Do Christians have an obligation to vote? What principles should shape how Christians think about voting? When it comes to politics, Christians often differ significantly. Yet there are some biblical principles all Christians can think through. In this episode, Scott and Sean offer some reflections for the upcoming election.
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Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics also here at Talbot School of Theology.
Sean McDowell: Today, what we want to do is just the two of us kind of throw around some ideas related to politics and the election. Are we going to tell you who to vote for? Absolutely not. But what we want to do is just toss around maybe some principles, maybe some ideas from scripture that can just help us think Christianly about the difficult choice that's before us right now, especially in our divided culture.
Scott, you've done a lot of work on this. Your book, Moral Choices, deals with a lot of different ethical issues, but you weigh into politics. Let me just start off by asking you, do you think Christians have a responsibility to vote?
Scott Rae: I do. I think it's a moral obligation to participate as a good citizen. I'm not suggesting you should vote for any one particular position or not-
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: But I think that's part of a civic responsibility that actually, if you think about it, has been exercised only by a small minority of people in the history of civilization. It's only in the last 200-plus years that people have had the right to vote about much of anything, and for certain segments of our country at least, for women and for African Americans, that time periods of has been much shorter. The right to vote, I think, was something that was hard fought and it a lot of people gave their lives so that the average person could have a say in the laws that are crafted that affect their lives.
For most of the history of civilization, that wasn't the case. The king or the nobility, they made the laws, and you were subject to them whether you liked them or not. There was no say. I mean, you couldn't get rid of the king unless you just walked in there and stabbed him.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: But I think the opportunity to vote today, it's easy to think that, well, my vote doesn't count for very much, because it's only one vote of a population of over 300 million.
Sean McDowell: Sure, yeah.
Scott Rae: But I think your vote does count and it's even, I think it's more just more symbolic of your own participation in this really grand experiment we call democracy.
Sean McDowell: Clearly, since the democracy we have today is not the kind you would find in biblical times, Old Testament or New, there's not going to be a Bible verse that says you have the responsibility to vote. Would that be grounded in say our responsibility to love our neighbor, to obey the government, say Romans 13? What would be the Christian basis of that moral obligation?
Scott Rae: Well, I think the government does not obligate you to vote, so I'm not sure Romans 13 would be all that applicable to that. You're right. The early church did not have the right to vote on issues, say like religious freedom.
Sean McDowell: Right, yeah.
Scott Rae: They just didn't have many options as far as that went. But I think there's probably something to the idea when Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God's." I think there's a part of rendering unto Caesar reflects that civic responsibility that you have, sort of what Augustine may have meant in the city of God and the city of man, something roughly akin to that, although it's not exactly identical to that. But there's a part you could also maybe appeal to Jeremiah 29:7, which is the obligate, even in exile, the Jews had the obligation to seek the welfare of the city that they were in. You vote for policies that advance the common good as opposed to those policies that just advance your own narrow self-interest.
Sean McDowell: That makes sense. That does seem to be, the passage in Jeremiah does seem to be in line with what Jesus said about loving our neighbors. It could be an extension of that. That can be a challenge for Christians, and really for all of us, because oftentimes when we go to vote, and politicians know that, we're always thinking about self-interest. Do I get less taxes in my bracket? Do I get A, B and C? But it seems that really what you're saying is we should look at this not through our own lens of self-interest, but what is objectively good for the society in which we live.
Now, that doesn't mean advancing a Christian society. That's not the point. But we live in God's world. There's a certain way we're supposed to relate to each other and certain moral values, say religious liberty, et cetera, and justice. Loving our neighbor would be taking a step away from saying, "What do I get out of this," and what are the right principles for society as a whole? Is that how we Christian should think about this?
Scott Rae: Well I think, yeah. I'd maybe put it in a little different terms, because I think we are created for community. We're created for relationships that take place within communities of all sorts of sizes, and we're all members of community. I mean, unless we're a hermit on a desert island, we're a member of a community. Because of that, we have obligations to the common good of the communities that we live in. I think that's ultimately what Jeremiah meant when it said seek the welfare of the city. Seek the common good.
Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with pursuing things that matter for your own self-interest, but I think to pursue them exclusively or at the expense of what the common good is, that's where it becomes corrosive and I think very problematic.
