February 10, 2016

To Caesar What is Caesar’s, To God What is God’s: An Examination of Christian Duty In Democratic Elections (Part 2)

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory, Society and Culture

Continued from part one.

Another difficulty that comes up in answering this question is the way people think about civil government and (whatever form it may take) the democratic process. Going back to Bastiat is critical here. Law has been force, is force, and always will be forced. Until this is grasped, the questions which come up in every popular election will continue to be answered incorrectly, or at best, partially correctly. The state does not ensure people keep the law by just asking nicely. We don’t call law enforcement “law enpleadment” for a reason. This is oftentimes obfuscated by the white-collar facade of modern politics, we often fail to connect the dots between the outward appearance and the actions themselves. The essence of what civil government is is a forceful agency. This is not necessarily bad, since the use of force to repel aggressors against life, liberty, or property is always justified (Gen. 9:6), but in the form that civil government has taken in recent history, it is. They try to hide this violent nature from people, and oftentimes they do a very good job. On the outside of the IRS building these words are inscribed: “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” Immediately this sounds nice, calm and rational, but when we pull back the curtain this is not what we find. Instead we find that if someone tries to avoid charging sales tax on cigarettes by selling “loosies” the government will use force, all the way up to lethal force to stop those transactions.

This is where awareness of the nature of government and the nature of force comes into play. An election ballot in a government poll is not simply a statement of preference. If you poll your friends to find out what their favorite type of cookie is, the results of that poll don’t mean that your group of friends can only eat the type of cookie that won the majority vote under threat of fines, jail time, or violence. Civil government, done rightly, is not you and your friends debating the relative merits of chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies. It is an agency for the enforcement of laws which have as their sole purpose to defend the property, dignity, and freedom of every person. Malcolm X’s dichotomy of “the ballot or the bullet” could not be more false. Instead the ballot is the bullet, only a few steps removed. Because of this, the Christian’s responsibility in regards to elections is not to vote no matter what, nor is it to vote for the lesser of two evils. Instead, what must be considered is whether or not what is on the ballot justifies the bullet which follows from it.

Another common concern that the Christian is faced with is the question of cultural influence. Since the church is called to be a city set on a hill, and to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) shouldn’t we therefore exercise political influence by way of elections in order to redeem the culture? It is a known fact that persons in political power do exercise a great deal of cultural influence. Those who possess power and political status are often both major influences on their given culture and reflections of it, and so from this past indication the assumption is that if Christians have people in positions of political power,  the culture will tend towards both genuine Christianity, and at the very least a cultural Christianity which tends to improve the overall behavior of the general population. Constantine The Great’s acceptance of Christianity is widely viewed as the catalyst for the widespread success of Christianity throughout the world over the past 2,000 years, and the twenty-first century is in many ways viewed as part of (though perhaps the end) of the Constantinian era.

Given the widespread and long-lasting successes of Christianity thanks to wielding of political power, there is a tendency towards thinking that is the solution. We can see from history, however, that this is not the case. For all the good that has come from governments ruled by Christians, and from broadly Christian culture, there has also been a great deal of evil. The Spanish inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and chattel slavery in the United States just to name a few. We cannot, therefore, assume that simply because Christians wield political power and social influence that justice will be done. If anything, the much greater hope for societal change in the long-term (aside from the ordinary means of grace, which will be covered shortly), the place in which Christians ought to be looking to exert is in the (non-state) educational sphere. He who defines the terms, wins the debate ninety-nine times out of one-hundred. If there is any hope to be had for serious and lasting positive cultural change towards the Christian faith, it will be borne out of Christian education. For the sake of liberty and for the Christian church, this is a far greater hope than electoral politics. This deserves a much fuller treatment which must wait for another time, unfortunately.

