Following the elections of 2017, out of the 535 sitting members of Congress, 485 are professing Christians. That’s 91 percent. Though there is a slightly higher percentage of Christians among Republican lawmakers than Democrats (99 percent vs. 80 percent), the current Congress of the United States is almost as “Christian” as it’s ever been.
But what does that actually mean?
That summer, the 28-year-old woman from the Bronx the nation would come to know as AOC unseated a long-serving Congressman for the party’s nomination in her district, and got elected to one of those seats in November. In a column she wrote for Jesuit magazine America, she explained that it was her Catholic faith and the teachings of Christ that led her to run, partly on a platform of criminal justice reform: “Innocence, in its mercy, partly excuses us from having to fully reckon with the spiritual gifts of forgiveness, grace and redemption at the heart of the Catechism: I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is also a Democratic Socialist.
That word — socialism — has long been lobbed as an insult by conservative politicians. Politicians like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is a Southern Baptist, and current Vice President Mike Pence, who is an evangelical, hold to the same faith as Ocasio-Cortez, but have a polar opposite view of politics and policies. But in terms of their religious beliefs, they agree on far more than they disagree.
The paradox raises interesting questions: How could people read the same religious teachings, devote their lives to the same faith and come to such dramatically different conclusions about how it informs their politics?
What does the Bible really say? In an increasingly polarized political landscape, how can a Christian actually vote their faith?
CALLED TO VOTE
One of the tricky things about trying to figure out how to vote according to one’s faith and values based on the example of Jesus is that the system of government operating in Jesus’ time is dramatically different than the American democracy, says Dr. Alan Noble, a college professor and conservative writer and thinker.
He says that yes, the Bible is clear that “we are supposed to submit to governing authorities … to honor the authority … to obey the law,” but context is important.
At the time, Jesus lived under the rule of the Romans and was subjected to their policies. A democracy—which is made up of the people it rules and whose laws are created by individuals voted on by the citizenry—is much different. Noble says the starting point for determining how Jesus would vote is to look at a teaching that transcends politics, policy and legislation: the command of loving our neighbor.
You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on. You have an obligation to act.
“Part of loving our neighbor means we can’t just say, ‘Politics are such a mess, it’s just so depressing,’” he says. “That’s not an option. Being an American citizen … you don’t just get to relax and follow orders. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on. You have an obligation to act.”
Greg Boyd, the senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church and vocal critic of the Christian Right, agrees that engagement shouldn’t be optional for Christians.
“‘Politics’ comes from the Greek word ‘polis,’ which means ‘city-state,’ but can refer to any defined people group,” he explains. “Anything that affects society, then, is ‘political.’ Voting and protesting is one way of affecting the polis. We happen to have the good fortune of living in a society in which government invites us to share our opinion about what [it] should do, and so long as Jesus-followers are careful not to get sucked into the polarizing partisan politics that afflicts our current political atmosphere, I see no reason why we shouldn’t give it.
“Indeed, since we are called to be in solidarity with ‘the least of these,’ treating them as we would Jesus Himself, I don’t see how we can refrain from giving it whenever our government’s policies are oppressing, marginalizing or otherwise discriminating against people who are largely, if not entirely, defenseless.”
For Shane Claiborne—who advocates for immigration reform, gun control and the abolishment of the death penalty—what that obligation looks like starts with Jesus’ most well-known teachings: the Sermon on the Mount.
That sermon opens with praise for the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who seek righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
We don’t really have to wonder how Jesus would vote because He tells us,” Claiborne explains. “I think the Beatitudes are pretty beautiful in showing literally who God is aligned with: the poor, the merciful, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, right?”
Boyd agrees that Scripture is clear about serving less fortunate people: “While political issues are always complex, I would think this should incline Jesus followers to vote for those candidates whom they believe will do the most to alleviate the pain of the afflicted, address issues surrounding homelessness and poverty, alleviate oppression and discrimination, address the injustices of our current justice and prison systems, and eliminate discrimination against those who are the most judged and looked down upon in our society.”
However, even if you start with those two basic ideas—that our call to love our neighbors means we are required to be involved in a democracy, and Jesus aligns with society’s “least of these”—the challenge arises when voting comes down to essentially two parties, neither of which perfectly encapsulates both of these ideas. What happens when Jesus’ principles don’t fall cleanly down partisan lines?
VOTING FOR LIFE
Aimee Murphy is the founder of Rehumanize International, a group she says is “dedicated to bringing about a culture of peace and culture of life and working to bring an end to all forms of aggressive violence against humanity.” Though the organization itself doesn’t have a religious affiliation, Murphy is a devout Catholic.
Our central philosophy is that every human being has inherent dignity and inherent worth,” she says.
She understands the dilemma of voting when principles don’t break neatly on political lines. Though the group stands against things like the death penalty and torture (views that tend to align with Democratic Party principles), they also oppose abortion, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia (issues that mostly align with Republican candidates).
Before choosing to vote for a candidate, she starts with the questions, “What do they have an effect over? How many lives will that affect? What sort of moral calculus do you have to do in this situation?” When it comes to voting for city council, for example, there’s a big difference in how their influence will be applied to communities than when voting for president.
Understanding not only a politician’s position—but also their ability to actually have any effect on implementing it—is essential, Boyd explains.
Even if a Christian finds a candidate who stands for many of the things they stand for, they still must consider whether this candidate has the kind of character and competency to actually advance these causes,” he says. “For as we all know, political candidates have been known to sometimes claim to stand for things only because they know this is what the voters they’re appealing to want to hear.