I fear today that we're losing even the language to talk about the common good, because I fear that in our ... probably starting with the baby boom generation, we just sort of progressively lost interest in anything outside of our own narrow self-interest. Some of that I think is driven by what I would call a more libertarian or a more economic way of viewing things, this idea of the invisible hand that Adam Smith wrote about. By pursuing self-interest, the common good is advanced.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: He meant that in strictly economic terms, not in more general political terms.
Sean McDowell: Yes.
Scott Rae: I think there are times when it's appropriate to consider the interests of the common good ahead of my own. For example, my kids are not in the public schools anymore, and I know a lot of people who are deeply resentful of paying their property taxes every year, because a really good chunk of that goes to the public schools that my kids are no longer in. If I'm strictly looking at my self-interest, I view that as immoral, that I'm being taxed for something that I don't get a benefit for. But it's not our ...
I think our view of this shouldn't be working on a strict exchange model. I mean, I pay my taxes in order to support public education because it's a good for my community, not just because it's a good for my kids. It's a good that my community has educated citizens. It's a good that my community encourages public education that fosters perseverance to finish high school and to finish college and things like that.
I think it's bigger than that. It's bigger than our own self-interest. I really hope, I hope in this coming election, we can recover some of that lost language of the common good.
Sean McDowell: I'm going to say this somewhat sarcastically. What would possibly give you hope that in this election we can recover some of that language that is lost? How would we begin to do that? What could each of us contribute in that fashion?
Scott Rae: Well, to be honest, I think the disintegration of our concern for the common good has been a longterm project. Turning it around is not going to happen in one election cycle or two.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: I think what we're trying to do now is to plant the seeds so that it can be renewed in coming generations. The best thing that I can do is to model for my kids, how I vote and put the interests of my community ahead of my own interest in the cases that those conflict. That's, I think where it starts, because if my kids don't get that, then I think we've lost it. I think that's where it begins.
The other suggestion I would make is that we as a public, we start demanding of our politicians that they do more than just pander to our self-interests, and that we require that they speak to issues of the common good, and to show how what they're prescribing is good for our communities, not just for the individual interests that they claim to be representing. I think we can demand that out of our political discourse. I don't think we do a very good job of it.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: I think some of the public forums, for example, that the campaign debates allow for, not really this year because we're not doing many of those, but we can ask a lot more thoughtful questions of our politicians. We can express those things in op ed pieces to our local newspapers, and in blogs, and what we post online. All of those things, I think, do make a difference, because people read those. If they're well done and reflective, you know, then people start thinking, "Well, maybe there is more to it than what is important to benefit me."
Sean McDowell: I think it's really interesting. You said a couple of things. Why should we vote? Because even if our vote doesn't change it, there's something symbolic and exemplary about just casting a vote from the bottom up. The same is true in the discourse, that let's do what is right in this stage, even though it's a longterm game. I think that's encouraging, because it's so easy to look at the way this discourse takes place and just be utterly burned out, think what's the point, become cynical about it. But as Christians, that's not an option, is it? We have to choose to enter this and be positive, look within to ourselves, and our house, and our attitude, and our vote, and in some ways set an example and then let God be sovereign.
Scott Rae: Yeah. The idea that we're not going to be about loving our neighbor is simply not an option for people who are faithfully following Christ. The notion that I can simply not care about my community any longer, just that's just not an option. Yeah. It's one thing ...
To be honest, I cared a lot more about my community when my kids were younger and much more influenced by our community, but that's not an option. Just because my kids are grown and out of the house, that's not an option for me to retreat from my community and say this doesn't matter. My vote matters. My taxes matter.
I think you can make a legitimate argument about what an appropriate level that is right for people to be taxed in. You're not neglecting the common good to say at the same time that you feel like you were overtaxed. But for me to say I have no interest in paying my property taxes because so much of it goes to schools that my kids aren't using, I think that's a nonstarter.
Sean McDowell: Fair enough. In the update to your book, Moral Choices, I noticed you don't have a unique chapter just on politics. You talk about say abortion, immigration, gun control, these different ethical issues, but not one about politics. I was curious why you didn't include it.
Scott Rae: It's because I don't like the term politics.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Scott Rae: The reason for that is because it has so much baggage attached to it that is attached to the partisanship and personalities. I would prefer we use the term public policy to describe this arena, because it's those structural types of changes that have to do with the laws that are crafted and the institutions that are impacted by those.
Not every moral issue ought to be an issue for public policy. I mean, generally we don't advocate that adultery be criminalized. Generally, and I think rightly so in our culture, we don't generally criminalize laws or things that happen among consenting adults, even though I think you could probably make a case that adultery is actually very harmful in what it does to families.
Sean McDowell: As a whole, yeah.
Scott Rae: As a whole, which is why I think the moral assessment is so important in that. But there are other moral issues that do have public policy overtones. In general, I think those ... When sin becomes a matter of public policy is when, I think, our communities are ... I'll put it this way. Is when essential, essential rights are being violated.
Like I don't have a problem with having laws that would restrict the availability of abortion, for example, because I think the fundamental right to life of the unborn is at stake. I don't think it's a problem to have laws that restrict the performance of assisted suicide or euthanasia, because I think fundamental rights to life of the elderly, the sick, the infirm are at stake. I don't think it's a problem that we have certain laws about immigration. I mean, you can't help not have laws about immigration, unless you're going to have entirely open borders with sort of the free flow of populations.
Sean McDowell: Sure, sure.
Scott Rae: I mean, if you're going to have something resembling a country, you have to have some laws regarding immigration. Things like gun control, I think invariably, because there's so much at stake in a right of self defense and a right to life that are at stake there, that I think it's entirely appropriate to have laws that regulate the ownership of guns.
Sean McDowell: That's fair. In the book, you're not talking about just politics separately, but it's woven through because each of these issues intersects with politics.
Scott Rae: Right. In what I write about sexual ethics for example, there's not a big component there for public policy in my view, because so much of the debate morally is about what's done among consenting adults.
Sean McDowell: How do Christians in your mind weigh some of these different ethical issues when they come to vote?
I'll tell you something that was really eye-opening to me is I was speaking with a black friend of mine recently, and he had told me how pro-life he was. I said, "I'm just curious. Help me out." I said, "It would be hard for me to vote for any candidate who's pro-choice." I said, "You don't have to tell me who you voted for, but when it came to Obama, who is distinctly pro-choice, given there's probably other things you agreed with him on and the historical precedent of having a black president, were you torn in that vote? Because I wasn't torn because of the issue of life." He just looked at me and he goes, "I was more torn than you can ever imagine."
That helped me realize like, gosh, I am really strong pro-life, and here's somebody else, but they're just weighing these a little bit differently. How do we do that? It doesn't have to be that particular issue. Gun control, immigration. How can we responsibly take these Christian principles and shape the way we vote?
Scott Rae: Yeah. That's a really important question. I think we need to look at a couple of assumptions that underlie this first.
For one, I think we need to recognize that the arena of public policy or the political arena, however you want to describe that, but the arena of public policy is one that sort of by definition is messy. It invariably involves compromise, negotiation, and limited objectives or else nothing ever gets done.
Sean McDowell: Right, right.
Scott Rae: That's why the arena of public policy is different than the church, because in the church, I mean, you have to have absolute absolutes or otherwise you're outside the faith. Okay. The political arena is not like that unless you're an anarchist. I would expect that the laws that are passed ... The joke is that you don't want to ever observe how laws are made or how your sausage is made.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: I think, as much as we joke about that, I think there is some truth in that, because how laws get made is a very messy process. I think that's okay.
I think this is one of the reasons why Christians often have trouble relating to the arena of public policy, because we come from the church with its emphasis on absolutes, and there's really, I mean, just there's a place for principles, that's true, but you frequently have principles that are in conflict in the public policy arena. You have to weight certain values and principles.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: I think that's consistent with the Bible. I think morally, I think we live in a fallen world where we shouldn't be surprised that moral values, even God's moral values, come into conflict with each other. That's nothing to say about the veracity of God's moral rules or his moral law. It's all about the fallen world in which those work themselves out. That's not a big surprise.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: That's why the making of laws and the promulgation of those laws is invariably one of compromise and gradualism. Usually in public policy, if you want all of the pie, you get none of it, so you have to be able to settle for limited objective. Count your victories where you have them.
The other thing that I think is really important is that no party's political platform was written with biblical fidelity in mind, so we shouldn't be surprised that whoever's writing the party platform of whatever party in whatever country would invariably have parts of it that would reflect biblical values, but other parts that would not.
It pains me to see that the Democratic Party platform is so resoundingly pro-choice. That's painful. But it pains me to see parts of the Republican platform that I think neglect, in my view, neglect the poor or don't put the same emphasis on it. I think some of the hard lines that are taken on immigration, for example, I think those are painful, and I think they fall short of what the Bible demands.
