For Christians, what role ought faith to play in our public lives? From the days of Jesus being asked about the giving of the imperial tax to Caesar (Mark 12), people of the “new covenant” have been wrestling with this very question.
Faced with a hostile pagan empire that surrounded them in the first centuries after the ascension of Jesus, the earliest Christians had little problem differentiating themselves from the “world,” even while persistent questions continued to be asked about the combined role of the State, religion, and the viability things like military service.
Following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 and the slow Christianization of Rome, believers entered into a new kind of Church/State relationship that we in America are now only slowly exiting. Some see this linkage as the worst thing that happened to the Faith, others as more of an encouraging success.
Whatever the case, questions of faith and politics remain. So my short answer to the question I posed at the outset is this: our faith must be central to our understanding of our political selves and our subsequent actions. In other words, if my Christian faith is not central to my politics, I ought to question how central it is to my life in general.
This is not to say, however, that just because my faith exists as the base of my politics I ought to vote in a predictably “conservative Christian” way. Political choices are rarely that simple. It has become axiomatic of late for the mainstream of Christianity in the United States to affirm that “God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat,” and on this point I would tend to agree with my coreligionists. I do not believe that one party is necessarily holier than the other. To say that one of them is seems foolish and reductionist. But then that is the trouble with our binary, winner-takes-all system. It forces us to assert imagined perfection when the best we ever have is a political corpus permixtum.
Yet affirming the Lord’s lack of liaison with any one of our two main parties also can obscure things…because we as citizens of faith are regularly asked to pick one of them to lead our nation. On this point I would simply say that in order to vote based on our faith, we must be clear about how we understand the core content of our faith. Of what our operating theology consists. Discerned through Scripture, meditation, prayer, personal experience, and the community of faith, we must be aware of those things we perceived most central to the Christian faith.
In some areas, all Christians can agree. Justice, for example, is a major and core theme of Scripture. Economically speaking, I would say that both Romney and Obama desire to see prosperity in our nation and the uplift of the poor and downtrodden. Neither of them wants to crush the poor. They simply have different plans for achieving their goals. As people of faith, then, we also have to use wisdom to determine which of these plans will work best…while acknowledging that there may be some big things about international economic inequalities and justice that neither candidate is willing to address.
On sticky social issues, matters are more complex. Many Christians will tell you that abortion is the single issue upon which they will vote. I understand this position. I do. But surely (as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters remind us), a theological emphasis on life means more than just eliminating abortion, doesn’t it? It has to do with issues of healthcare, euthanasia, our care of the elderly, capital punishment, and the myriad questions of war. Similar complexity exists on most of the issues upon which Christians may feel strongly. How individual Christians discern the basis and major emphasis of their faith and the teachings of Christ will therefore influence the direction they vote in these areas. If one believes Jesus is against abortion and capital punishment…they will have weigh the relative importance of each as well as make a judgment call as to which party or candidate will effectively work to address these concerns in society–even if neither of them run on that particular platform.
In the midst of this messiness we are called to participate. To choose. I am and will continue to be loath to tell others which candidate to select, because I feel that in some ways both have some good to offer mixed in with the bad. Both affirm Christian ideals even as other parts of their policies negate them. Instead of throwing our hands up in disgust, I would encourage believers to ask themselves what they really believe and know about the teachings of Christ…and vote, informed by the best wisdom our world has to offer, as best they can for those principles that God has placed closest to their heart. Even if their vote is different from mine, if it is honest, well articulated, independent of any outside influence, and keeping with a portion of the heart of God–which never can be exhausted by one political party or candidate–I will be happy. Well, happy, that is, if we as Christians will then choose, after the election, to remain engaged as citizens working for the same principles we vote for. That’s a lot harder for me and all of us than simply checking a box on a ballot.