“Voting for a candidate who agrees with you but is unwilling to compromise and work with others to get things done may simply ensure that none of what you hoped would get accomplished actually gets accomplished.”
Murphy gives the example of a recent election in her home state of Pennsylvania.
First, she looked at the stakes of the election based on her values of nonviolence, justice reform and peace. She noted that because it was a local election, the candidate didn’t have control over going to war, but the county home to a local immigrant detention center—something she is passionate about reforming. And state officials could also create policies that affect the death penalty and abortion.
If I’m going to vote for the pro-life candidate—because more lives are affected by abortion—then the thing that I am going to do is, I am going to write a letter to his office every week about why, as a pro-life person, he should end the death penalty in the state of Pennsylvania,” she explains. “That was the moral commitment that I made to myself, because I was like, ‘OK, if I am going to make a compromise on this, I have to do something to make sure that I do not become complacent on this issue.”
In this case however, the compromises on both sides seemed too great, and she decided to vote for a third-party candidate.
We can vote with our voice, vote with dollars, vote with our time and emotional investment.
The outcome is similar to the situation many Christians have faced when they enter the ballot box and are forced to decide between two flawed candidates who represent two flawed parties.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is the senior pastor of New Seasons Christian Worship Center, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and is one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers. He also prayed at Trump’s inauguration.
He believes that though issues like religious liberty and biblical justice should be important to Christian voters, the starting point should be the sanctity of life.
“It truly does begin with life,” he says. “Every skewed, deviated, egregious public policy or political ideology begins with negating that every life is sacred in and out of the womb.”
However, he is clear that this doesn’t mean that Christians should have a single political allegiance.
“[We must] not marry politics or one political party,” he says. “We must engage but not marry. We must engage with the understanding that Uncle Sam may be your uncle but he will never be your heavenly Father.”
It begs the question, is the current system one that represents the way of Jesus?
LEAVING THE PARTY
In the modern American political system, two main parties have emerged as the most dominant. And in the age of marketing and branding—where consumers frequently tie their identity to the companies, products and brands they like—those parties have developed large bases of supporters who have made their partisan affiliation part of their personal identities.
Instead of saying, “I voted for the Republican or Democrat candidate,” many voters say, “I am a Republican or Democrat.” That “I am” can become an extremely loaded phrase, because, as Noble points out, it ties a political party to an individual’s identity—an identity that, if you are a Christian, should only be found in Christ.
“When we go [to] the polls, and we have to make a decision between two bad options, you need to be committed to a higher vision of what a good society looks like,” he says. “You need to be able to say, ‘Whatever this person does, I’m not going to be your cheerleader or their fan. I am holding them accountable. Whatever they do right, I will hold them accountable. And when they go astray, I’m going to look at it critically, and I will write and call and publicly critique.”
The problem comes, however, when a voter becomes so identified with a party or a candidate that they see an ideological threat to their party as a threat to their own identity.
Noble says political affiliation makes us feel “like we belong to a tribe, we have a place, we’re making a difference, we’re important, we’re significant.”
However, he explains, “The problem is, when you tie your identity to a political movement or a politician, and then as inevitably will happen, that movement, that group’s politician party fails you. You don’t have the freedom to criticize them because it’s like criticizing and betraying who you are.”
Claiborne recalls an approach that activist and public intellectual Cornel West took prior to the last presidential election. West said, “We’re gonna vote for Hillary and start protesting her in January.”
Claiborne suggests that the approach shows how loosely we should hold our “support” for candidates. “You don’t have a party that has a consistent life ethic so you always feel like you’re choosing the evil of two lessers,” he says.
Both Claiborne and Noble agree that democratic elections—which, by design, allow the values of the majority to be placed on ideological minorities—are part of an imperfect system, but what happens in the ballot box isn’t the only way to effect change.
“I can’t tell you how many times people said things like, ‘Oh, Jesus would vote Republican because of abortion,’ or ‘Jesus would vote Democrat because war and poverty,’” Murphy says. “My gut tells me that Jesus would probably be more involved in just encountering people.”
Yes, Christians should take part in elections— knowing that their vote isn’t an endorsement or a pledge of support. But that there are other ways we can vote our faith.
VOTING OUTSIDE THE BOX
“Vote, voice and devotion all sort of share the same root,” Claiborne explains, breaking down the linguistic origins of the words. What that means is voting is more than casting a ballot. We can vote with our voice, vote with dollars, vote with our time and emotional investment.
“Another of the imbalances that folks would have, [is saying] the only chance we have to change the world is once every four years or every two years—and I think that’s also a lie,” Claiborne explains. “We change the world all the time by where we put our money or withhold our money. I think how we vote on the day after and the day before the election is just as important as what we do on election day. And we can never confine our voice to a ballot box. We have a lot of ways of being a voice for things and people that matter.”
Murphy says the strategy her organization has found the most effective to enact change isn’t necessarily through partisan politics but by engaging with the people who are actually affected by policy.
“One thing we have noticed is that stories can be very disarming,” she says. Through their site, publication and visits to political events, they engage people in the stories of families who have been affected by inequality in the justice system, by having an abortion or even assisted suicide legislation. Their goal is to tell real people’s stories.
Ultimately, effecting major change starts by making very small ones. Not by changing the government, but by being willing to change oneself.
“The only way for a Christian to ensure that their decision on who to vote for reflects the teachings of Christ and the values of the Bible is to allow these teachings and values to fundamentally shape their character and mindset over a long period of time, and in community with other disciples,” Boyd says.
“When that is in place, all of a Christian’s decisions, including their political decisions, will naturally reflect the teachings of Christ and the values of the Bible, for decisions always flow out of a person’s character.”￼
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.