In terms of weighting those, I'm not sure that there's one issue that any of us ought to hang our hat on as a deal breaker. I mean, I could see the concern for life would be one that people would suggest for that, but I think on the whole, the Bible calls us not to a series of hierarchical moral obligation.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: They're simultaneous, not sequential. God calls us to be concerned about all these things all at the same time. No candidate's going to be perfect, and they are going to have flaws.
Sean McDowell: It sounds like this is really an appeal to less being quick to judge a fellow believer for voting or thinking differently. Try To understand where somebody's coming from, erring on the side of charity. Not that there's never a time to go, "Hey, you're off base A, B and C," but maybe we could have a little bit more charity within the body of Christ.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Well, I think one of the reasons we should do that is because the Bible rarely speaks in terms of public policy specifics. Most of the time, where the Bible addresses public policy is it the 30,000 foot level, at the level of broad, general principles, more at the level of the ends as opposed to the means.
Even in the specific parts, say in the Mosaic law where they had specific means laid out to alleviate poverty for example, they had a law of gleaning where the poor could come glean in the fields and pick up what was leftover. Or they had the right of redemption of property, where if you had to sell your property because you were in bankruptcy, your next of kin was obligated to buy it and restore it back to you.
Well, those were specifics designed to create, to adhere to a specific set of ends, to make sure that the poor always had opportunity to support themselves. But we live in a completely different era today.
Sean McDowell: Right, right.
Scott Rae: I mean, what would the redemption of property look like today? What would the year of Jubilee look like today? Because the agrarian culture of the ancient world could not be more different than our information age economy today. How that would translate over in terms of means is a huge element for debate.
The Bible, I think, is largely silent in terms of what the norms ought to be for the means by which to accomplish the ends. Among political parties, I don't see a lot of difference in the ends. I mean, no political party is saying that we ought to neglect the poor.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: The means by which we accomplished that, there's huge division on that. I think the means have moral implications, too. They're not morally neutral, but I think there's lots of room to agree to disagree about what means accomplish those ends the best.
Sean McDowell: Scott, if you're a pastor and you're standing up before your congregation and you want to give them some advice of the election that's coming up, some pastors, A, ignore it; B, select a particular candidate.
Scott Rae: Yeah, which in the U S would be illegal.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, technically it would. The Johnson Amendment or whatever it is. You're not supposed to do that. C, would be saying, "Here's some principles to keep in mind as you go to vote." Maybe character matters. Whatever those things are, what are two or three that come to your mind that would say these are some of the most important principles for Christians, wherever you're coming from, to keep in mind as we vote?
Scott Rae: These are in no particular order.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: But the things that jump out to me I think are some of the same things that jump out to me when I read the scripture. That is, is the person an advocate for those who are on the margins of society, the poorest of the poor? I think the prophets have an awful lot to say about that. I think you can actually make an argument from the teaching of Jesus that a real, heartfelt, action-oriented concern for the poor and the neediest among us is a constituent element of faithfully following Christ.
Sean McDowell: That's true for individuals and the church and nations are judged at times-
Scott Rae: Exactly, exactly.
Sean McDowell: For not caring for the poor.
Scott Rae: I think a second one is that the connection between character and leadership. The Bible is really clear that those two things go together, and it's not just leadership in the church. The kings, for example, were to be men of character who cared about their people, who cared about their relationship to God.
The third thing that I would look for is, is the person committed to protecting religious freedom? I think that's a really important component, because I don't think you can ... I don't think you can say that the gospel matters to you if you're not willing to protect the right to proclaim it publicly.
Sean McDowell: That in particular is for Christians to care about that.,But I think you would also say religious freedom is an objective good for the community.
Scott Rae: Oh, absolutely.
Sean McDowell: For Muslims, for Jews, and other liberties will follow from the right to speech, the freedom of religion in that sense as well. Right.
Scott Rae: Right. I'm with our friend Os Guinness, who calls that the most fundamental liberty. I would put it, if you take it outside of a religious context, I think you can still protect what I would call a general right to conscience, but there's some boundaries around that. I mean, there are boundaries, some around religious freedom. We're seeing them in our day now, because there are some churches that think that their religious freedom is being violated by state orders for distancing.
Sean McDowell: Yes, yeah.
Scott Rae: We'll let that go for now.
Sean McDowell: Yeah. No, no, fair enough. We don't have to have that full conversation. What advice would you give just for Christians going into the polling booth? Because I mean, I think about when I vote, it's between running back from school, picking up a kid. Like I'm busy. I'm distracted. Got stuff going on.
But if what we're saying is true and we really believe this, what frame of mind should we be in? Should it be a prayerful preparation? Should it be watching news on both sides? What's realistic expectations for somebody who wants to honor the Lord through their voting and care for society? What are certain things to keep in mind before doing that?
Scott Rae: Well, I think one thing I would suggest is, if you can, take your kids with you to vote-
Sean McDowell: Interesting.
Scott Rae: Let them watch you do that. You probably have to check with your polling place to make sure that that's allowed, which it might not be. But I think it's incumbent on us to be educated about what the issues are that the candidates hold most dear. Particularly in California, we have multiple propositions, which I think can be just as influential as the candidates who are elected.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Scott Rae: Be educated about what's involved in some of those. Then I think, of course, prayerful deliberation about who you should vote for and what types of propositions we should support or oppose.
Sean McDowell: This is really helpful stuff. Man, I think anybody listening is now motivated, myself included, to even be more thoughtful and prayerful about the way I approach voting and charity towards other believers who maybe vote a little bit differently. Do you recommend having conversations about politics with people, Christians and/or non-Christians, during this season? Because we're told not religion, not politics, and I always look to have a conversation about religion.
Scott Rae: I know.
Sean McDowell: Should we do so?
Scott Rae: What two other things are the most interesting to talk about?
Sean McDowell: Well, besides sports, but I'm with you. I'm kidding, partly.
Scott Rae: It depends on who your teams are. But yeah, I think, I don't know where this taboo about not discussing religion and politics came from originally, because that's like saying you can't talk to people about the things that you hold most dear. What kind of relationship do you have with someone if you can't talk about the things that are most important to you?
Now, I think to do it with charity and listening well, making sure we're not on a lecture tour.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: I'd rather be on a listening tour than a lecture tour. I think to be respectful of other people's views, and if they don't want to talk about it, to respect that-
Sean McDowell: Allow that.
Scott Rae: And give them the distance to back away from that.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Scott Rae: I think I would prefer that it be more focused on issues rather than on personalities, although character does matter.
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: We know that character may not matter for the way somebody does a day to day job, although I think it does, but it matters a lot more for people who are in positions of leadership and who are going to wield influence over large communities.
Sean McDowell: Last question for you. You mentioned earlier how important it is to be educated. Of course, people can get on and Google and look at sites. One of the things I do is I watch CNN and I watch Fox News, and sometimes I can't stomach either side of it for whatever reason that may be, but I just kind of force myself, because I want to know how different people are thinking and see if I've missed something. What's another way to prepare ourselves educationally coming into this, just to at least be sure we're fairly trying to look at the issues rather than just listen to those people, on whichever side of the issue it is, that happen to agree with that?
Scott Rae: Right. I think taking the time to honestly expose yourself to people who view the issues differently is so important. It prevents what my mentor called a hardening of the categories. He said much more lethal than hardening of the arteries.
Sean McDowell: More lethal.
Scott Rae: I think he's right about that.
Sean McDowell: Interesting..
Scott Rae: One thing I would add to this is I try and read the editorial pages of our newspapers. For some of our folks who don't know what those are, those are the things that you unfold in the morning and look at-
Sean McDowell: Yeah. I was going to say, define that.
Scott Rae: And look at over your coffee. But to read other sources. Like I find the Atlantic magazine has really insightful things. A lot of times it's people who I disagree with, but it always stimulates my thinking.
I think be careful about information overload. It's helpful if you have a new service that helps filter some things for you or provides summaries for you. Those can be very helpful, too.
Sean McDowell: Okay. Well, this is really helpful. I appreciate the wisdom. I know you've been thinking about this for a long time.
To our listeners, we hope this helps give some biblical principles, some perspective thinking about this. If you know somebody, whatever side of the aisle that they're on, and just needs maybe a little bit of encouragement and biblical perspective about the importance of voting and how to approach it, maybe sharing this with them will help.
Scott, thanks for letting me put you on the hot seat. Well done, my friend.
Scott Rae: I appreciate that. Lots of good questions. Lots of things to think about. I'd encourage our listeners to approach the election prayerfully and thoughtfully.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and we hope you'll consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.