* * *
This morning, a nationally prominent seminarian declared to social media that, ‘Failure to vote is a failure of Christian conscience and a failure of Christian stewardship.’ He packs quite a rhetorical punch: all that hypnotic repetition of failure and Christian-as-adjective with a touch of alliteration for flavor. I don’t see very much Christian truth under the rhetoric.
The failure I see in this election day reflection is indeed a failure of stewardship: it’s the failure of Mr. Mohler to steward his national platform in a way that proclaims the actual gospel, which he instead attempts to employ in shaming his following into heading to the polls. What Mr. Mohler is doing here is, giving the benefit of the doubt to a professing Christian whom I do not know personally, at best a display of weak conscience more informed and easily pricked by a politically hyperactive stream of American culture than by anything I’ve seen in Scripture. In that case, this statement is a contradiction of the principle of conscience at the heart of Romans 14—namely that each Christian should have the freedom to live according to their conscience without judgment from those with a weaker conscience (notably also without holding those of a weaker conscience [Paul says ‘a weaker faith’] in contempt, so I better tread carefully). At worst, though, Mohler’s statement could evidence a tragic transaction wherein he lays his personal justification on an altar of control through political influence. Either way, it’s disappointing and frustrating to see a prominent cultural voice who claims to represent evangelical Christians make such a polarizing and alienating statement from his elevated platform. In our age, can we all pause for a moment and weep for nuance?
It is very much possible to follow every political exhortation in Scripture without voting. Namely to submit to governing authority because it was put in place by God, at least up until you are asked to violate the basic tenets of Christian faith (Romans 12) and to pray for political leaders while living peaceful, godly, holy lives (I Timothy 2). Of course, it is not always easy to do either of these things, especially under a government with whom you disagree. And perhaps that fuels some of this voting frenzy: if we can just mobilize enough compatriots to make the government match our convictions then life will be comfortable. If that motivation drives Christians to the polls, then I think there are deeper issues to address.
It is very much possible to imagine an American Christian who is willing to submit to the government his countrymen so choose because he is going to go on loving and serving his local community no matter which political whim prevails on the changing wind. That Christian doesn’t need a government to address any national crisis because he sees his role as rightly limited to being salt and light to those actually within his sphere of influence. (In fact, if more Christians embodied such a lifestyle, perhaps there would be fewer crises from the midst of which we would look to government for a solution.) He doesn’t need vicarious victory through the success national platform because his living is personal and not vicarious, and he knows he is just a small part of a large body. He trusts that the same Spirit who guides his charity and witness guides the whole body and so the work of God will be done with or without the meager forces of legislature and judiciary behind it.That Christian also knows and derives an unshakable peace from this: that he is free and inviolably so, that neither man nor government can take away the freedom which God has given him, and at their worst can only give him momentary discomfort as he continues to exercise his freedom to serve God and love his fellow man.
If such a Christian exists and he chooses to stay home on election day with his convictions that government is no thing to hope in and a thing more swayed by leavening his community than by casting a ballot, then God bless him. If such a Christian exists and he stands up the pollsters as an act of protest against the laughable offers a politician might make and goes about living in a way that confounds any political agenda by its generosity and insistence on dignity, then God bless him.
Now, I think I understand the point Mohler is making and I don’t want to do him the disservice of turning him into a straw man. I think his real foe is not the Christian I just described, but rather an apathetic one who fails to exercise a historically rare privilege out of laziness or gross cynicism rather than any informed conviction. In that case, I would say indeed such a Christian fails to steward an opportunity given to him by God. But, just as there are Christians who don’t vote for the wrong reasons, so are there Christians who do vote for the wrong reasons—misplaced hope and a horrific expectation that their neighbors ought to be conformed to cold law rather than won over by the warmth of Christian community. Unfortunately, Mohler’s sound byte makes no space or nuance for multiple kinds of Christians but rather expects to bind all Christians to the constraints of his own conscience, and that is the real failure.