The first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote came a month after my birthday. I had to vote absentee, since in November I was in the weeds of my freshman year of college six hours from home. I excitedly blacked in the circles on my first ballot and mailed it back, thankful to be able to cast the first vote of my life.
I didn’t vote for either major party candidate for president. I chose John Anderson, partly because he appealed to college students like me across the board, partly because he hailed from my home state, so loyalty won. Of course, I guess Reagan did too, but only by birth. In any case, geography is, I realize, a poor rationale for voting decisions.
This year, I’ll vote early in person, and the gratitude for being able to cast a vote hasn’t really faded. I still recognize it as a privilege and hope I always will. With a dad who walked the decks of a battleship in the Pacific at the age of 16, I think I’d be letting him down if I didn’t.
I want to spend October on this touchy subject. How should Christians vote? No, not for whom. We’re not going there. Pretty sure you know I have definite opinions, but that’s not the point here. What I want to talk about is the theology around voting wisely and well.
First, Scripture addresses the issue of loyalty, and that matters immensely when we think about the theology of voting. Loyalty is BIG in the Bible. God self-labels as a jealous God, who won’t brook competition (Exodus 34.14). The first commandment is all about —no other gods before me! God isn’t a fan of idolatry—yet it’s clear in many places that his reasons are for our good. Having other gods always leads to unhealthy relationships with all of them and a divided self that doesn’t function well in any arena.
The Bible involves a lot of paradoxes, mostly because life this side of eternity is just plain messy. It’s not certain, and our reality and scripture both reflect that. One of those paradoxes is that we are a part of this world that we live in, yet we are not supposed to consider it our real home.
Jesus says that we are in this world but not of it (John 17). He says he is leaving us here but that we are to live here as he did, having been sent as hew was sent. The way he lived here is not at all the way most people do. His every word and action very much showed that his loyalty was not with any powers of this world. That’s what got him put on a cross.
Peter says that we are always sojourners, foreigners in this land. Yet he is careful to say that we answer ethically to the people around us. (1 Peter 2)
Prophets like Jeremiah told God’s people to make our homes here and to create lives that blessed everyone around us (Jeremiah 29). Yet the prophets also make it clear that we are always longing for our real land, and this isn’t it. It is one of those paradoxes that we feel but do not understand.
This is my home, but it is not my home. I am to do well in it and bless others in it, but I am to hold it very lightly and loosely, because it isn’t mine. How does this affect the way we choose to vote in this country?
It sets us up to understand better where our loyalties ought to be. Let’s look at a few Bible verses.
Exodus 20.3 You shall have no other gods before me. First commandment. So, pretty important.
“Before” actually means beside—like, not only can’t we have any gods that are more important to us than the One true God, we can’t even have any that we put alongside God in competition. There are to be no close seconds. God is the runaway winner—no one else is even on the track.
Luke 14.26-27 If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Jesus uses hyperbole here, a common technique in the Bible, to make a point. No, he doesn’t want us to literally hate our families. But he does want to make certain his disciples know the extent of the expectations and commitment. They are to place him first, and anything that comes in the way of that needs to be subordinated real fast. It might well mean sacrifice and putting other things before their own well-being and desires. So he’s preparing them for that.
Matthew 6.24, 33 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
The context here is money, which is why he uses this example. But it’s clear he means we cannot serve God and anything else. See again, first commandment.
So what’s the point of this? It’s that God does not accept competition. There isn’t any allowance for mixed loyalties. We are either God’s or we are not; there is no option for being partly God’s and partly something else.
Our complete loyalty has to be to getting up every morning and saying to God, “I am yours and I belong to your kingdom. How does that work out in my life today?”Tweet
Remember—God doesn’t even want a close second place finisher.
Why? Because if we try to divide our lives up into loyalty for God plus loyalty for country, culture, family, anything, we find that they take precedence before God every single time. It’s just human nature that when we put something next to God, it always overtakes that first loyalty in our hearts. And God doesn’t take second place. When we do that, we are just serving whatever that other thing is then. God will leave us to it.
