Why (and How) Christians Should Still Vote

This is the first of a two-part series on Christian engagement in politics. Be sure to check Part 2 (Who Should We Vote for This November?) for more specific thoughts about the presidential candidates. And don’t miss this panel discussion from October 11, where I went deeper into these issues with several leaders from our church.

I’ll go ahead and tell you from the start that I’m not going to tell you which presidential candidate I will vote for. That’s not because I don’t have a viewpoint. Rather, because I am a pastor, I don’t want an indication of what I plan to do to become the litmus test for fellowship at The Summit Church.

More importantly, I think Christians can, in good conscience, come to different conclusions on this issue and remain in close fellowship together. As Trevin Wax has written recently, while the way we vote is tremendously important, it is much more important that we, in the church, learn to “give space and show grace.” The decisions of our fellow believers, even if we consider them wrong decisions, should never stop us from loving them well.[1]

I also want to say, as clearly as possible, from the very outset, that while this political season matters immensely, the church does not ultimately depend on what happens in Washington. As Chuck Colson always says, “Salvation does not come riding in on Air Force One.” The hope of the church, whether in the 1st century or the 21st, is not found in political decisions, but in the power of Christ through his people. The Republicans may rage, and the Democrats may plot in vain, but with whomever becomes our president in January 2017, one thing is certain: Jesus will be seated on the throne.

Why Vote at All?

We Christians who are American citizens bear a particular responsibility in learning to think biblically about politics, because we live in a country where ultimate earthly authority in government has been given to “we the people.” In Paul’s day, ultimate authority resided in the Emperor, so Paul could only pray for government leaders to act justly (1 Timothy 2:1–4) and encourage those leaders, whenever he had the opportunity, to think biblically about their roles (see, for example, Acts 25:10–11; Romans 13:1–4). In the United States, however, “we the people” sit in the ruler’s chair, and bear ultimate responsibility for how authority is used. The “sword” that Paul says God has given to earthly rulers lies partially in our hands—because we have been given the prerogative to choose whose hand that “sword” goes into and the limits on how they use it.

Surely, then, God will hold us responsible for how we guide our government, or fail to do so, in the use of that “sword.” In our system of government, if we fail to be informed, and to vote, we are every bit as negligent as would have been a governor in Paul’s day who spent all his time in leisure and never attended to the matters of state. God holds government leaders responsible to steward what he has placed in their hands. Thus, he will hold us, as the final sovereigns in this government, responsible for how we steward our responsibilities. As it stands, only 14% of eligible adults cast a vote for any candidate in the primaries. As our friend Steve Noble says, apathy and ignorance come at a high cost.

Issues to Consider in Every Election

Most political discussions these days begin with the question, “Who should I vote for?” This matters, as we’ll see tomorrow. But first I want to highlight a few important issues we ought to consider in every election, and that are especially pertinent in this one.

Protection of the Innocent

Chief among a government’s responsibility, Paul says, is the protection of the weak and vulnerable (Romans 13:3–4). There is no more vulnerable group in America today than babies in their mother’s womb. Because of the potential turnover in the Supreme Court, this election will have tremendous impact on the future of the pro-life movement. Replacing the late Justice Scalia with a pro-abortion justice would push the court even further toward abortion-by-demand, with no restrictions. And Scalia’s seat is just one of several possible openings. Three of the remaining justices are over 78, and may be replaced in the next few years. Every presidential election is significant, but our next president will have an enormous impact on the Supreme Court, which will rule on numerous questions concerning life.

Protecting the innocent, however, is not limited to the pro-life cause. We want candidates who will defend the rights of any groups marginalized by society. It is the president’s job, for example, to champion the rights of non-majority citizens, often overlooked by those in power. He or she must insure that the rich, or those in majority, do not gain unfair advantage or twist the systems of justice in their favor. We must protect any in a position of vulnerability, whether that’s African Americans and Hispanics being treated differently in our justice system or babies killed in the name of “choice.”

Preservation of Religious Liberty

Religious liberty is probably our most precious freedom. In the past couple years, many business owners have been forced out of their jobs for matters of conscience, either for supporting a Christian sexual ethic or for refusing to offer abortive medicines to their employees.

(I want to note: Religious liberty, of course, does not mean that businesses should be able to discriminate against LGBT people or those who have abortions. It does not, and we must oppose all such discrimination. The question is whether we should be forced to participate with others in actions we consider immoral—such as being forced to pay for abortions, or to conduct marriage ceremonies that we believe offend God.)

President Obama and his administration have issued sweeping executive orders mandating the acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle at all levels, public and private. Numerous questions are now coming before the Court concerning whether schools and organizations that do not accept the LGBT lifestyle will have a place in civil society. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of Christian-based education—that teaches the biblical sexual ethic, or that refuses to fund the abortions of its employees—is as stake. (If you don’t believe this, track the recent developments on this question in California). What will the future look like if Christians are forbidden to speak out against what we see as unrighteousness? This is not a matter of being annoyed at having to learn gender-neutral pronouns. The religious liberty of every religious group in our nation is at risk by those who are enthroning secularism and making it the unchallenged dogma of the day.