This side of the veil we are a sinful people, whether we wish to imagine ourselves as such or not. Though the exact means of how his hidden will may come about are not known to us, God has shown us in his revealed will that the redemption of men will not come by the sword, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hebrews chapter eleven provides a detailed chronology of how God’s will had been carried out in Israel, and the recurring theme is that is was not by the means of political power, but rather by the faith possessed by heroes such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. In the new covenant no no longer shall each one teach his neighbor, but rather the law of God will be written on the hearts of all who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The means of personal, societal, and political transformation are the ordinary means of grace applied to us by the Holy Spirit. Political power may be used to carry out God’s means, but the plain teaching of scripture is that God’s appointed means is by the renewing of hearts and minds. If political power helps, then so be it, but it is not our duty or responsibility as Christians to seek it out in order to transform the culture, but rather we are called to work towards the redemption of the world by the ordinary preaching of the gospel.  

The difficulty faced in most elections is rather simple, but not easy to overcome. In the vast majority of elections, most if not all candidates will violate biblical and natural laws of justice. Though we may be tempted to offer our support to those we expect to do so the least, this is not right. The lesser of two evils is still evil, and in most cases the lesser of two evils is still a great evil. You will be hard-pressed to find a candidate for office (particularly for the office of President of the United States) who will not support in some form things such as unjust taxation, unjust war, the killing of innocent children in the womb domestically, and the killing of innocent children and non-combatants in foreign affairs. To lend support by way of popular vote for one of these candidates is to bear a share of the responsibility for how their office is executed. If the office is executed by the elected official unjustly and exactly as was promised during the campaign, then full responsibility for those actions is shared by those who voted him into office. If, however, the elected official disposes his powers of office in unjust ways that vary from (or even outright contradict) the platform which he ran on and the campaign promises he made, responsibility for those actions is at least partially shared by those who voted him into office.

This isn’t immediately obvious, so for the sake of providing an explanation as to how, let’s take another analogy. Suppose you are working as law enforcement, and you walk up to a door with a handgun, tracking down a bad guy. You assume that there’s nobody behind the door except him, but there’s no way to know for sure. There are some indications someone else may be home (there’s another car in the driveway, for example), but you can’t be sure, so you decide to unload your magazine through the front door in order to bring the bad guy to justice. The good news is in the process you hit the bad guy, and he is incapacitated. The bad news is you hit three other people, and they suffer serious injuries. Now, it could be argued that you didn’t know for a fact those people were there, and so you don’t bear responsibility for their injuries, but this argue would be fallacious in form and false in conclusion. In the first place, there is reasonable indication that there were other people who would be harmed by these actions. Second, there was far from enough certainty that they wouldn’t be harmed by this action. Sure, something good was accomplished (bringing bad guys to justice is great) but it was accomplished at the cost of harming other innocents, which is injustice. Now, to connect the hypothetical above to electoral politics. We don’t know with any type of absolute certainty that if elected politicians will act differently than they promised in their campaign, but we have sufficient reason to believe with a fair amount of confidence that is the case. The joke “How do you know if a politician is lying? His lips are moving” is supported by a stereotype that exists for a reason. We have any number of examples readily available from the Obama administration alone. From “If you like your plan you can keep your plan” to his promises to close Guantanamo Bay and to end the war in Iraq, there is a laundry list of items promised in both of Barack Obama’s campaigns which have proved to be patently false. The same holds true with any number of presidents. From Nixon and Watergate to Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus, we have a long list (both in number of years and actions) by both presidents and the other elected officials where the promises made both in their campaigns and in their inaugurations have proved to be empty. In the same way, we have reasonable indication from past history that the vast majority of candidates for election will do harm to people once they are elected, and so to lend support for them is to share at least partial responsibility for those actions and the harm they cause. This brings us to the conclusion then that in order to act rightly, one must abstain from voting for candidates for office who one can reasonably believe will promote various forms of injustices. If this means abstention from all voting at a given time, then this is what must be done. The lesser of two evils may be tempting, but it is not in line with what is required of us as we attempt to promote justice, freedom, and the dignity of all mankind.

Written by R. Campbell Sproul

R Campbell Sproul is a graduate of Reformation Bible College, with a B.A. in Theological Studies. He lives in Orlando, FL with his wife, Hannah. You can read his blog at http://owedtoporches.wordpress.com and you should follow him on Twitter @RCampbellSproul