Christians in the Voting Booth

[1] As the 2008 presidential primary season fast approaches, the question of how the Christian citizen should evaluate candidates could turn out to be more interesting than it’s been in some time.

[2] The religion-in-politics question usually is focused on Republicans. That has been the case since conservative Christians became a formidable, cohesive political force in response to the cultural assault on traditional values launched in the 1960s. Many of those Christians – often derisively referred to as the “Religious Right” — eventually found a political home in the Republican Party, while the Democrats drifted ever more secular.

[3] In fact, polls continue to show the Democrats suffering from a “God gap.” According to a Pew Research Center poll released on September 6, 2007, 30 percent of Americans view the Democratic Party as friendly to religion. That’s down from 42 percent in July 2003. Interestingly, only 44 percent of Democrats view their own party as friendly to religion, while 45 percent of Democrats say Republicans are religion friendly. It’s not clear from the polling data whether Democrats are pleased or frustrated by this.

[4] In contrast, 50 percent of those polled view Republicans as being friendly to religion. That level has been pretty consistent for some time now. Among Republicans, 17 percent view Democrats as religion friendly, and 66 percent see their own party as so. As for independents, obviously the critical swing vote, 48 percent view Republicans as friendly to religion, while only 29 percent view Democrats as such.

[5] Does this mean that Christians should and do blindly vote Republican? Of course not. In fact, the 2008 election holds out the possibility of serious challenges for Republicans.

[6] From a traditional Christian perspective, the leading Democrats pursuing the White House offer little that’s compelling. U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, for example, are liberals in both politics and faith. If you’re looking to contort Christianity to fit a liberal policy agenda – a favorite tactic of the “Religious Left” and about as non-secular as many Democrats seem willing to venture these days – then either Clinton or Obama fit the bill.

[7] But much more potential turmoil exists in the Republican field. For example, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who once considered becoming a priest, is a twice-divorced, thrice-married, only-occasionally-practicing Roman Catholic. In early October, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke threatened to deny Giuliani Holy Communion due to his pro-choice position on abortion. Yet, as of October 2007, Giuliani remains the frontrunner in the GOP field, and rumblings can be heard in some social conservative circles that a third-party challenge might be mounted or that many social conservatives could simply stay home on Election Day 2008.

[8] Meanwhile, as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney travels the nation, the religion question that follows him everywhere is: Will Christians – particularly evangelical Christians – vote for a Mormon?

[9] So, how does the Christian voter sort through an election like this – or, for that matter, any other campaign season?

[10] Most important, of course, Christians should not leave their Christianity outside the voting booth. After all, for the faithful, the very core of their being is faith in Jesus Christ, who offers love, atonement, forgiveness, redemption and salvation. The conscience is formed and informed by the Word of God. The very notion of putting aside one’s Christianity as a voter, or as an elected official, should not make sense to the Christian.

[11] But that most certainly does not mean adopting some kind of Christian litmus test for voting or holding office. Nor does it mean that a Christian position exists on most public policy issues. Contrary to what various church leaders might assert or imply, there is no Christian position on the minimum wage, the level of government spending, the balanced budget amendment, international trade and globalization, marginal income tax rates, a government-run vs. market-driven health care system, gambling legislation, FCC regulation of television content, legislation affecting labor unions, or environmental policy. Where Holy Scripture and traditional Christian doctrine are silent, Christians have the freedom to, and often do, disagree.

[12] At the same time, though, traditional Christianity reveals that there are issues in the public arena where Holy Scripture and biblical morality clearly compel a stance by the Church and individual Christians. Those cases include, for example, opposing terrorism and genocide, protecting innocent human life by opposing abortion, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia, and defending marriage as being between one man and one woman.

[13] So, when evaluating candidates, the Christian should not necessarily be looking for a Christian candidate per se. Instead, the Christian should seek the candidate whose principles and policy positions align closest with one’s own political philosophy and positions that, hopefully, have been formed according to conscience informed by Christian truth.

[14] As a result, what does the traditional Christian do if the choice is between a Christian running for president who favors abortion and so-called gay marriage, and a Mormon or Jew, for example, who is pro-life and pro-traditional marriage?

[15] Well, as the old saying goes, the country isn’t electing a preacher, but a president. Our nation wisely practices religious freedom, and imposes no religious test for holding office. It’s not about the candidate’s church membership or personal theological beliefs. Instead, it should be about the person’s positions on the issues.

[16] It is perhaps assumed, to a certain degree, that a devout Christian running for office will share the values and principles of the Christian voter. But that often turns out to be far from political reality.

[17] Regrettably, Christian voters might not be so fortunate as to have at least one candidate to choose from who shares their political philosophy and policy positions – whether those candidates are Christians or not. For example, with Giuliani and Clinton running ahead in the latest polls for their respective party nominations, the 2008 presidential contest could easily wind up with both major party candidates, though Christians, presenting records and positions on such core issues as abortion and marriage that are anathema to traditional Christianity.

[18] If so, such a contest would provide a big test for the conscience of the traditional Christian who happens to be a Republican. If a Christian votes Republican in part because the Democrats have become too secular and hostile to Christian values – as many Christians feel – then what do they do with a socially liberal Republican like Giuliani?

[19] A variety of prominent conservatives, who also happen to be Christians, support Giuliani in the belief that he’s the best chance for defeating the dreaded Hillary Clinton. Of course, given that social conservatives have become such a critical factor in electing Republicans, that political calculus could turn out to be grossly off the mark.

[20] More important, though, it is a bankrupt moral calculus from a traditional Christian perspective. After all, it matters not whether the candidates have an “R” or a “D” after their names. It’s ultimately about their character, philosophy and policy positions.

[21] In the end, the Christian voter must ask a few questions in the voting booth. Is it just about party? Is it even about which candidate is a Christian and which one is not? Or, is it about conscience and principle?