The next president will have great impact on the future of religious liberty—in the tone he or she sets, the executive orders they issue, and the justices they appoint to courts of all levels. Whether Christians organizations (like our church) will be able to keep their tax-exempt status will likely be decided by the nominees that the next president appoints to the Court. (This may not seem like a big deal to you, but if it happened, it would reduce the amount of funds that churches and Christian organizations have to use for charity and the public good dramatically).

This idea of religious liberty is so central, in fact, that I’ll expand on it more below.

Promotion of Individual Responsibility

Christians recognize that God made man “in his image,” which means he gave us both the ability to bring forth good from the earth and the dignity to bear that responsibility. Mankind flourishes when the responsibility to provide and prosper is set upon the shoulders of free people, not when governments take over that responsibility. The government cannot give us prosperity, but it can clear the way so that people can make themselves prosperous. Christians might disagree about which specific economic policies encourage business and eliminate poverty, but they should agree that God created men in such a way that free men prosper more than do vassals and forced dependents on the state. Some approaches to poverty, even if well-intentioned, only deepen and lengthen poverty. As numerous studies verify, a free people unleashed to work in a free market is the greatest program for any people.

Liberty and Justice for All

Racial tensions run deep in our country, and politicians bear part of the responsibility to lead the way toward justice, reconciliation and truly equal protection under the law. Politicians may disagree about the appropriate legislation that best achieves this end—such as, when government must step in to level the playing field and when it works best to stay out of the way to let free enterprise do its work. But they should agree in their desire to govern in such a way that leads toward greater justice, peace, freedom, and opportunity for all. Our government shares the responsibility to ensure that the strong do not abuse their power and trample on the weak—whether in the court system, unfair economic practices, personal injustices, etc.

Recognition of the Divine Order in Marriage and Sexuality

While we will not expect everyone to abide by Christian sexual mores, we recognize that God, in the created order, established the distinctions of male and female and gave us marriage. Our government did not invent marriage; they recognize it as an authority emanating from another sphere—the created order. Because they did not define it, they cannot re-define it.

As noted above, in the coming years, hundreds of cases will come before the federal courts to determine whether gender should be based on the inherent design in the created order and embedded in our DNA, or the vagaries of the human psyche. Our founders were very clear that morality, freedom, and individual rights derived their legitimacy from that created order. Will we?

One can scarcely overstate the devastation that will result from the loss of distinctions between male and female in society. What will it be like for kids to grow up in schools where teachers cannot use “binary” language like “boy” and “girl” and each child is encouraged to define their gender on their own?  Just 8 years ago President Obama ran on a platform that declared that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. That statement would now be regarded as bigotry. Due to how quickly these issues have changed, there are a lot of questions coming to the court, and fast, and the next president will appoint many of the judges—on both the circuit and Supreme Court levels—who will be ruling on these things.

A Nation of Doves, Prepared for War

More than any other American politician, the president is responsible for protecting our citizenry. He or she commands our military, interacts with leaders from other nations, and wields tremendous power far outside our own borders. As we consider possible threats from nuclear powers around the world and from terrorist groups like ISIS, we should prioritize candidates who will prioritize the protection of our nation. Again, this is the one of the primary purposes of government. Foreign policy ought to be anchored deeply on the historic Christian principles of just war, which are neither pacifist nor militarist—seeking neither to conquer and terrorize nor to passively tolerate abuse from foreign oppressors.

Immigration Balanced with Integration

America has always welcomed the immigrant. Our founders’ vision was expressed in those words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” This has never entailed, of course, full and unrestricted access or open borders. It meant that all who wanted to come and participate in the experiment of America, embracing and embodying her ideals, were welcome to come. That presupposes, of course, an education process. Not everyone who steps onto the shores of our country does so with the values that have shaped America. We want to open our doors to whoever will come, but we must to do so in a way that allows us to make people Americans.


No, we aren’t electing a “pastor in chief.” But character is an enormous indicator of what a person will or will not do. If a person has established a track record of being unreliable, selfish, and lacking in integrity, can we reasonably expect that this person would magically acquire these traits upon assuming office? As John Adams said, “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

I could add several other key issues to this list. It’s just a beginning, and shows that while we may agree in many of the general ideas, we may charitably disagree in specific applications.

Now, a few specific thoughts about our “key issues”:

Pro-Life Is Not the Only Issue

A baby’s right to life is one of the foremost critical moral issues of our day, perhaps the most critical. God certainly will judge us if we fail to defend the most vulnerable members of our society.

Having said that, I do not think pro-life is the only issue, nor do I think it is the only thing to consider in an election. I believe Christians who limit their perspective on politics to this issue alone are shortsighted.

