Should Christians living in a democratic society vote? To answer in the positive presumes another positive answer to a prior question: Should Christians, as citizens, engage in politics at all? This latter question is loaded, as “politics” carries with it an understandably negative connotation. I'm reminded of the jokester who defined politics as the venue of “poly-ticks”: many blood-sucking insects.
Yet politics need not be so understood. Aristotle defined the root word for politics, the polis, as a community defined by its common understanding of and commitment to the good life. Augustine tells us that we can identify the character of a people by determining what they love. Surely Christians have a conception of the good life (Micah 6:8), and Scripture tells us our vision of the good life should be characterized by love for God and neighbor (Matt. 5:16, Matt. 22: 37-38, John 13:35).
Yet it is Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13:1-7 that serves as the lynchpin for the Christian duty to love our neighbors even in our temporary roles as citizens of an earthly polis. In this famous passage Paul first teaches that we must submit to political authority, then defines the proper role of government as promoting good and punishing evil, and finally calls Christians to give to everyone what is owed, including taxes, respect, and honor.
Who Is Our Political Authority?
For 2,000 years Christians have wrestled with what it means to submit to political authority, keeping in mind Peter and the other apostles’ claim that when faced with a choice, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). For most of Christian history believers faced this question from the bottom of a political hierarchy, subjects to kings and rulers who operated from the top down. With this understanding luminaries such as Calvin and Luther taught their followers that resistance to even a wicked ruler violates biblical teaching.
The advent of constitutional democracy, then, complicates things for the contemporary believer. For when we apply Romans 13 to our own political situation, it’s not simply a matter of submitting to an external political authority. As citizens in a constitutional democracy, “we the people” are the authority, even if the practice has never quite lived up to the theory. Thus we're in a curious position relative to most of Christian history. We are called to yield to authority, yet we also wield authority. To complicate matters even further, we share that authority with nonbelievers whose conception of the earthly good life will overlap with ours in some ways, and sharply diverge in others.
What does this mean for the practice of voting? It means that Christians in a democracy live under an authority that formally solicits our view of the good life. Granted, this view of the good life as expressed through voting is varied, and the connection is often tenuous. Yet the civic practice of voting can be described simply as judging what good(s) should be promoted or preserved, and which public servants would most faithfully carry out that mandate. Notice this basic obligation holds true regardless of the level or topic. From local school board elections to presidential campaigns, and from municipal concerns to statewide referenda on social issues, by voting we perform the minimum of our civic duty by electing, respecting, and empowering those public servants who give their full attention to governing.
Does My Vote Even Matter?
“Ahh, but isn’t this naïve?” the skeptic may ask. No one vote, after all, will be the difference in any election or political decision. Why bother casting a vote that has no meaning?
The first thing to say about such an objection is that it’s a odd way to think about doing anything with a communal element. I may as well decide not to recycle because my individual effort alone will not clean the environment. Nor will my modest charitable gift solve poverty in my community, let alone my country or the world. Yet the combined efforts of Christians can have a staggering effect when taken together, when individuals do not think of their actions entirely through an individualistic lens.
My country, my state, and my town ask for a relatively minor effort on my part to contribute to the common good by expressing my views in the voting booth. Surely the test of whether I submit to this request cannot turn on whether my decision will by itself determine the entire issue.
And there are other reasons for voting. Voting is one measure whereby we learn what it would mean to promote the common good in our particular community. It’s a small but tangible exercise that can lead to even greater involvement in cultivating a just and merciful society. Moreover, we are in good company when we carry our witness about the good into the public square.
John Witte Jr., in his book From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion and Law in the Western Tradition, describes how the early church fathers publicly spoke out in favor of marriage and against evils like child abuse, polygamy, and abortion. These early leaders, who knew a thing or two about persecution and preaching the gospel, loved their neighbors enough to speak to political issues in a system that afforded them no formal power. How much more should we speak out given our political tradition is predicated on the active commitment of an informed citizenry?
Finally, voting as political participation is a way of telling our neighbors—believers and nonbelievers alike—that we too are committed to a vision of the good life. We care about their well-being, even on issues that are secondary to eternal matters. For politics concerns decisions that contribute to a free society in which people can worship, evangelize, provide food for the hungry and clothing to the naked, schools for learning, and justice for the poor. Our Father in heaven knows we need these things too, and he uses our action in the voting booth in part to provide them.