The Bible and Your Vote
Thoughtful Christians need to work hard at interpretation to apply Scripture in conformity with God’s intended message.
Americans live in a democratic society where every eligible citizen is allowed to vote and express their opinion about how our country should shape its everyday life. While some Christians still live by the belief that our country was founded as a Christian nation, the reality is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of many beliefs and perspectives, both religious and non-religious, have different values as well as a desire that our society makes room for those values.
How should Christians form their political opinions and decide whom to vote for and what policies to advocate? We should also ask ourselves what the best way to achieve our desired political goals is. In turn, we will look at these two questions, starting with how Christians should form their political opinions.
I contend that we start with the Bible. Why? The Bible is our canon, that is our standard of faith and practice. The books of the Bible were written by various human authors through a long span of time, from the end of the second millennium BC to about AD 100.
Even so, Christians believe that God is the Bible’s ultimate author and that the Bible, though composed of many different books, actually has a coherent message. God speaks to us through its pages, so it makes sense to look to the Bible for help as we form our political ideas.
However, the first thing we need to realize is that the Bible does not give us public policy as such. For example, it does not tell us how many immigrants we should allow into the US a year or whether or not we should build a wall at our border. No, the Bible gives us principles that help us form specific public policy, but not the policy itself.
As I argue in my book, The Bible and the Ballot, we learn from the Bible that we should care for immigrants. Still, it also shows that there is nothing immoral about border security. To apply the principle of love for others and as well as concern for security takes wisdom. Wisdom understands the principle and considers the situation (economic impacts; the suffering of others; the need to protect against outsiders who want to harm, and much more). While this is hard work, it cautions us against the extremes – excluding all or the majority of immigrants on the one hand and open borders on the other.
As he speaks to us through the Bible, God gives us more than principles. He also shapes our attitudes or dispositions, as we wisely consider public policy. Let’s stick with immigration as an example. Christians should feel nothing but love toward those seeking to enter our country.
This disposition should lead us to do as much as possible to help those seeking political refuge or financial help. Of course, that does not require us to let everyone in, but if we feel contempt toward immigrants, we sin. All people are created in the image of God. If we find ourselves even disliking immigrants, we sin against God.
Even if we go to the Bible to develop our political principles, dispositions, and rhetoric, we might not know how to derive them from its pages. … It is not as easy as picking it up and reading it without understanding its literary, historical, and theological context.
Even beyond principles and dispositions, God, through the Bible, instructs us concerning how we talk about people involved in these public policy issues. To speak of immigrants in harsh or demeaning terms offends God.
Going beyond the point of immigration, if we speak disparagingly of those who disagree with us politically, we also offend God. Too often, our political discourse descends into name-calling and thinking the worse about people. Such speech often reveals an essentially idolatrous heart, thinking our political party or position will save us.
Even if we go to the Bible to develop our political principles, dispositions, and rhetoric, we might not know how to derive them from its pages. While I address this issue at length in my book, space allows me to say no more than that we should be mindful of how we read the Scriptures for this purpose. It is not as easy as picking it up and reading it without understanding its literary, historical, and theological context.
The Old Testament is critically helpful in our developing a Christian worldview. Still, we must, for instance, take into account issues of continuity and discontinuity between the time before Christ and the time after. Thoughtful Christians need to work hard at interpretation to apply Scripture with integrity, that is, in conformity with God’s intended message.
Let’s now briefly consider the second question: what is the best way to achieve what we discover to be biblical values and principles in the public square? Some Christians, wrongly, in my opinion, feel that we should withdraw and be the church, while others think we should ram our values down the throats of non-Christians through politics. I submit a third way – a way of wisdom, that asks the best way to influence our society toward values we hold dear.
As I have thought about this question, I have concluded that we should do our best to encourage our government to protect the vulnerable – the poor and the immigrant, for instance. The Bible, by the way, talks more about poverty and immigration than other issues that many Christians think essential. Yes, the church should do this work, but it has an abysmal track record, and the need is more immense than the church can handle. I think the government should also work hard at saving the environment from the effects of climate change. Again, this is a task that the church cannot handle on its own.
The same might be said for abortion, and we should, of course, care deeply about the growing potential of life in the womb. But it is surprising, though abortion was as common in biblical times as today, that the Bible never speaks about it. And today, abortion rights in the United States seem unchangeable. If Roe v. Wade is overturned (unlikely even with a stacked Supreme Court), it will make no difference since many states will legalize it. And if there were a federal abortion ban, many desperate women would then find a much less safe alternative to legal abortion.
Abortion will not go away through legislative or political efforts. At the present moment, it seems that the best, wisest, route for the church is to use its persuasion to keep abortion rare. The church can also provide great help to women who give birth, but who don’t want to keep the child through various means of support.
Speaking of abortion, there is a danger of being a “one-issue voter.” While focusing on one issue, we ignore other issues that bring much harm and even death to others. We should keep this in mind when we assess those who have a different political opinion and advocate for or vote for a candidate who may support legalized abortion but also works toward positive change in the areas of health care, poverty, race, criminal justice, environment and more.
TREMPER LONGMAN III
The Distinguished Scholar of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, Tremper has written more than 30 books. He also is a Hebrew scholar and one of the main translators of the popular New Living Translation of the Bible.
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