For example, consider religious liberty. Ask yourself this: if you had to choose between an America that preserved religious liberty but was pro-choice or one that denied religious liberty but was pro-life, what would you choose? I would choose religious liberty a hundred times over, and use that liberty to fight against the injustice of abortion. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, we might recall, was opposed to abortion; but the ingrained opposition to religious liberty was a key factor leading to the mass murders under Stalin’s rule.

There are many reasons I would struggle to vote for Hillary Clinton—her being so aggressively pro-choice being only one of them. If tomorrow she declared herself to be pro-life and changed nothing else in her platform (while I would be exceedingly grateful for her change of heart), I would still have several problems in casting a vote for her largely due to her disregard for religious liberty, and, personally, I believe there is good reason to question the effectiveness of her strategies to help the poor in our country.

My point in saying this is not to lessen the urgency in the fight for abortion. (We stand shoulder to shoulder with those people and organizations that are on the front lines of this critical fight!) But I want to encourage us to broaden our minds to other things that need to be preserved in our country as well. As I heard one of our seminary presidents say recently, we can’t get the pro-life question wrong, but it can’t be the only question we ask.

Governmental Philosophy Arising from a Biblical Worldview

The Constitution of the United States is a man-made document, but I believe it represents the greatest expression of the application of biblical principles to secular government yet produced. The writers of the Constitution recognized—by their study of Scripture and natural law—that God had given to each individual certain rights that government should not take away.[2]

They recognized that God had made men and women in his image, and as such, both the responsibility to provide for themselves and the prerogative to choose the path by which they pursued happiness fell upon them as individuals, not on the government to choose for them. They knew that a government that took over these responsibilities would stifle humanity and impede progress. A nanny state always leads to an entitled, selfish, unmotivated, and dissatisfied citizenry.

The founders also recognized that humanity, though gloriously made in God’s image, was helplessly fallen. Because government is composed of these fallen individuals, the founders believed that no one should have unchecked power. Thus they instituted a thorough, if sometimes complicated, system of checks and balances. Absolute power—whether in commerce or executive and judicial function—would always lead to tyranny.

Finally, they recognized that a thriving nation depended upon a virtuous people, and that government could not produce that virtue in people. As the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville is reputed to have said when he visited in the 19th century, America would only be great if she was good. If she ceased to be good, she would also cease to be great. John Madison said that if the citizens of the United States lost their virtue, embodied in the Judeo-Christian ethic, then greed, revenge, and selfish ambition would break through the restraints of the American Constitutional system “like a whale through a net.” Thus, the founders set up a government that not only would stay out of the way of the free exercise of religion, but would also encourage it. Implicit in the American Constitution is the understanding that the United States desperately needs a moral conscience, that the government cannot provide this conscience, and that if it tries to, will result in tyranny. (For more on this, see Os Guinness’ A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.

The view of government reflected in the United States Constitution, arising from a biblically-informed view of humanity, led to the freest and most prosperous civilization the world had seen. Even when we as a nation failed to live up to the ideals embodied in this document (as we often dreadfully have), those ideals have remained before us, calling us forward toward that “more perfect union.” They gave rise to reformers like Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who used those Constitutional words to confront our hypocrisy and call us back to our “better angels.”

As Guinness demonstrates, it is neither naïve nor nationalist to love the promise of America, nor is it inappropriate for American Christians to yearn to see their children and their children’s children—as well as other nations around the world—blessed with these same privileges of liberty that we enjoy. The spreading of those liberties rarely happens through violent regime changes, but instead through living out our ideals in a way that makes us (in the words of 18th century pastor, John Winthrop) a “city on a hill” whose light of liberty becomes a guide for all.

Character Matters

Probably the oldest lesson of human history is that what a man or woman is in private will eventually make its way into public. We have a robust system of checks and balances in our government, but no system can contain the myriad ways character shapes the endless decisions a leader must make. And while we do not expect our leaders to all be Christians, we know that the president cannot help but set the tone for what young men and women in our country aspire to be.

Now, as to the question everyone is asking: who should you vote for? Come back tomorrow and we’ll survey the minefield that is our 2016 presidential election.

This is the first of a two-part series on Christian engagement in politics. Be sure to check Part 2 (Who Should We Vote for This November?) for more specific thoughts about the presidential candidates. And don’t miss this panel discussion from October 11, where I went deeper into these issues with several leaders from our church.

[1] Due to the extraordinary circumstances in this election, it is even harder than usual to make a convincing case for who is the more biblically informed choice. Mature, thoughtful Christians who share a biblically-shaped approach to politics come down at various places in the discussion for different reasons. Thus, the concern of this article is less about who to vote for, but how to think as you vote.

[2] Political scholar Mark Hall has gone to great lengths to demonstrate how intimately the founders relied on Scripture in their formulation of the Constitution. See, for example, “Did America Have a Christian Founding?” As one example among many, consider this statement from John Adams: “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”