U.S. Politics and the Vote: How Can Christians Engage in Meaningful Citizenship?

I am a political science professor at a Christian university with ties to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a denomination in the Reformed tradition. My own background is Calvinist. When I was growing up, it was a given that Christians working in political life were considered to be as much involved in ministry as those going to seminary. The theme “all of life is religion” was a mantra at my college, and we were taught that politics belongs to God.

But during the 20 years that I’ve been at Whitworth University, the percentage of students coming to us believing that political life is part of God’s kingdom has declined. Students might be interested in voting, but they do not have much hope about politics itself. When I speak at various events, I find that Christians today have despair about political life. So I want to share some things that I have found to be helpful in looking beyond the sometimes ugly and hostile mess that makes up part of American politics today. I think we need to focus not so much on presidential elections but on what it means to say that God has a plan for government in a fallen but redeemed world.

When our political conversation is all about which presidential candidate we will vote for, we miss an important opportunity to talk about justice.

This article has two parts. First, it outlines how Christians in the Reformed tradition have thought about politics as under the authority of God. Second, it makes what some might think of as a provocative statement: The vote for president is one of the least powerful political tools we have, so we need to think more broadly.

PRINCIPLES TO GUIDE US

During the presidential primary campaigns, I read hundreds of articles about the challenges Christians were facing as a voting group. Should Christians vote for Donald Trump, who seems cruel to immigrants and Muslims? Could Christians vote for Hillary Clinton if it is possible she could be indicted? Is abstaining from voting the best if neither candidate seems sufficiently pro-life? Was the Jewish socialist really the best candidate for Christians to consider?

Sadly, I think articles focusing on one vote or one particular policy area hurt the conversation more than they help it.

Christians will always have disagreements about public-policy issues. I’ve never been in a single policy debate where one group of Christians who took “position A” changed their minds, coming to agree with another group of Christians who took “position B.” It hasn’t happened in the classroom, in online chat or in public appearances that I have made over the years. If we focus on these disagreements among Christians, we can end up feeling frustrated and irritated by those who disagree with us. But if we take a different approach and emphasize how Christians can approach politics rather than what they should think about a particular issue, we can move toward common ground much more easily.

I encourage Christians to focus on a broad framework of political life, and in the Reformed tradition we have a rich intellectual history from which to draw. While some theological traditions might think of government as a necessary evil in a sinful world, our tradition emphasizes that government belongs to God and has some specific God-given responsibilities.

Reformed theologian John Calvin studied law and argued that the law and government fall under the authority of God. He said that if we were angels, we would not need government. But  because we are fallen, God has given us government as a gift. In the administration of government we should keep in mind human depravity. Because people are sinful, Calvin said, power should be dispersed over and through different government offices.

Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch prime minister and theologian in the Calvinist tradition, further developed this thinking, saying that civil government was ordained by God. Kuyper agreed with Calvin about dispersing power within the institution of government, but he also argued that government was only one of God’s authoritative structures in creation. It’s important to differentiate between the biblical responsibility of the government and the biblical responsibility of other structures in the world, such as families, businesses, social groups and so forth. Kuyper’s emphasis came to be known as “sphere sovereignty.” God is sovereign over all spheres of creation; the government is but one of these several spheres.

GOD’S WILL FOR GOVERNMENT

So here is the question: What does God desire from earthly government?

There is little direct biblical guidance about what government should do, but if we look carefully we can see at least three directives in Scripture.

First, throughout the Old Testament, kings and other rulers are commanded to do justice with particular care toward the weak, the sick and the young. Amos, Hosea, Micah – all of the prophets are clear that rulers must care for those without power. For guidance about what doing justice might mean, Isaiah 65 outlines what a good city looks like: healthy people living to old age with homes, food and fruitful work.

Second, when Jesus instructs people, he never encourages them to use the power of government to coerce anyone to follow him. He uses stories and persuasion. He emphasizes love of others and sums up all the law and prophets by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”

Third, in Matthew 13 Jesus tells a parable that lets us know something about how government might respond to people who live in ways that we think do not please God. In this parable, the farmer and his helpers see a field where the wheat and the weeds have grown up together and are intertwined. The helpers ask the farmer if they should pull out the weeds and the farmer says no. He tells the helpers to let the weeds stay in the field until the harvest. The sun would shine on the wheat and weeds equally. The rain would fall equally on the wheat and weeds. When the disciples asked if they were part of the harvest, Jesus said no. The harvest would occur when he returned.

