“No, but wait…MY pastor doesn’t tell us how to vote!”

“My pastor doesn’t tell us how to vote! What he does is give out a score card that describes what the issues are [remember that phrase!] and then shows what each candidate stands for. But then he tells us to make up our own minds!”

Anyway, that’s the word on the street.

Let’s look at two preachers in Anytown, USA, and put this method to the test:

Pastor Smith is helping his congregation with a list of political issues that he has compiled or, more likely, gotten from a Christian political action group. In the left column: high taxes, the Second Amendment, American military superiority, gay marriage, government mandate of a minimum wage, capital punishment, religious freedom for bakers, and other issues. In the 2nd and 3d column is a sentence or two on where the candidates stand on each issue.

So, says Pastor Smith: “Who stands for God’s truth, Candidate Anderson or Candidate Benchley? I’m not telling you how to vote, I’m just giving you the facts!”

Across town, Pastor Jones hands out a scorecard with questions about the environment, racial harmony, the Innocence Project, high military spending, worker rights, the Fourth Amendment, concluding: “I wouldn’t tell you how to vote, but who is closer to the Bible: Candidate Anderson or Candidate Benchley?”

I have an agenda, you have, he she or it has, we have, they have
I [Gary] have an agenda, you have, he, she, or it has, we have, they have an agenda
Both can claim “I’m not using the pulpit to tell anyone how to vote!” And two congregations will go away believing that they know who is God’s candidate for the office – only they will be backing different candidates!

Even when Pastors Jones and Smith don’t give you a political ANSWER SHEET, he or she is arranging a VOTER GUIDE or SCORECARD so that they lead to a specific end and communicate a particular agenda. Whoever lays the tracks has already determined which way the train will go!

In fact, Pastors Jones and Smith might both put, oh, let’s say school lunch programs, voter registration laws, Iraq, the minimum wage on their charts, and yet come up with two different sets of “Bible answers”. Look up “Bible-based” voter guides for the next election, and you’ll be surprised at how contradictory the answers are! And they don’t even consistently take you to the Bible, but rely on cultural values or good ol’ common sense. And when I looked up Christian websites for the last election, I found that they supported very different candidates for president, but always proving that their choice was the Bible one!

So, beware of accepting “Christian Voter Guides” as the final word!

In fact, nobody ever gives you simply the facts; everyone is making prior decisions about which questions should be important for the Christian and then searching for data that confirms those values (this is a form of what is called “confirmation bias”). That is how the human mind works, but it can lead to the sort of blinkered thinking one sees in books such as How Would Jesus Vote?: A Christian Perspective on the Issues; the authors checked off a long list of issues where Jesus would vote this way or that (Jesus would defund school lunch programs and transfer those resources into higher defense spending, for example). I cannot measure the nerve of publishing a book titled How Would Jesus Vote? and then responding, in effect, “Well, of course, he would vote just like I do!” (Taking the Lord’s name in vain perhaps?) Or Wayne Grudem’s Politics according to the Bible (the Bible tells Grudem, in some passage or another, that climate science is a Democratic myth, for example).

So, a voter score card that describes what the issues are and then only gives you 5-6 hot-button issues is no guide at all. 

To avoid imbalance on the other side, I affirm that people can be more objective or less. That is, I’m not a nihilist when it comes to objectivity, I just believe it’s harder to come by than people imagine!

My pastors for the past couple of decades have generally, I think, been sharp and even-handed when it comes to the Bible and politics. Nevertheless, I do not rely on them or anyone to tell me what the fundamental issues are, nor to give me the correct Christian  viewpoint on, for example, Common Core, Israel and Palestine, climate change, immigration, economic policy, capital punishment, SNAP (“food stamps”), military spending, federal investment into scientific research, school lunches programs, to name a few. In part this is because I study the issues and draw my own conclusions. And in part, I’ve seen too many Christian leaders pull out a predetermined set of Bible verses to support one side or another, and that can lead to reckless exegesis. Or they are “single-issue” voters, who vote with the party that checks the box on their agenda; but the voter stops there and does not work through what it means to accept their whole package. I’m not even going to get into the wild claims or shady statistics or internet rumors, which data do nothing to make me have greater confidence in Christian political gurus. Let us beware of anyone who has a black-and-white Bible answer for every political issue.

God’s Word is there to show us the path of righteousness, but it’s tough going to escape our prior ideological commitments and let the Bible redraw the map of our assumptions. One way to try to dampen down the partisanship is to make a grand effort to identify and address all the questions that the Word of God tells us are important, and not just the issues that appeal to us or our political party. There is no way that I myself am reliably non-partisan or specially illuminated on all political issues; that’s what makes me suspect that other Christian leaders aren’t either.

Yes, the Bible has the answers, but we need to be “exegetically humble” in the way we put our questions to it. People of my generation will remember the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it’s heavily-ironic “Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”. The answer turns out to be “42.” The trouble is, when they finally got the answer from the megacomputer, it then occurred to them that no-one had stopped to think about what the Ultimate Question was.

In the Bible, answers are available, but the Bible also comes as the gift of God to point out to us what (all) the Big Questions are. If not we will inevitably skew the Bible to answer the questions we have decided are the crucial ones.

PS. In this essay I haven’t even explored the issue of Voting Guides which are poorly researched or quote candidates out of context. I just saw a politician or two whose views on giving Israel military support were taken out of context. Question what you hear! 

Related post:

From me: “Christianity and Politics: If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Or does it?“; also “Why I left party politics, and never looked back

Here is a very interesting analysis by a Greek Orthodox Christian, who is pro-life and also raises the issues of Voter Guides. It has to do with the 2016 election, but there is good applicability for other electoral seasons.

Also, our friend Sam has written a very thorough analysis on how to put yourself in the shoes of someone you disagree with. Click: “How Can They Live with Themselves?”

“No, but wait…MY pastor doesn’t tell us how to vote!” by Gary S. Shogren, Ph. D., Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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