How to vote Christianly
John Dickson on the art of mixing religion and politics
I am the true “swinging voter”. In the numerous elections of my life (beginning with the federal election of July 1987), my personal votes have been fairly evenly split between Labor and the Liberal, or Coalition, parties. As I write this at the beginning of April 2019, I don’t know how I will vote in the upcoming election.
I feel especially torn this time around, because some of my fundamental values and guiding principles are in deep conflict as I reflect on the party platforms.
People who identify as Christian should vote in a way that is informed by their faith, whatever decision they finally make.
While Christianity is not party political, it is political in the broader sense. At a fundamental level, faith concerns life in society – the word “politics” comes from the Greek politeuō, meaning to live as a citizen. Everyone who is concerned with the life of our wider community (as every Christian will be) is “political” in the larger sense of the word.
So in what follows I want to outline the way some basic Christian beliefs should – and should not – influence a Christian’s vote. I hope to encourage Christians to be even more thoughtful in their voting intentions and to explain to interested “spectators” why a “Christian vote” is a vote for the good of society – and not an attempt to impose religious law on a secular nation.
I’ll begin with how a Christian ought not to vote.
A) How not to vote
1. Precedent: “How we always vote”
Voting patterns are sometimes based on little more than family heritage (“We have always voted for x”) or geographical location (“Most people vote for y where I live”). But voting by personal or demographic precedent is not a thoughtful vote. Whatever else a Christian ought to be, he or she ought to be thoughtful. Something as important as the way, and by whom, we are governed must be approached with seriousness and due reflection. Otherwise, believers are hardly loving God “with all their mind.”
Christians must also resist the temptation, born of cynicism, to disengage from their responsibilities as voters and citizens. That would be to retreat from “loving one’s neighbour.” Even Christians who are members of a particular political party should (in my view) be willing to abandon their membership of the party if its policies begin to stray from the Good.
2. Christian favouritism
Secondly, and perhaps a little controversially, voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian, or our brand of Christian, is morally suspect; it is a religious form of favouritism.
Having Christians in parliament is no guarantee – or even indicator – that our nation will be marked by peace, justice, compassion, truth and so on. Sadly, history is littered with counter-examples.
By all means, a Christian may vote for Christian candidates who also have a track record for diligence, leadership and justice, but it would be irresponsible to favour men and women simply because they are known as “Christians”, attend churches or frequent prayer breakfasts, and so on.
Theologically speaking, good government is not the special preserve of believers. In Romans 13, Paul makes plain that even the pagan governments of Rome were to be thought of as “established by God.” Indeed, secular, non-Christian rulers are described by the apostle as “God’s servants”. The point deserves deep reflection.
3. Economic prosperity
Thirdly, the main parties, and most of the major media, tend to make “economic prosperity” a central election issue. This is a window into the soul of a country. Yet, Christians must seriously question a fixation with the “bottom line”. In a society such as ours, one without deep faith, economic prosperity may be the only measurable form of success, but the follower of Christ ought to think otherwise.
Naturally, if one sincerely believes that national prosperity also happens to be the best way to achieve other, more important, goals for society, then the Christian will appropriately vote with this in mind. However, the believer should always remember the way the pursuit of wealth is given very short shrift in the Bible: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10).
If precedent, favouritism, and prosperity are faulty grounds upon which to base the Christian vote, what factors should inform such political choices?
B) How a Christian ought to vote
1. Vote for others
First and foremost, a Christian vote is a vote for others, not oneself. It is fundamental to the Christian outlook that life is to be devoted to the good of others before oneself: “Honour one another above yourselves” (Rom 12:10); “In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
In the political realm, Christians should use whatever influence they have to contribute to others, to “consider others better” than themselves. This is a foreign concept for many. Typically, the small business operator decides to vote for the party that promises to do more for small business. Union members vote for the party guaranteeing more power to the unions. Corporations with staffing issues tend to support the party offering the most flexible industrial relations policy. Aspirational voters tend to favour the party they think will best help them climb the “ladder of opportunity”. Such voting considerations may not be wrong, but they are inadequate for the Christian. Those who follow the one who gave himself up for us all will endeavour to put their private interests aside, and seek instead to serve the wider community.
In short, in thinking through the policies of the government, the opposition, and the minor parties, Christians will not be thinking of themselves – their family, industry, way of life, etc. They will be considering the wider public good. In their vote Christians must “consider others better than yourselves.”
2. Vote for the moral health of the community
Secondly, the moral health of our community provides another motivation for the Christian’s vote. The church exercises no authority over this pluralistic, secular society. “What business is it of mine,” said the apostle Paul, “to judge those outside the church?” (1 Cor 5:12) Christians in Australia are not the “Prophet Jeremiah” preaching to Israel; they are cheerful guests at a dinner party, persuading other guests on behalf of the Good but without any air of entitlement.
