There’s a rule, isn’t there, that you should never discuss either religion or politics in polite society? And here we are, taking on both: talking politics from a faith perspective. Some people prefer to keep their religious convictions quite separate from their politics. But that’s not how the author of the first letter to Timothy sees it. For him, faith has a clear connection with the political realm and he is not shy about saying so. It’s the first thing on his agenda: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made . . . for kings and all who are in high positions . . . .” (1Tim. 2:1-2)
We often think of 1Timothy as a model of social conservatism, but, in fact, this admonition to pray for the governing authorities was a radical proposal. It’s radical in two ways. First, the “government” of the day was imperial Rome, a pagan establishment generally hostile to the beliefs and practices of the Jewish and the gentile converts gathering around the new “Jesus movement.” That same government had begun executing these people for their faith starting with the reign of Nero in 64 CE, and yet, here, they were, urged to pray for the governing authorities!
But even more radical was the admonition that the church was to pray for and not to the political leader. The prevailing religion of the time was the Roman Emperor Cult — emperor worship. People prayed to the emperor as to a god. 1 Timothy ‘gets political’ right from the start and makes it clear to his audience that the emperor is not God, there is only “one God” and it is to this one God only that we must pray. Nonetheless, they should pray for the emperor and for all his appointees who exercise political authority because they are human beings like all of us and stand in need of prayer and supplication before God.
So I take my cue from the text and from the fact that, from the beginning, there has always been a connection between faith and politics in the Christian tradition. But exactly what is that connection, and what does it mean for us today? I see our faith calling on us to do three things when it comes to politics: to pray, to vote, and to act.
Let’s begin with what 1 Timothy calls our first responsibility: when it comes to politics, we must pray. For whom should we pray today? In America, we don’t have emperors, we don’t live under a king. When it comes to praying for those who hold political power in our days, we should begin with praying for ourselves. Why? Well, too often we think of our public leaders as if political matters were their responsibility alone and not also the responsibility of each and of all of us. But in a democracy, ‘we, the people’ are the authorities. We elect our public servants, we confer on them the power and authority to govern us. These are perilous times politically in our land. I don’t think we’ve ever faced a presidential election more fraught with consequence than the one that looms ahead. We must begin by praying for ourselves and for each other as we prepare to make some momentous political decisions.
Of course we should not neglect to pray also for our elected public servants and, to my mind, the Episcopal church, because of its prayerbook tradition, has always led the way in this practice. I confess that I often struggle with having to pray in church for an office holder with whom I disagree so strongly politically, but then I consider that that’s the fellow who seems to need prayer the most, right now!
After prayer, the next most important thing we can do is to vote! Voting is not something optional for a Christian, it’s a right, it’s a privilege, and it’s a duty. The job of the political authorities, 1 Timothy tells the church, is to ensure that “. . . we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity . . . .” In a democracy, it’s we who share in the responsibility for seeing that our common life be peaceful and that all might live in dignity as God would want us to live. As Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry put it recently, voting is not just a civic duty, it is “a way of participating in our common life, and that is a Christian obligation.” But only six out of ten eligible voters ever cast a ballot for a president in America, and only 40% of our citizens vote during midterm elections. This is a deplorable situation.
I remember the first time I ever voted. I stepped into the fragile little voting booth and if felt like I was entering a kind of sacred shrine. I recall thinking that our forebears had struggled and shed their blood for this privilege. I told myself that the least I could do was to vote faithfully, to vote my conscience and to select those who, as best I could determine, would have the courage to do the right thing for us all. Voting, in the end, is an act of love — love for our neighbor, love for our community, love for our nation and the world. And what could be more in the spirit of “Christ Jesus . . . who gave himself a ransom for all,” as 1 Timothy puts it, than this? Christian, vote; it’s how you show your love!
But exactly how should we vote? Which candidate should we support? How should we act, politically? My answer will certainly disappoint some. I believe our religious leaders should fervently exhort us to pray and to vote, but should never tell us who it is they think we should vote for, or what political party we should support. That’s not a cop-out, it’s a matter of integrity, the integrity of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must never be equated with any political stance. God is not a conservative or a progressive, God’s not a Republican or a Democrat. All politics are human and subject to error. No political position should ever be preached as the Gospel because God’s Word will never equate exactly with any political platform, no matter how ardently some religion-based proponents try to convince you otherwise.
Politics is not God, and God’s will is never a perfect match for our political agendas. Religious people, especially, should remember that. As former Senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth suggests in his thoughtful book, The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics, (Random House, 2015), when we sanctify our political positions and treat them as if they were Gospel, we commit idolatry. And, he goes on to say, absolutizing our politics makes it impossible to compromise with others. If there is anything we need in politics today, it is the spirit of reconciliation. As 1 Timothy puts it, “God our Savior . . . desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” God is no partisan, God wants what is best for everyone, and we, as God’s People must stand for that, for the common good, for the welfare of all. That stance is a gift that we as Christians and ministers of reconciliation can offer to the divided and deadlocked politics of our day.
So, here’s the bottom line: when you are making up your mind in this political season, ask yourself, how close do the political candidates I’m considering come to seeking the common good and the welfare of all? What our current politics of self-interest needs to hear most from people of faith is the insistence that we must serve interests that are greater than our own. That is the essential Gospel message: that the common welfare must be upheld over personal advantage; that we are called first, last, and always to love one another; that the poor among us, having a special place in God’s heart, should never be forgotten by us; and that we are called to be loving stewards of God’s good creation. That’s the Gospel, that’s what we are to pray for, to vote for and to act upon.
There you have it: an impolitic essay written for people of faith in a political season with the hope that they might have an impact on our not-so-polite society!
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2016