This parable helps us see that one biblical understanding of politics might be a civil justice where the government acts as the sun and the rain. The government offers justice to all while people are deciding for themselves whether they will respond to God. It is up to God, at the harvest, to separate the wheat and weeds.

The Reformed tradition has emphasized that government must be concerned about civil justice for all while also considering the responsibilities of other institutions such as families and businesses. This is really important, and those of us in the Reformed and Calvinist tradition have a responsibility to guide political discussions in a new way. When our political conversation is all about which presidential candidate we will vote for, we miss an important opportunity to talk about justice. Instead of engaging only in party politics perhaps it would be better for Christians to focus on questions such as these: What does it mean to work for justice? Do my political preferences emphasize justice for people like me, or am I equally concerned about the weak or even those I disagree with? To what extent does love for others direct my political life? These are hard questions but they focus our attention in a different direction than simply, “Are you for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?”

REFLECTION ON THE PRESIDENCY

As we move toward the November election, it is easy to get swept up in the drama of the choice for president. But truthfully, the vote for president is a very weak political tool.

For several reasons related to the structure of government, the presidential vote in November has limited effect. The Electoral College prevents us from voting for the president directly. In any election, there are only a few states that are considered purple, meaning that they could go either red for the Republican candidate or blue for the Democrat candidate. For example, I live in Washington State, which has “gone blue” since the late 1980s. If I were to vote for the Republican candidate, my vote would have no effect.

Second, by design of the Constitution of the United States, the president has limited power. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter who wins the presidency. Presidents have a particularly important role in foreign policy and in promoting certain nationwide policy initiatives. But, as either Trump or Clinton will find out next year, our entire constitutional system was built to dilute the ability of any one person or office to achieve goals.

The framers of the Constitution were wary of putting too much power in the hands of anyone. In phrases reminiscent of Calvin, James Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution, asserted that “men are not angels” and “ambition must be made to counter-act ambition.” Presidents are not monarchs, and it is hard for them to achieve policy goals on their own. The president is head of the military but still must consult with Congress for money. A president might press for free university tuition, but Congress and the states would be necessary for the funding and policy-making. Much has been made about President Barack Obama’s use of executive orders and agency rules to do things like affect immigration and decrease carbon pollution. But enforcement of these matters is key. On enforcement, the president alone rarely succeeds. Presidents set a tone, but policy has its greatest effect via the legislature – even more powerfully at the local state and city levels.

EFFECTIVE POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT: GETTING INVOLVED AT A LOCAL LEVEL

Fortunately, while the vote for president might not be as powerful as we like, there are many other ways to affect government. I emphasize two: being aware of politics at the state and local levels and becoming actively involved ourselves beyond the vote.

For many people, it comes as a surprise to learn that even in the midst of this presidential battle, most of the important social issues of the day are being decided at the state level. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution lays out the areas of public life that the federal government may regulate. While the parameters of this list have increased since the 1930s, it is nonetheless still true that almost all matters related to healthy life are decided by states and cities:

  • When and how are pregnancies terminated? What end-of-life care is available?
  • Are the homeless safe in your town? Do they have a place to stay in the winter?
  • Who has access to guns?
  • How is marijuana treated? Is it available to the ill?  Is it regulated in a way that protects children?
  • What training do the police have with respect to domestic violence, racial disparity, mental illness?
  • Do you have the death penalty in your state? Is it equitably handled, or do the poor sit on death row in greater numbers than the wealthy?
  • Is sexual assault taken seriously? Are both genders treated equitably in divorce matters? Are all races represented on juries?
  • Do the poor have access to fair housing and equitable education in your state? Who benefits from your state’s tax system?

Americans among us interested in justice therefore have to know what our states are doing. And we must work to influence it. The good news is that influencing state politics is much easier than influencing either federal policy or the actions of a president.

One way to affect local policy is to vote responsibly on initiatives, bonds and referenda. As a political scientist, I am troubled by the proliferation of initiatives, because they increase direct democracy, which results in a winner-take-all-mentality. Initiatives do not give us the chance to filter the interests of the people through a mediator, such as a legislator, to determine what is best for the whole. However, initiatives are here to stay, and because they are, we need to take them seriously.