There is, therefore, no such thing as the American church. The church belongs to God, and it is universal. There is no such thing as, God forbid, this new “denomination” that’s being created called the Patriot Church. (Heresy detected. Run away fast.)
We are citizens first in God’s kingdom, and to mix God and country so completely and indistinctly together is to create a soup with no eternal substance.Tweet
Remember—no other gods even beside the one true God. That leaves zero wiggle room for worshiping our country. Gratitude for it? Absolutely. Care and concern? Sure. We’re to live in this world—and so to bless it and be good caretakers of it. This is why we vote. But we are to be always careful of what is receiving our ultimate loyalty.
To worship something means to consider it perfect. You see no flaw in it. It means to think of it first and to put your trust in it. It means you think that thing matters above all other things, and you are willing to sacrifice anything or anybody for it. This is fine, if that “thing” is God.
But if you hear things coming out of your mouth like, “my country right or wrong,” “Love it or leave it,””Don’t criticize the good old USA—it’s the greatest place in the world!”? That’s not patriotism. It’s worship. Patriotism is to tell God thank you for giving you a wonderful place to live and asking God to make you a better citizen while here on earth. And the prophets would agree with that idea. Yet we must all the while remember—this country is not our real citizenship. We’re God’s people, through and through, with ALL our priorities.
The next verse, a familiar one, puts this all together.
Matthew 22.37-40 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So we reiterate here that God is first and alone in our hearts in terms of loyalty. But then he adds that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves as a necessary corollary. That brings this world into the picture. It speaks to the balance we talked about in the beginning between belonging to eternity and belonging to this place we live in.
It is because we place God first that we act in ways that love his image here on this earth. To honor God is to honor his image, which is every single person we ever meet or hear about. Paul talks about how this works out:
Ephesains 2.10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Our task here on earth, our way of showing loyalty to God’s kingdom alone, is to do his good works here. The main one of those works is to love our neighbor as ourselves. So one of the ways we approach the concept of voting in a free country is to approach it as a way in which we can love our neighbor through our voting priorities.
How does this work? Well, let’s look back at some of the ways the Bible says we can love our neighbor.
The parable of the good Samaritan comes to mind first, obviously. A good neighbor binds someone’s wounds up. She or he offers healing and the means that a person might need in order to completely heal. The good Samaritan paid for the hotel room and the treatment. Sometimes, that’s what a good neighbor does. They heal and provide.
Jesus said that giving clothing, food, water, and visiting the sick and imprisoned was being the same kind of neighbor to people as if we were being a neighbor to him. So loving our neighbor means to make sure they have what they need and to make sure they aren’t left lonely.
Paul says in several places that loving someone sometimes means helping them get back on the right path. Sometimes it means to correct them. At other times, we love people by mourning with them and rejoicing with them. We love people by freeing them from oppression. We love others by teaching them right from wrong. Being a neighbor even means to love your enemies. All of these examples have multiple Bible verses that show God has decided this is how we love the image of God on this earth.
So how do we vote in a way which loves our neighbor? Remember, this is all prefaced on the truth that we are here on earth in order to do his good works, the foremost of which is loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Ask yourself a few questions:
- How would you like the laws to be if they were applied to you?
- How would you like voting to go if you were one of the people mentioned in the verses above—hungry, alone, sick, spiritually lost?
- What woulds you like this country to look like if it looked good for everyone?
- What are the hopes and dreams of others, and how could my vote help those along?
These sorts of questions help us to think about the question in a way that doesn’t put “me” in the center of our voting action.
To vote in a way which loves our neighbor means first we have to put ourselves in our neighbor’s position. We can’t possibly do it if we cannot imagine ourself as a person with different needs. So it first requires empathy. It means getting out of the “me” silo and talking to and learning about other people. Listening to their stories. Knowing what their hopes and dreams and needs are. If we don’t know our neighbor, we can’t really love him or her.
I hope that gives a good theological overview of how Jesus first and second commands—love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself—should influence how Christians choose to vote. It’s complicated. But it’s worth asking ourselves a lot of good questions.