In 10 days’ time, on March 24, NSW residents will go to the polls for a State election. Indeed this is the year for elections with all three levels of government being voted upon. Not that readers need to be reminded of this fact. If you are like me, your mailbox, e-mail box and even Christian magazines have been filled with political advertising.
I must confess that at this time I feel nervous. Invariably I have what I call the “awkward political conversation.” It takes two forms. One is with fellow Christians who feel guilty that they are or are not voting for a “Christian” candidate; the other is with those outside the Kingdom of God where the conversation entails correcting the misleading notion that all Christians think or vote in a particular way.
Let’s face reality. There is a huge divergence of opinion on how Christians should approach the topic of politics. It has been over 50 years since Niebuhr wrote his classic work Christ & Culture, and we are still no closer to consensus as to whether Christ is above, with, against or in tension with political culture. Our experience, our Christian heritage, our hermeneutics, our theology and even our eschatology all interact to give all of us a unique take on how we approach this issue.
And then there are the practical issues. If one has the option of voting for an incompetent Christian or a highly competent atheist, what is more desirable? Does the moral Muslim get the nod over the immoral fifth-generation Australian? Is it more desirable to have a distinctly Christian political party or is the model of incarnation more leaning of encouraging Christians in existing parties?
And I haven’t even mentioned the broadest issue of all: whether Christians should be to the Right, Left or indeed Green of the political/ideological spectrum.
So how should Christians deal with the ethics of elections? Ironically, I suspect that most church leaders have not considered the ethical questions posed by each election cycle.
First, I think an ethic of honesty is demanded. I think we should be honest to accept that there is no “one” Christian political approach. There are many. All have implications, some are better than others. But it is the time to move away from simplistic slogans and to encourage all Christians to work through the positives and negatives of all of the broader issues, and come to their own considered conclusions.
Second, I do think there is a role for churches to discuss and preach on these issues and to critically and objectively evaluate, and indeed elevate, political thought. Churches do have a role to play in each election cycle. But I stress the word objective, and I stress that this needs to take place within my first framework of honestly acknowledging that there might not be one candidate or party that is ideal.
The critical aspect here is that the pastor objectively and even-handedly raises thinking and reflection on the issue. It is not the pastor’s role to “get” the congregation to vote a particular way, but to encourage the congregation to prayerfully and intelligently engage with the issue. If this cannot be done in a mature, reflective and even-handed way, then it should not be done.
Third, I maintain that no church should ever advertise or distribute political advertising for any party or individual candidate. Two ethical considerations come into play here.
There is the principle of the weaker believer to which I previously alluded. For the immature Christian it raises issues of confusion. Distributing or allowing the distribution of political material confuses those in our care with the incorrect notion that we are endorsing or suggesting a particular party or candidate.
The other consideration is that it compromises our mission. It is terribly serious that someone outside the Kingdom might have their journey to Christ waylaid due to the stumbling block of thinking that Christianity means such and such a political allegiance, rather than a fully devoted allegiance to Christ.
It is my hope that each of us will reflect on the broader ethical considerations that political elections invite; and that each of us will work hard to prevent elections from becoming a stumbling block to faith and ethics in the minds and hearts of our fellow electors.
Simeon Payne is the Baptist chaplain at the University of Western Sydney and a deacon of Macquarie Fields BaptistC hurch. This column appeared in Soundings, a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson.