I’ve been following the general election campaign very closely, and simultaneously I’ve been watching developments in the USA as would-be presidential candidates throw their hats into the ring.
There are many similarities politically between the UK and the USA, but these are eclipsed by enormous differences in both style and substance. And the biggest difference in my eyes is the role played by religion. In the USA, the religious right wing constitutes a solid political bloc. Christian leaders exert immense public pressure on elected officials and voters. And politicians in turn ignore religious concerns at their peril.
I think our system is safer. With rare exceptions, our politicians are very coy about their personal beliefs; they know that they have more to lose than to gain by taking any sort of theological stance; that any advantage they might gain with one segment of the population by invoking the name of God, they are likely to lose more ground with another segment. So how should Christians approach voting in an election? Does one party more fairly represent Christian ethical concerns than another?
I think that our reading from Luke’s Gospel gives us a clue. It’s a disturbing story: one that culminates in a poor man going to heaven and a rich man going to hell. And it’s been widely misunderstood. Jesus certainly wasn’t saying that the amount of money we have will determine our eternal destiny.
But what this story does do is stress that the Christian message has an ethical dimension. It doesn’t just illustrate the social values that Jesus set out in the Sermon on the Mount; it goes further. It makes clear that our attitude to the poor and needy, both as individuals and collectively as a society, is a central aspect of our relationship with God.
Does that truth imply a responsibility on the part of Christians to vote for a specific political agenda? Definitely not, and we should not trust anyone who tells us the contrary. The House of Bishops of the Church of England recently issued a pastoral letter offering detailed guidance in the run-up to the election. Even they don’t presume to tell us how to vote, but they make clear what as Christians we must expect our national leaders to do. The letter poses a number of crucial questions: not just about individual issues but about the kind of country and the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. To sum up their arguments, they quote this brief passage from the Letter to the Philippians:
‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about hese things.’ (Philippians 4:8)
What can we glean from this guidance for our own decision in the coming election. My conclusion is that our Christian faith rules out three approaches that I’m afraid are very prevalent in our society:
- Our faith doesn’t allow us to be apathetic: to take the view that our vote is meaningless or that all politicians are interchangeable. And our faith certainly doesn’t require us to put ourselves above political debate.
- Our faith doesn’t make a virtue of voting tribally, as though we owe a particular party our loyalty through thick and thin, regardless of their policies or their historical actions.
- Our faith certainly doesn’t grant us the luxury of voting for the party that will do most for folks just like us. We have a duty to vote knowledgeably and for the common good.
In short, our Christian faith cannot tell us which modern political theory or economic model will ultimately result in the fairest society. But it does demands that we vote for those we honestly think will do most for the sake of the common good. And it demands that we call our leaders to account for their performance in delivering social justice.
Let’s bow our heads, and I will say the prayer from the Bishops’ pastoral letter
Lord, we give thanks for the privileges and responsibilities of living in a democratic society. Give us wisdom to play our part at election time, that, through the exercise of each vote, your Kingdom may come closer. Protect us from the sins of despair and cynicism, guard us against the idols of false utopias and strengthen us to make politics a noble calling that serves the common good of all. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.