Today, Thursday 5 May, is the day of the Scottish Parliament election. In the last election, national turnout was 50% – hardly a ringing endorsement of our democratic process! Anyone with the right to vote should vote. And especially Christians.
Most of us are probably familiar with some of the arguments as to why we should vote in elections. Voting gives the people a voice, and it places power in the hands of the people, not in the hands of elites. Perhaps we’re a little less clear on these today because the voices of large media organisations, lobbying groups and parties often drown out the voice of the people, and because wealthy and privileged elites, despite our democratic process, still hold a lot of power.
But, we have to remember that in many countries around the world the people have no power at all, are ruled by dictators, and have, will, and do risk their lives for a chance of democracy. Even in Britain, it’s less than 90 years since women achieved equality in democracy. Many women campaigned and suffered to eventually gain an equal franchise in 1928. We shouldn’t take our democratic process for granted. Democracy (especially Western democracy in the 21st Century) is flawed, but we have to remember Churchill’s words:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), Hansard, November 11, 1947
But why should Christians vote? Surely our business is the kingdom of God, not any earthly kingdom? I’m afraid that some radicals have argued this view. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – not biblically, not theologically. My view is that Christians, more than any other kind of person, ought to engage with the democratic process through voting. Here’s why…
- Let’s start with Jesus. Jesus said, when asked about paying taxes, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ (Matthew 22:21). That’s not exactly a radical cry for dissociation from the state.
- The Apostle Paul writes that we ought to be subject to governing authorities, and pay taxes (Romans 13:1-7). He tends to couple this attitude with showing love and courtesy to everyone, whoever they are (Titus 3:2). He writes that we ought to pray for rulers, and all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), so that we can live quiet and dignified lives.
- The Apostle Peter echoes Paul’s words (1 Peter 2:13-17). Christians in the Roman empire ought to submit to the emperor, or his governors. When we remember this is during the period before the Roman empire accepted Christianity, these words take on a radical (and contemporary) nature. Peter puts it well: ‘Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a cover for evil, but for serving God. Respect all people, love the Christian family, fear God, honour the emperor.’
- Back in the Old Testament, when God’s people were in exile in pagan Babylon, God’s word came through the prophet Jeremiah (29:7): ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ If we, as God’s people in our generation are going to take God’s call seriously, we cannot disengage from our democratic process.
In the Reformed tradition in which the Free Church stands, it’s been understood that God’s Common Grace to all people means that we share common interests and common goals. The State and the Church are two bodies seeking the common good in different ways in God’s world. That’s why in the confessional document of the Free Church we read a call for Christians to get involved in the political system:
It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth (WCF 23.2).
If it’s lawful, then it’s good. We’re not all called to be politicians, but we must at the very least, engage in the democratic process with our vote. And the fact that we’re generally voting for people with little or no Christian conviction doesn’t exempt us from our responsibility:
It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them (WCF 23.4).
So how should Christians vote today? Here’s my recommendation:
- First, we should vote with an eye to how the candidates and parties stand with respect to the Church. That’s important. Do they see a place for the church in our society? Do they listen to the views of the church? Are their policies going to make life difficult for Christians, or make it less likely that others get to encounter Jesus in the Gospel? These are all important, and we have to take an interest and make a judgement.
- Second, we should vote with an eye to the prosperity of our communities. Christians ought to believe in the local church, and ought to believe in seeking the good of their local communities. Which candidate will be best able to represent the local community? Which party’s policies will be best for my community?
- Third, I’m struck by how the apostles link in our relationship to the state with the idea of respecting all people, and seeking their good. We’re not just voting for our own interests. We have to take seriously the call of God to care about the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. How will my vote work for those who have no voice, who live in social and economic deprivation? I’m afraid that too many Christians buy into the mantra that it’s solely my family, my pocket, my wallet that’s important.
- Fourth, we should vote with a more biblical idea of human prosperity. The idea behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign phrase, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is rampant. There’s more to life in our communities than money. We need to think about the environment, the family, the culture. We need to reject the narrative (which is so depressingly prevalent in the Brexit debate) that votes will follow the money. Let’s not be gerrymandered.
That’s a lot to think about, but that’s why Christians should be engaged as they’re able; should talk about and discuss politics; and should engage with their local MSP. And all prayerfully, and in the attitude of seeking the Kingdom of God. Different Christians are going to take different views – and that’s fine. The church should reflect the political differences that are out there in our communities. Christians of all political hues should be involved and engaged.
If we’re going to make a difference, we as individuals and churches need to be engaged. Let’s vote today.