That said, as citizens who believe that a society’s health depends (in part) on living as the Creator designed, Christians will want to ponder: which party and/or policies will promote the values applauded by the Creator, the values of justice, harmony (nationally and internationally), sexual responsibility, honesty, family and mercy?
For the Christian, moral health far exceeds economic prosperity as an honourable goal for society.
In this regard, Christians will want to think through such issues as abortion, euthanasia, treatment of asylum-seekers, gender issues, care for the elderly, and much more, and then factor our conclusions into our voting patterns.
For the Christian, moral health far exceeds economic prosperity as an honourable goal for society. As the book of Proverbs says: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). In context, this famous proverb does not seem to relate to Israel’s covenant obligations and blessings (which cannot be applied to modern Australia); rather, it appears to be a general piece of wisdom for all nations.
The moral concern of Christians will invite the description (by some) of “right-wing” or “conservative”. The tag is accurate, in part, but on other matters Christians will appear “left-wing” and “progressive”. Christians will probably be concerned about the flourishing of the nuclear family (mum + dad + children), since this is an important theme across Scripture. Equally, Christians will be deeply pained by harsh measures targeting refugees or cuts to Indigenous health programmes.
“Right” and “left” are incomplete descriptions for the Christian. They are Christian heresies – splitting apart truths which the New Testament happily holds together.
3. Vote for the poor and weak
Thirdly, in voting for the “other”, the Christian will particularly have in mind the poor and powerless. We will use our vote for those who need our vote more than we do. The mandate for this throughout Scripture is overwhelming:
Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82:3-4).
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God (Proverbs 14:31).
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27).
And on and on I could go!
A Christian vote is one motivated by a concern to see the disadvantaged cared for.
Voting for the underprivileged in Australian society has traditionally been seen as a vote for the Labor Party – this is certainly how that party has understood itself. Others, however, argue that the most effective way to help the poor and weak is to increase prosperity across the middle of society in a way that naturally raises up those in need (through increased jobs and services, lower prices, and so on). This has traditionally been an argument put by the conservative side of Australian politics.
I offer no judgment about the best model. I simply want to insist that a Christian vote is one motivated by a concern to see the disadvantaged cared for – whether they be the elderly, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, the homeless, refugees, flood-drought-affected farmers, or the recipients of overseas aid. Whatever socio-economic model Christians sincerely believe in, they ought to vote for those who need their vote more than they do, especially in the country consistently ranked third or fourth (depending on the study) wealthiest nation on earth.
4. Vote for the gospel
Fourthly, almost by definition, Christians are to live for the eternal good of others (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1). Concern for the advancement of the Christian message throughout Australia, therefore, will potentially play a part in a Christian’s voting patterns. I raise this as a “hypothetical” issue. One day, a particular policy may (humanly speaking) work against Christian freedom to promote Christ – the ancient Christians faced this in the harshest terms, as do many in other countries today. It may be that one day a major (or minor) party will propose banning voluntary religious education lessons in state schools. Christians would be within their citizenly rights to seek to use their democratic privilege – the vote – to affect this policy.
Christian activism is expressed most pertinently on the knees.
That said, this will probably not be determinative for the Christian’s vote, since Christians believe that, ultimately, the message of Christ moves forward by spiritual rather than human power. I have long been struck by the way the early church – for the first 300 years – shunned political power. This was not because they had a “slave mentality”, as Nietzsche believed, but because they genuinely believed they already had the ultimate power in the gospel and the Spirit.
They believed they could change the world through prayer, service, and persuasion – without any imperial backing. And they were right!
5. Vote prayerfully
Finally, a Christian vote is a prayerful one. The Scriptures urge believers to pray for leaders and for governments. And, ultimately, believers will see this as more important even than their vote:
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
The connection between these sentences is subtle and fascinating. God’s people are urged to pray for those in power (vv.1-2a) with the result that “we” (God’s people) can get on with the business of living peaceful and godly lives (v.2b). Moreover, this outcome somehow works to please the God, who wants all people to be saved (vv.3-4). In other words, good government enables the church to get on with doing its quiet work of prayer, service, and persuasion, with the result that many are brought to a knowledge of the truth. This comes about not through the vote – as important as that is – but through prayer.
Christian activism is expressed most pertinently on the knees. There is nothing here about praying for a “Christian society” – whatever that is – only that prayers should be offered for the (secular) leadership of a nation so that God’s people can get on with their core business. It is a mistake, in other words, for Christians to pin their hopes for a nation on a political process. The Christian “vote” will always remain a secondary item in the church’s repertoire of involvement in the Good of the world.
Dr John Dickson co-founded the Centre for Public Christianity in 2007, and was for nine years the Rector of St Andrew’s, Roseville, Sydney. He is now a full-time author, speaker and academic, and is Senior Lecturer in Public Christianity at Ridley College, Melbourne.