In the coming U.S. election, almost all localities will have bonds for funding of schools and fire and police services. It’s up to all of us to determine whether there are needs in our communities that require our joint commitment to funding. Education and violence are two issues closely connected to healthy life for the poor and the weak. Focusing on the president but missing opportunities to directly affect the lives of those close to us is a mistake.

In addition, most states have a wide range of policy initiatives that require the attention of voters. For example, in California voters must decide these things: Should there be bilingual education in schools; should condoms be required in the shooting of pornographic films; should the legislature be allowed to ban plastic shopping bags statewide, or should this be decided at the city level? As Christians consider matters like these, we have to think about those without power, but we also have to think about whether there are institutions other than government that should be playing roles in the encouragement of a healthy society.

Initiatives have an effect even if they do not pass. This means that we have a chance to help shape public policy-discussion in the future. Last year a city in the state of Washington played an important role in encouraging a national discussion about a $15 minimum wage. That debate had ripple effects that challenged other states to raise their minimum wages. This year Washington has an initiative asking for a revenue-neutral carbon tax that economists say will spur market forces to engage in competition to create more green-energy sources. The carbon tax is revenue-neutral because the plan also includes a decrease in sales tax, helping poor families. I might not be able to persuade you that this is good policy, but I do know that these state-level plans start conversations that have the ability to change the actions people take in their own carbon-footprint analysis. My behavior as it relates to the environment was changed from a conversation like this – a personal conversation involving people I know across my state had a much bigger effect on my decision-making than did all of the Washington D.C. climate-change debate. This doesn’t mean that the federal action isn’t important; rather, it highlights the very important contribution that local politics makes.

These local conversations are important for two more reasons: First, states serve as “laboratories of democracy,” as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it.  When states experiment, policy can be tested and examined in ways that encourage other states to join in. The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010 is based on a model crafted by the state of Massachusetts. The imposition of the death penalty is on a steady decline in our country because of the work of activists at the state level. Second, state-level policy conversations are important because they encourage us to engage our representatives. When I talk to my federal representatives I am always politely dismissed, even when I am of the same party as the legislator. But when I talk to state legislators of both parties, I am taken aback by how grateful they are for information and support on different issues.

Many state representatives are part-time; all are extremely busy, with very little staff. It is impossible for them to know all that there is to know about the issues that face your state, and they need suggestions from people other than formal lobbyists. This is particularly important because dangers at the state level are increasing. Pollution, sex trafficking, drugs – these are dealt with at the federal level, but states have responsibility for them as well. If an issue is important to you and you go to a representative with data, arguments, and a philosophical approach that meshes with the representative’s worldview, you will be heard. This is especially true if you realize that compromise is the name of the game. You will never get all that you want, but you can make a big difference. In my state ordinary citizens have recently worked with our representatives to affect the lives of homeless youths and foster-care children aging out of the system. This kind of political engagement is critically important for Christian citizens, and it has a direct and lasting effect on the lives of others.

THE FUTURE

This has been a difficult year in American politics. Taunts of “racist,” “liar” and “felon” have permeated our public discourse. Violence erupted at campaign rallies, and people got very angry with each other. It’s no wonder that more than two-thirds of this generation of college students say they think the country is going in the wrong direction. They say that they are not interested in politics. But they are not apathetic. Students of this generation are very involved with matters of justice; they care about the environment; racism; financial equity; and gay, transgender and lesbian rights. They are more engaged in the work of nonprofits than any group of students I’ve ever worked with. Sadly, though, they are so disillusioned about politics they can’t see that government actually has a role in God’s creation. They do not plan to run for office, and this is a shame.

We must encourage this generation. Our countries need them. We need  to help them take government seriously as an important part of what it means to work for justice in a world that is fallen but has been redeemed. And before we can encourage them, we have to have some enthusiasm for politics ourselves. Enthusiasm and hope come from engagement.

Call me an optimist, but I remain very hopeful about American politics. People tend to think about politics as an election, or they focus on arguments in Washington D.C.  But politics is much more than that. Political life is mostly about how we arrange to live together despite our differences and how we choose to support those who have less. For Christians, politics can be part of how we worship God. The divided, nasty political landscape of today is not permanent – it can change. It has been better in the past, and it will be different in the future.  If all of life is religion, we need to be part of politics embracing this gift God has given us.

Julia Stronks teaches political science at Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington. Her most recent book, with her mother, Gloria Goris Stronks, is Teaching to Justice, Citizenship and Civic Virtue (Resource Publications: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Image: nshepard/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.