

 

2. I think we need to focus more of our energy on serving those around us.  

 

There are so many needs all around us. My family, my flock, and my friends need me engaged in their lives. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the turmoil of the world instead since it seems to be constantly unspooling on the daily news cycle. This is not to say that we should not keep up with the news, but we could learn something from C. S. Lewis, who thought it wasteful to spend time reading the newspaper every single day. He once wrote,  “It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help.”[2] That was in 1946! I wonder what he would say today about my BBC news app or the 24/7 news cycle?!

Lewis was not opposed to keeping up with current events or participating in elections. What he meant was that it is possible to waste too much time on things we cannot control and thereby fail to see and address the immediate needs of those around us. We have only one vote in this year’s election, but there are more powerful ways for us to change the world. We have friends and family members who need us. We have people at work who are counting on us (employees, colleagues, clients). We can help a homeless person, go on a missions trip, rescue an orphan, mentor a kid at the local elementary school, or honor our parents (who aren’t getting any younger) by visiting with them. Let’s read the news less and throw ourselves into helping those around us!

 

3. I think we need to be careful what we say and how we say it.

 

“Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” Jesus said (Matthew 12:36, NLT). What a sobering thought! I’ve spent enough time with Christians in different parts of the world to know that it is possible to be committed followers of Jesus and disagree over things like economic theory, foreign policy, and health care. And yet, I hear some Christians talk about politics as though they have successfully mined the biblical narrative for the last word on everything from gun laws to immigration policy.

Carl F. H. Henry reminded pastors a long time ago that the best we can do on these matter is outline broad biblical principles and let legislators get into the nitty-gritty.[3] For example, I can say, “The Bible teaches us to treat foreigners with respect” (Exodus 22:21, Matthew 25:43), but I need to be very careful when I say in the next breath, “and this piece of legislation” or “this government policy” or “this economic position” is biblical. It is naïve and dangerous to link the two. Laws are too complex for these kinds of sweeping “biblical” endorsements and most are flawed in some way, even those laws that contain principles that are based on justice and compassion. 

Can we speak our mind on issues? Of course. I am just saying let’s be careful what we say and how we say it. My Christian family in Texas and my Christian friends in Cambridge have very different views on gun control, but both have the utmost respect for human life and want the world to be a safer place for everyone. My Christian friends in Canada and some of my Christian friends in the United States have different views on health care policy. At the same time, they would all agree with each other that caring for those who are sick—even those who are poor—is something Jesus would call us to do.

What I really want to say is this: as Christians we represent Christ at all times, even during the election! What you say is important, and how you say it is just as important.  The gospel cannot be reduced to a piece of legislation, a particular political party, or this year’s American presidential elections. Let’s make sure that when we talk about politics, that our speech is “gracious and attractive” and that we are “prepared to give an answer” to anyone who asks us about the hope of the gospel (Colossians 4:6, 1 Peter 3:15)

 

4. I think we need to remember the faithfulness of God to his people in every generation. 

 

Hebrews was written to tell God’s people that they needed to persevere. Have we forgotten? God has been faithful to people of faith for thousands of years. In the volatile political world of Mesopotamia (Cain, Enoch, and Noah), in no-mans-land among competing Canaanite kings (Abraham), in the harsh environs of Egypt (Joseph and Moses), in the wilderness wanderings (Moses again), and in the land of plenty (David, Solomon, and some of the prophets), God remained faithful. Even in exile, in Babylon, where he told the Israelites to settle down and pray for the peace of the city (Jeremiah 29), God was faithful.  The writer to the Hebrews said to his people,You must persevere now that you are under Rome, knowing that for thousands of years God’s people have faced times much worse than this and remained faithful! They did persevere, and the church experienced dramatic growth under pagan emperors (whom they gathered to pray for on Sunday). 

Even if one argues that as Americans we are now “living in exile,” and I’m not sure I share those sentiments, we must remember that God’s people have flourished in nearly every political context imaginable—Mesopotamia, Canaan, Egypt, Israel, Babylon, and the Greco-Roman world. And if there is anything I have learned from my engagement with the global church, it is that the gospel is spreading in the non-Western world in places with less favorable conditions than we enjoy in the West. God’s people—and the gospel we proclaim—can flourish in our day and in our nation. Let us never lose hope. Let us live with all our might knowing that God is and has always been faithful to His people. 

 

5. I think we need to look forward to the future with hope and anticipation.

 

I don’t want to minimize the confusion and chaos that exists in our world today. It is everywhere, and it should concern us all. However, none of this is new. Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and natural disasters, the persecution of Christians and religious apostasy (people falling away from the faith) have all been around a long, long time.  Jesus said, “Do not be alarmed” when you hear and see such things (Mark 13). One might even argue that the generation of people living in the early twenty-first century Western world have been relatively blessed. I wonder what Polycarp (burned at the stake in AD 155) or Deitrich Bonhoeffer (hung by Hitler in 1945), or all the martyrs that lived between them, would say about our complaining? I wonder what Christians in places like Syria or Myanmar or Sri Lanka or South Sudan or India would say about all the hand-wringing over this year’s election? Here’s what I think they would say: “You have no idea how good you have it!” 

But even if (or when) difficulties come our way, let us not forget the message of Revelation. John is imprecise about the details of the future because the hows and whys aren’t the point. The message of the book is that Christians should persevere in their faith, even when difficulties come their way, because in the end Jesus is coming and the “good guys” win! The city of man (personified in Revelation by Rome) may at times oppose the city of God, but the city of God will prevail and the people of God will be blessed forever. While we don’t know exactly what the futures holds or what difficulties may await followers of Jesus, we do know God is faithful and He overcomes.  We can look forward (in our tribulations) and see the “new Jerusalem” of the future, where Christ will reign in the City of God in a kingdom that will never end. This is why the early church said, “Come, Lord Jesus” and referred to his coming as “the blessed hope” (Revelation 22:20, Titus 2:13). 

In these days of uncertainty, our hope is in Jesus Christ and our hands are at work relieving suffering where we can. That isn’t “head in the clouds” thinking; it’s good theology. Here is C. S. Lewis again:

 

Hope is one of the theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

 

I think we need to seek the kingdom of God first. I think we need to spend less time watching the news and more time helping our neighbors. I think we need to be careful what we say and how we say it because we represent Christ. I think we need to remember that God has been faithful to his people since the beginning of time. I think we need to look forward to the future with hope. 

So by all means, let’s go out and vote. And then let’s get on to more important things like following Christ and helping those around us. Let’s do much good in this present world while we look forward to the kingdom that is coming. Stay encouraged, my friends!

 

Note: For those who are interested in exploring a popular introduction written for conservative Christians on political theory in the post 1980s era, I highly commend the work City of Man:  Religion and Politics in a New Era by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner (Moody Press).


[1] For a short introduction, see Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party:  The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford, 2012). 

[2] C. S. Lewis to Bede Griffith, 20 December 1946, Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts and the War, 1931-1949 (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 747-48. 

[3] Richard J. Mouw, ‘Carl Henry Was Right’ in Christianity Today, January 27, 2010 [available on-line at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/january/25.30.html].  

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