This November, many Americans will fulfill one of their most important civic responsibilities by heading out to vote. Notwithstanding arguments concerning the actual political power of the President of the United States in relation to the national legislature and judiciary (not to mention the power of elected officials on the city, county, and state levels, as well as the many unelected bureaucrats who make up the various departments and government agencies) electing the President is one of the most consequential decisions citizens make every four years. The anticipation of selecting the person who will be both the Head of Government and our Head of State always gets the heart beating a little bit faster.
At the risk of adding to the barrage of political advertisements this season, I wanted to throw my own two cents into the fray and share my thoughts about this important civic exercise of our beloved Republic.
In my area, a local church states on their website how they refrain from preaching politics in the pulpit. Having experienced in 2004 and 2008 a parade of messages verging on the notion that unless I vote for a particular candidate or a particular party, I was complicit in a few moral evils, I can appreciate the promise this church makes to its congregants. However, while the promotion of a particular political party is difficult to justify under most circumstances (not to mention the ramifications such an act would have on the tax status of the church) I believe it is completely within the purview of the Church to inform the conscience of its members based on the beliefs and their interpretation of the Gospel. In fact, I would argue an informed conscience is one of those important foundations on which the Church is built.
What is faith, after all, except a type of informed conscience? If I have faith, particularly faith in Jesus Christ, have I not informed my conscience of the truths contained in his life and message? And if I have given my life to Christ, how can any other aspect of my life be viewed apart from this faith? Unless one approaches their faith as a separate, singular part of their otherwise busy life, my Christian faith acts as the spectacles through which I view the world. As a Christian, particularly as a Franciscan brother, all parts of my life are turned over to God. How I interact with others or perceive creation or perceive myself or the great controversies of our time are informed by my faith in Jesus Christ. Like St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present....shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Jesus Christ is the origin and center from which my life’s energy must flow.
If the Church today resigns herself to the outer darkness where she has no ambition to form the conscience of her members, then why should the Church exist at all? As an American, if the Church cannot or chooses not to help me fulfill one of my most consequential civic responsibilities, then why on earth would I choose to remain a member? All of us could find more productive activities to do on Sunday mornings than attend something little better than a pseudo-religious Kiwanis club.
And yet, as a patriotic American citizen, I hold dearly to the belief “that all men are created equal.” I believe firmly in the right of each man, woman, and child to practice the religion (or lack thereof) of their choice. Who am I to force anyone to practice and adhere to the same beliefs as my own? In his masterful encyclical titled, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), Pope St. John XXIII, a Franciscan tertiary, wrote of the importance of this freedom, saying, “But since all men are equal in natural dignity, no man has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that, for He alone scrutinizes and judges the secret counsels of the heart” (John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 48).
And still, at the same time, the freedom of religion ought not shy the Church and her leaders away from heeding the words of Christ who, upon ascending into heaven, exhorted his disciples to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations...teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19,20). Our own Episcopal Church, which, far from being a sort of Christian body resembling the theological equivalent of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, informs us that it is the primary mission of the church “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”. We are also taught that “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855). In other words, our mission, our obligation, as Christians is to bring about the transformation of the world through the astounding and limitless love and mercy of God. Our public celebrations, private devotions, and ways of service as the Church reveal the effects of God’s infinite mercy in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. How we approach the great controversies of our time ought to be informed from this most life-giving tenet. Therefore, no representative of the Church ought to be afraid of challenging the political attitudes of their congregants when their preaching stems from the abundant love of God.
And yet, how can we address the divisive issues of our time and avoid the pitfalls of many radical Christian groups who insist they alone have the answers to life's most complex questions? Perhaps by first realizing no one religious denomination has a monopoly on the truth, we may approach the controversies of our world with a certain degree of humility and vulnerability. Even those truths we hold to be self-evident should be questioned and held to scrutiny. If they are so self-evident and “correct” then challenges to them would not be threatening, yes? For example, is anyone seriously threatened by the “scientific” arguments proposed by flat-earthers? Can any number of arguments proposed by those who reject the idea that the earth is round really threaten what the science tells us? No, of course not. Likewise, in the political realm, if one’s ideas about the economy, social issues, international affairs are all so “correct”, why then are challenges seen as a threat rather than a chance for further exploration and perfection of one’s ideas? If one indeed is so afraid of being challenged by others, perhaps the best course of action is to refrain from discussing political issues in public and instead, keep them to yourself.
As committed Christians, perhaps the best course of action this election year is to seek resources from a variety of church organizations in addition to our own in order to inform our consciences. Although the proliferation of religious denominations in the United States is a great cause of strain and disunity among Christians, the diversity of beliefs among the various Christian bodies allows a voter to compare, contrast, and contemplate difficult issues from a wide range of informed Christian perspectives. Why not at least hear what other Christians have to say about the present political climate? Remember, as Pope John wrote, “No man has the capacity to force internal compliance on another. Only God can do that". Just as no infallible political institution exists anywhere in the world, the stances of certain denominations on modern political issues will also be fallible, or at the very least incomplete. What God expects of us, I argue, is that we try our best to inform our conscience as best we can before casting our ballots on Election Day.
As Americans, our Union can never fully realize the perfection and unity only the saints enjoy in that Heavenly realm. But, if we seek to rely on each other and God for guidance, perhaps we might continue on the path towards building a more perfect union.
The Episcopal Church’s Election Engagement Toolkit: https://episcopalchurch.org/files/ogr_vote_faithfully_2020_election_toolkit.pdf
Catechism of The 1979 Book of Common Prayer: https://www.bcponline.org/Misc/catechism.html
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/parishes-and-schools/upload/catholics-care-catholics-vote-bulletin-insert.pdf
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s social statements: https://www.elca.org/Resources/Faith-and-Society#SocialStatements
Our Faith, Our Vote: Resources for Presbyterians to Engage with the 2018 Midterm Elections: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/opw/2018/07/16/our-faith-our-vote-resources-for-presbyterians-to-engage-with-the-2018-midterm-elections/
Reflections on how to Vote: Orthodox Christians and the Presidential Election: https://www.oca.org/news/archived/reflections-on-how-to-voteorthodox-christians-and-the-presidential-election
Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by Pope St. John XXIII: http://www.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem.html
This is just a sample of useful resources that may be helpful to you as you prepare to vote. Please know that in posting these resources, I am not responsible for any of the content you may find on these websites. Nor do I, by posting these resources, indicate in any way my agreement or disagreement with any of the viewpoints or positions expressed by the publishers and authors of these materials.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org