Column: Should Christians vote?

The writer is a United Church of God pastor and regular columnist for The Journal.

By Melvin Rhodes

DEWITT, Mich.--Some years ago one of Britain's most serious newspapers, the liberal Manchester Guardian, featured considerable correspondence over the course of weeks on the question: Can a Christian be a conservative?

Anybody on the American side of the Atlantic would naturally express consternation at this question. In the United States the question would be: Can a Christian be a liberal? Religious people in the United States are assumed to be conservatives, while the reverse is more the case in the United Kingdom and throughout Western Europe.

In Europe Christians have been at the forefront of social reforms. John and Charles Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church three centuries ago, were driven by a desire to change society as much by their love of the Scriptures.

A century later William Wilberforce and his followers campaigned vigorously for the abolition of slavery.

The Victorian era saw many great and positive social reforms, including the beginnings of modern nursing through the influence and personal example in the Crimean War of Florence Nightingale; penal reform accomplished largely by the efforts of Elizabeth Fry; and the establishment, by Gen. William Booth towards the end of the 19th century, of the Salvation Army, which still helps the poor and needy throughout the world.

More recently mainstream Christians were in the lead when it came to campaigning against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, colonialism, apartheid, the death penalty, racism and poverty.

They are still campaigning. Now the issues are gay rights, animal rights and other "progressive" causes.

American child abuse

British and American Christianity recently clashed over the visit of two Americans who have been delivering conservative messages on child rearing to churches in the United States.

In Britain a coalition of 200 churches criticized the couple for "child abuse" before the pair even got there. (It should be added, however, that the witnesses brought forward were all Americans disillusioned with the program.)

The two nations' churches would clash, too, over the issue of gun control, with churches in Europe taking a strong antigun stance. Outside of America, conservatives generally advocate the strictest gun laws.

Implications of voting

Why do I mention all this?

The Oct. 25 issue of The Journal included a letter ["Get Out and Ballot!," by Vivian Milks, page 5] encouraging us to get out and vote in the November elections and to take an active part in the political process.

This may sound fine, but it is an issue that needs to be thought through because some serious implications arise.

Considering the above, who would a Christian vote for, conservatives or liberals? National temperament, historical developments and different priorities could result in a divided church.

My wife and I lived in Rhodesia during the civil war there. Rhodesia is a country in southern Africa that had rebelled against Britain in much the same way the American colonies had rebelled in 1776. Which side should a Christian have been on during such a rebellion?

Scriptures that tell us to "honor the king" (2 Peter 2:17) and to "render unto Caesar" (Matthew 22:21) suggest loyalty to the legal power no matter what.

However, that would have pitted us against many of those around us with whom we daily had to interact.

The issues became more complicated when the African majority turned against the white minority, with the Africans rebelling against a government that was itself rebelling against England. Which side should African church members have been on?

Which side should American church members have been on during the Revolutionary War?

Australians recently had to decide between loyalty to the queen or replacing her with a figurehead president. Which side should Christians have taken?

What should we do when two nations dispute? One reason Europeans are so cynical about religion is that churches blessed both sides in all the conflicts of recent history. Every Christian nation thinks God is on its side when it goes to war. Is Christ divided? (1 Corinthians 1:13).

A recent book by John Cornwell (Hitler's Pope) shows the role the church played in advancing the cause of the Third Reich and in wiping out the Jews during the Holocaust.

Freedom of conscience imperiled

History gives us many examples of what happens when Christians get involved in politics.

The Crusades are one of the best examples. After Christ failed to return at the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, the pope had to focus the minds of the disillusioned somewhere.

A holy war against Muslims was called for, and three centuries of conflict against the Arabs began.

After the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics went for each other with a ferocity that is unbelievable today (though the Churches of God haven't set a good example in this area either).

Reformation leaders who demanded freedom of conscience for themselves then denied it to their own followers.

Some of the European colonialists justified all kinds of inhumanity as they tried to "save" the natives of countries they invaded. Slavery was supported by quoting Scripture, as was apartheid in this century.

Is anything different?

Modern-day Inquisitors

I've often heard people in God's church be supportive of the religious right in the United States. The religious right's conservative agenda on the surface looks good to any Christian. It advocates a return to family values. It campaigns against gay rights, pornography, abortion, too-easy divorce and sex outside of marriage, while advocating closer family ties and tougher laws to protect families.

But what would happen if the religious right were ever in power?

Given domination of Congress, the possibilities are endless. History shows us nothing can stop a movement driven by religious zeal. Remember the Inquisition?

Closer to home were the Salem witch trials 300 years ago. Yes, they were in colonial times, but the secular authority had broken down during the Glorious Revolution taking place in England at the time, in 1688, to be replaced by unbridled religious authority.

The descendants of those who perpetrated the crimes are still around, the same people with the same temperament. It's no coincidence that the founding fathers of the United States drew up a constitution that did not allow any one religion to dominate others.

In writing of the events leading up to the American Revolution, American historian Gordon Wood shows the similarities between America and England and quotes French philosopher Voltaire, who wrote in the 18th century: "If there were only one religion in England we should have to fear despotism; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness" (The Radicalization of the American Revolution, page 14). The same is true of America.

Christian excess

The same Puritans who gave us Thanksgiving contributed greatly to the English Civil War, which led to a period of dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. He banned Christmas, and his forces destroyed the idols in the churches.

But after he was gone the people were so angry at his period of enforced righteousness that they dug up his body, decapitated it and dragged the corpse through the streets of London. They then welcomed the return of one of the most morally degenerate monarchs in history, Charles II, preferring his behavior to the Christian excesses of his predecessor.

Nearer to our own time, remember Prohibition, the disastrous policy of religious people who wanted to impose their own values on others, inadvertently giving the biggest boost to organized crime in modern history?

Given power, how long would it be before the religious right introduced a national day of rest? Guess which day it would be? Do you seriously think the separation of church and state would save us?

A six-day working week was the norm in the United States until fairly recently. Observance of the seventh-day Sabbath was possible only for those in farming, where people could determine their own hours. All of those in industry or the retail trade were required to work a full six days. Sunday was the only day of rest.

Even the Constitution cannot be relied upon to protect us. History shows that constitutions are not worth the paper they are written on. Given the right circumstances, they can be torn up, or, in the United States, reinterpreted.

In a national crisis governments can be given much greater power, which can then be used against others. Franklin Roosevelt's powers during World War II enabled his administration to round up all people of Japanese descent and others of Asiatic background. Even after the war Sen. Joseph McCarthy was able to systematically persecute those suspected of communist sympathies, ruining many careers in the process.

Liberals do not coerce

Liberals certainly do have their problems, and their reasoning will astound any Bible-believing Christian, but they have one thing going for them that benefits us greatly: They believe everybody should be free to do his own thing. This has given us a morally degenerate society, but it has also enabled us to thrive as a community of believers. As long as we leave them alone, we should also be left alone.

To liberals, religion is irrelevant. All religions are the same. Therefore, no matter how different we might be, we have the right to exist the same as anybody else.

Until Christ returns and establishes the kind of theocracy we want to live under, it would be best for us to leave the status quo alone. When it comes to getting involved in politics, His words resound to this day:

"My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).

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