As theological debates on sexuality and marriage become more and more central, many Christian denominations are being asked to clarify their views.
First and foremost, a Christian vote is a vote for others.
Much has been said about the ‘Christian vote’, an expression often associated with those nasty right-wing religious nuts imposing their morals on a secular society.
Given that in many democracies around the world the majority of the population still call themselves Christian, at least according to census records, it is important to clarify what the Christian vote really means.
Christians should be willing to change voting patterns after Christian reflection on particular policies. A believer who cannot imagine voting for the ‘other side’ has either determined only one party aligns with the will of God or, more likely, is actually more attached to their cultural context than to the wisdom of scripture. Voting patterns, of believers or otherwise, are sometimes based on little more than family heritage or geographical location. This is unreflective and sub-Christian.
Equally inadequate is voting for a candidate simply because he or she is a Christian. This is religious favouritism. Having Christians in parliament is no guarantee — or even indicator — that a nation will be marked by peace, justice, compassion and truth.
For the first 300 years of Christianity — until Emperor Constantine — believers had no representation in government. That didn’t stop them establishing hospices and food programs and experiencing spectacular missionary expansion. I wouldn’t be the only historian who doesn’t dispute the argument Christianity has often fared better without political authority.
That said, to deny Christians a voice in contemporary society would be ridiculous. Despite low weekly church attendance, recent surveys reveal that Australia, where I live, has high rates of Christian belief. And Australia is certainly not unique in producing these types of statistics; many democracies around the world can lay claim to similar (and in some cases higher) rates of Christian belief. While these countries rightly have secular governments, they are not ‘secular countries’.
So, what principles guide the ‘Christian vote’?
First and foremost, a Christian vote is a vote for others. It is basic to the Christian outlook that life is to be devoted to the good of others before ourselves. In the political realm, Christians should use whatever influence they have to contribute to others, to ‘consider others better’ than themselves.
Typically, the small business operator decides to vote for the party that promises to do more for small business. Union members vote for the party guaranteeing more power to the unions. Company managers with staffing issues tend to support the party offering the most flexible industrial relations policy. Such voting considerations are inadequate for Christians, who will endeavour to put private interests aside and seek to serve the wider community.
Secondly, the moral health of our community will provide another motivation for the Christian vote. This is a tricky one to explain (to believers as well as non-believers). The church has no right to try and impose a Christian moral code on the country. That said, Christians believe a society’s health depends (in part) on living as God designed. You can’t blame believers for pondering which party or policies will promote those values: justice, harmony, sexual responsibility, honesty, family and mercy.
I suspect that most believers are thoughtful enough not to expect a non-Christian prime minister or president to live by Christian ideals in every case. Just because a politician doesn’t pray should not – in the opinion of a believer – disqualify them for high office. It would be different if a prime minister/president were found to be having an affair. That should deeply trouble Christians (and many others) because it would call into question the leader’s self-control, faithfulness and integrity in relationships, qualities crucial for leadership. Christians should not separate ethics from competency.
The moral concerns of Christians invite the designation ‘right-wing’ and ‘conservative’. The tag isn’t entirely inaccurate, though in other respects the Christian view will appear ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’. The gospels make clear Jesus was a right-wing liberal and a left-wing conservative.
Thirdly, Christians should think of promoting the Christian message. The missionary dimension of Christianity runs deep. Is one party better for this than another? One day, a particular policy may work against a Christian’s freedom to proclaim Christ. In that case, Christians would be sensible to vote to prevent that outcome.
Finally, Christians will principally have in mind the poor and powerless. The mandate for this throughout scripture is overwhelming. Voting for the underprivileged in society has traditionally been seen as a vote for the party that represents the working class (usually Labour or similar). Others argue the most effective way of helping the poor and weak is to increase prosperity at the top so that wealth can trickle down to those who need it most. This has traditionally been put by Conservatives.
I don’t make a judgment about either model, but underline that a Christian vote is one sincerely motivated by a concern for the disadvantaged, be they elderly, unemployed, homeless or seeking asylum.
For Christians (and, of course, for others too), the bottom line is not the bottom line. If you live in the West then it is highly probable you enjoy the prosperity that flows from living in the developed world. The economic bottom line, then, is just a tool for opening up greater national goods.
Christians ought to resist the temptation to vote for the party they think will shave more off their tax bill or add a percentage point more to GDP. They should be thinking of others. Nothing else can be called a Christian vote.
Dr John Dickson is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity.