The rule – the operating assumption, that is – in a democratic republic is that everyone will vote for the candidate who will best advance that voter’s self-interest.
It’s democracy because, supposedly, everyone gets to vote her or his self-interest, and, ideally, each self-interested vote has equal value – the principle of “one person one vote.”
It’s a republican form of democracy because equal citizens are voting for the candidate who will best represent their various self-interests, over against each citizen voting her or his self-interest on every issue.
One problem, of course, is how an elected official in such a democratic republic can represent so many different, and even opposing, self-interests.
And a different but related problem is how equality in the political process can be assured if one collection of self-interests constitutes a majority, elects a candidate to represent only that majority’s self-interests, and thereby leaves the self-interests of the minority unrepresented on an ongoing basis.
The constitutional designer, political theorist and civic theologian James Madison further complicated the situation by positing that these “factions” of self-interest were likely to be based on the unequal distribution of wealth.
He contended (see Federalist No. 10) that these dilemmas could best be addressed by designing a form of government in which the negative effects of factions could be minimized or controlled by having the representatives of the people (with their various or factionalized self-interest) come from election districts that are sufficiently large in population that: (a) a greater number of self-interested voters and self-interested factions would be at play, (b) there would likely be more competent candidates running for office with different configurations of how to deal with the varieties of self-interests, and (c) there would be a greater variety of self-interests and self-interested-based factions operating so as not to make a particular majority permanent (and thus permanently harmful to the minority).
We see all of this continuing to operate, more or less successfully, in the current elections, whether it be in races for the presidency (insofar as the Electoral College is based on electors in the states and not on a popular vote) and for the Senate and House of Representatives.
What is interesting and important to note is that the whole system of our democratic republic is based on the premise, the assumption, the rule of self-interest: that in our American political process citizens will and should base their vote on their own self-interest.
Yes, there was at our origin as a nation, and at some periods of our history, an accompanying notion of the “common good,” but self-interest has been a more prominent characteristic of our political theory. That seems particularly to be the case at present.
My question is whether the individual Christian – and possibly the “faction” or “factions” of Christians – should be the exception to the rule.
Put another way: Should the Christian vote on the basis of her or his self-interest? Or is the Christian obligated by her or his faith to vote on a different basis?
When the sons of Zebedee (the disciples James and John) come to Jesus to ask that they be placed on his left and right hand when Jesus comes into his glory, they are operating on their self-interest – over against, that is, what would likely be the self-interest of the other disciples or other followers of Jesus.
Jesus tells the brothers that if they are able to stick with him in the trials he is to face and all that goes with his baptism, yes, they can be his companions. But, Jesus says, it isn’t his call to determine whether the self-interest of the brothers can trump the self-interest of others.
And then Jesus explains to all of his disciples what he means: that, true enough, earthly rulers (read: elected officials) can operate in their governing through ways that serve their own self-interest as rulers.
He could well have added that the rulers, with their political authority, could elect to favor the self-interest of some of that ruler’s constituency over the self-interest of others, probably on the basis of what served the ruler’s self-interest.
But Jesus then says: “But it is not so among you, for whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.”
That would seem to apply, in our political context, to Christians running for public office: that if they are truly followers of Jesus, they must not exercise their political leadership either on the basis of their own self-interest or on the self-interest of particular individuals and factions of individuals.
No, as Christians, they must exercise their political leadership so all are served. They are to be the “slave of all.”
Clear enough. That might be the primary question Christian voters ask of political candidates who claim to be Christians.
Is, however, this different rule applicable only to Christian candidates for political office and Christian political leaders?
Does it also apply as well to Christian voters?
Put it this way: If, in a democratic republic, “we the people” are to be the “rulers,” then doesn’t it follow that the Christian voter must not vote on the basis of her or his self-interest, or in a way that benefits the “faction” of Christians?
Doesn’t it follow that the Christian voter is under obligation to vote for the self-interest of others, not herself or himself, but on the basis of providing for those without the power of the majority, or the power of wealth, or the power of influence?
Doesn’t it follow that, if we are to be the slaves of all, we must resurrect the principle of the common good?
Isn’t the Christian voter to be, in a democratic republic, the exception to the rule of self-interest in politics? There may be others – non-Christians – who also embrace this exceptional stance for their own civic and religious reasons, but isn’t it particularly incumbent upon the followers of Jesus?
The Apostle Paul seems to have understood this when he wrote the following to the Christians in Philippi: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1-4).
That, for the apostle, was what it meant to have the same mind that was in Christ, who “though in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:5-7).
It is an invitation, in our democratic republic, to be an exception to the rule of typical political theory, and to be faithful to the rule of Christ.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.