Voices: Vote for what is good for our neighbors

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In the upcoming election, what does it mean for a Christian to vote well? If we are looking to what has been promised to Christians, the choices are not promising.

Myles Werntz 150Myles WerntzFrom the GOP, you have restorationist promises made by Donald Trump to kill the Johnson Amendment, restore an ostensibly lost religious liberty, and to make America safe for Christians again. From the Democrats, you have Hillary Clinton, whose vision of the common good has made no such public overtures to Christians. Among third-party candidates, the promises range from implementation of Christian-inspired platforms to indifference toward Christian interests.

A modest proposal

Brothers and sisters in Christ, a modest proposal: When Christians vote, let us not vote as a special-interest group, but out of concern for what is good for our neighbors.

texas baptist voices right120There are cases to be made for voting or not voting for a major candidate, another candidate or not voting at all. But focusing these discussions around defending what is good and morally advantageous for Christians cannot be the overriding concern. These are ecologically, financially and culturally anxious times, and the temptation—particularly in light of narratives of church decline and loss of influence in national circles—is to seek out a candidate who is good for what Christians seek, doctrinally or morally.

Making a vote based on promises to Christians—the promise of expanded religious liberty, an expansion of religious privilege, or access to the halls of power—is to fall into the temptation of the devil in the desert. It is falling into the temptation to bow down to power for the sake of safety and of seeking the strength of the church as a primary good.

Suffering of one; suffering of all

When and if the policies of a president align with what is good for Christians, rejoice! But when and if the policies of a president do not privilege the material life of Christians, Scripture calls again and again for Christians to aid one another, seek the peace of the city, forgive their enemies and pray without ceasing.

But do Christians owe, in their voting, nothing to one another? I think they are obligated to one another’s good, but in the following way: In a partisan world, even the best policies will not be completely for the sake of the neighbor and will privilege one part of the Christian body over another. And when a policy punishes one part of Christ’s body at the expense of another, Christians must speak up for one another, across partisan divides, remembering we are one body of the one Jesus Christ, and that the suffering of one part of the body is the suffering of all of it.

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In prioritizing the good of our neighbor in our voting, I am not saying that holding up a candidate’s policies to the moral lights of the gospel do not matter. Far from it. The policies of a candidate should be held up, measured and challenged by Christians at all times.

What I am saying is that those lights should illuminate first not what is good for Christians, but what is good for our neighbors. Budgets and policy proposals are, among other things, moral documents and should be the subject of critical engagement on moral grounds.

Different questions

But the questions that come from seeking the good of one’s neighbor first are different than the ones we are used to asking: Does the proposed legal commitment to religious liberty include our neighbors or simply privilege Christians? Will a proposed tax cut or increase lead to lifting up one’s neighbors, or to their diminishment? Do the moral goods of a foreign policy account for “national interests” at the expense of foreign neighbors?

Seeking our own good politically has made us, I fear, too unable to consider what will happen if we were to do otherwise. Perhaps, barring some large political reversal, we will be able to unlearn this habit.

But by the grace of God, we will be able to learn a better way—the love of the neighbor, which goes hand in hand with the love of God.

Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian ethics and practical theology and the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene. Email him at [email protected]

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