Thoughts for Pastors Regarding the Election
Simon has had articles featured in The Atlantic Monthly, Commonweal, The New Republic, The Christian Century, World Vision and other journals, including several dozen major newspapers.
Simon is an alumnus of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, and Dana College, Blair, Nebraska. He has received a number of awards and honorary degrees, including the Presidential Hunger Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was born in Eugene, Oregon, on July 28, 1930, and is the father of four adult children.
Offering theological guidance on elections carries a high risk of being misunderstood or, even worse, of being understood all too well with one’s political bias masquerading as theology. This is a special problem for pastors. While a seminary student I sat through a pre-election Sunday sermon that could have been titled “I Like Ike,” though Eisenhower’s name was never mentioned. Sensing the risk, most pastors avoid giving public advice on elections. But silence also contains a risk: sending the message that faith has no connection with politics.
I see three different approaches to faith and politics, including electoral politics. According to the first,faith is a private affair and has nothing to do with political matters. This secular view, a child of the Enlightenment, is widespread within the church. Thought by many Lutherans to reflect the doctrine of the two kingdoms, it mistakenly declares broad areas of life off limits to God. That contradicts the confession that Jesus is Lord, for if he is truly Lord, then he is Lord of all of life, including my citizenship and therefore matters concerning economics and politics.
A second view is that politics should be based on God’s will, and we can identify that will in specific legislation and candidates. That’s putting it starkly, but all of us tend to think that our political views are pretty much in accord with the will of God, and therefore humility is an essential corrective. Lincoln was once visited by a delegation of clergymen in the White House who proceeded to advise him on the conduct of the war. Lincoln listened patiently and then observed, “Isn’t it strange that God has given me the problem, but has given you the solution?”
A third approach says that although the will of God should inform our political thinking, God does not give specific instructions on legislation or candidates. By this view, a proper understanding of the Bible reveals God’s intentions for public justice but assigns us the tough work of figuring out how to achieve it. For example, God wants people to have enough to eat. In a world as prosperous as ours and in a nation as prosperous as ours it is morally unacceptable to let people go hungry. But God has not pinpointed the food stamp program or tax cuts or the level of foreign aid as legislative remedies. We may differ about such things, but we are obligated to seek justice for hungry people. God has not given us a free pass to ignore the plight of those caught in hunger and poverty or to let our pocketbook determine our politics.
Because of our sinful nature, political attitudes are usually driven by self-interest and cultural winds, so we must learn to question our own motives and search more carefully for a civic justice that reflects God’s providential love for all. Too seldom do we try to discover that, and too often we wing it without God.
Advice about elections and citizenship is not Gospel, but it can be a word from God about exercising citizenship as a way to love and serve others in response to the Gospel. That word needs to be said with great care, especially from the pulpit. A Bible class, adult forum or luncheon discussion may be even more useful because there is opportunity for deeper probing and exchange of thoughts. In such exchanges it is important for people to agree at the outset to listen respectfully to one another and try to see what truth may lie behind the thinking of those with whom they may not agree. Process may be the most important outcome.
Let me suggest a few expectations that God has staked out for us. They tell us something about our own responsibility as citizens, but they can also serve as guidelines in considering candidates for public office.
1. God wants us to work for peace—peace in the family, in the church, in the community and among nations. God is so keen on this that he sent his son to say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Which candidate (say, for Congress) would be most likely to further peace internationally, across class and racial divides, through political civility and problem solving rather than rigid partisanship?
2. God wants justice to prevail—justice for all but especially for the most vulnerable. Widows, orphans, poor people and foreigners (immigrants) are lifted up for special concern in the Bible. How do the candidates measure up in this respect?
3. God wants us to take care of the earth. Our current stewardship is callous and self-destructive. What policies that require sacrifice and may be politically unpopular would a candidate support in order to deal with this crisis?
4. God wants us to reflect virtues such as compassion, honesty, courage, humility, wisdom and understanding. These are also to be treasured in public life. A wise and principled official will have convictions but will listen to others and learn from evidence that may change her thinking. Politics often requires compromise among people of diverse opinions. Beware of the candidate or official who thinks he is always right, or who is beholden to moneyed interests or power brokers, or who has little contact with those who are on the bottom rungs of society, or for whom truth is a matter of convenience.
Tension often arises between competing principles. How should we promote world peace, for example? Human sinfulness now prompts the need for a strong military defense, but the admonition to “trust not in horses or chariots” and the existence of extreme poverty argue against letting it become a consuming passion. Where does the proper balance lie? Good people will disagree.
What I’ve suggested is merely a sketch. But notice that I did not include faith as a criterion for public office. Faith often lies behind the virtues mentioned but not necessarily. We are talking about civic righteousness and competence, not saving faith. I know many fine Christians who are not equipped for public office and non-Christians who serve with distinction. I would prefer a wise and competent surgeon to a less wise and less competent Christian surgeon, and the same applies to my preference among candidates.
Voting is only the tip of responsible citizenship. Being informed and involved in civic life, paying attention to issues that affect others and showing children a faith that is active in love by seeking the common good are among the things that should lie below that tip. If we want public leaders with wisdom and courage, then we have to prepare the way for such leaders, not merely show up on Election Day.