Earlier this week was National Voter Registration Day, so it is an appropriate time to consider an important question: do American Christians have a moral obligation to vote?
During the last election, one Christian leader expressed his discomfort with hosting voter registration drives and providing voter guides to his congregation. Although this leader believes that “voting is a good thing,” he nevertheless believes it is imprudent for the church as an institution to do anything beyond praying for candidates and preaching on moral issues. Despite this pastor’s good intention to safeguard his church’s mission and witness, this approach falls short of what fully realized Christian discipleship requires. If the gospel has implications for all areas of life, including politics, should not pastors strive to ensure their members are equipped (i.e., registered to vote) and sufficiently informed to faithfully engage in the public square?
In a constitutional republic like the United States, the locus of power is the citizenry; the government derives its authority from the people. As Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist Paper 22, the consent of the people is the “pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” In the United States this principle is foundational to our government and provides citizens with incredible opportunity and responsibility. Unlike billions of people around the world, Americans, through the ballot box, control their political future. Indeed, we are stewards of it, as we are stewards of everything else God has given us.
For Christian citizens, the implications of America’s form of government are even more significant when considered alongside Paul’s teaching on the purpose of government in Romans 13. According to Paul, government is ordained by God to promote good and restrain evil. God authorizes the government to wield the sword for the administration of justice. As one theologian recently explained, “The sword is God’s authorized gift to humanity for protecting life.”
From these considerations, a truth with far-reaching implications for Christian political engagement emerges: Voting is an exercise in delegating God-ordained authority. Because power resides with the people in our republic, when Christians vote, they are delegating their ruling authority to others. In other words, by voting, Christians are entrusting their “sword-bearing” responsibility to officials who will govern on their behalf. Seen from this perspective, voting is a matter of stewardship; failure to vote is a failure to exercise God-given authority.
Therefore, if the act of voting is the act of delegating the exercise of the sword, pastors should communicate to their members: “This is what Christians should do.” Given the unavoidable role of politics and the direct, real-world impact that government decisions have on people’s lives, downplaying the responsibility to vote amounts to a failure in Christian discipleship and loving our neighbors comprehensively.
Now, some might push back and argue that this conception of voting and political engagement overly prioritizes the political arena. When reflecting on the Christian obligation to love our neighbors, they might argue that political engagement is only one way of loving our neighbor and trying to be a faithful presence in the culture. This is true, but we must not minimize the significance of government and the role it plays in people’s lives. Love of neighbor must be embodied in all aspects of life. Can Christians really care for their neighbors well if they are not engaging in politics, the arena where a society’s basic rights and freedoms are shaped?
Further, given the United States’ far-reaching influence in the world, how can American Christians love the people of the nations well without having a vested interest in how our government approaches the issue of religious liberty and human rights worldwide — issues which go to the heart of seeing people around the world as created in the image of God? By voting, Americans determine who will represent the United States abroad as well as the values our country will export around the world. Will America’s ambassadors be stalwart defenders of religious freedom overseas? Christians who support missionaries should care about the state of international religious freedom, an area of advocacy in which the United States exerts significant influence. Will abortion, under the euphemism of “family planning,” be funded overseas by American taxpayers, or will U.S. foreign policy value the life of the unborn? Again, American believers, by exercising their right to vote, have a direct say in these matters.
In light of these considerations, pastors should exhort their members to be involved in the political process and to vote. But voting is not enough. Pastors should also help educate and equip their members to think biblically about moral issues, candidates, and party platforms. Much of this equipping and educating should be accomplished through the regular rhythms and liturgies of the church (preaching the Word, corporate prayer, hymnody, etc.). However, for the sake of robust political discipleship, additional steps should be taken. For some congregations, this might mean providing access to voter guides and other educational material. In others, it might mean hosting workshops or Bible studies on political engagement.
Many Christians might get squeamish at these suggestions; if so, we must recall a proper understanding of “politics,” as discussed previously — that of deciding how best to organize the affairs of the community and love one another. When we realize politics is, at its core, about how we love our neighbor as we live and order our lives together, we understand there is no reason to shy away from becoming informed about how to vote. Rather, we must embrace the question. We must make room for thoughtful discussion and respectful disagreement on certain issues within the body of Christ, but we must not avoid talking about them altogether. It is not enough to espouse concern for human dignity but not support policies and candidates who will fight to overturn profound moral wrongs. In a Genesis 3 world plagued by sin, Christians are called to reverse the corroding effects of the fall wherever they exist. Our decision to cast an informed vote is an attempt to do just that.
David Closson is the Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council.