As I write this, it is polling day for the 2012 US election. Within a few hours, we’ll know whether the most powerful man in the world for the next four years will be Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. Polling indicates that, while Obama has a lead in the swing states that are needed to win, that lead is very small and, frankly, the election is on a knife edge.
In the US, most evangelicals support Romney – and a notable US blog, for example, proclaims “I would hope that all who love the Scriptures would agree that we should not vote for President Obama”. However, in the UK (and I suspect the rest of the non-US world) most evangelicals support Obama – and many would doubt that any sane Christian could vote for Romney.
What I want to look at in this post is the theology behind voting. I want to argue that, while Christianity should affect all aspects of our life (including our politics), there cannot be a “correct” candidate for a Christian to vote for. I will argue for this on the basis of the doctrine of sola scriptura, which evangelicals – like all protestant Christians – adhere to (in theory, at least).
Sola scriptura teaches that the only theological source and ultimate authority over a Christian is the Bible (governments and other authorities exist, but are only authoritative insofar as the Bible teaches that one should obey them – their authority is derived from the Bible, rather than ultimate.) Everything that we need to know to live a godly life is there in the Bible.
Of course, most decisions in life – personal as well as political – aren’t covered by the Bible. For example, when I was deciding whether to study for my current degree, the Bible never told me “thou shalt study for an MSt if thou getteth the chance”. Instead, I had to use “wisdom” – that is, to reflect on the details of my situation and options in the light of biblical principles. My decision was based on the Bible, but on the Bible in context.
If I were to, for example, talk with a church leader in that context, it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to tell me what to do. It might be if it was a situation where the consequence of a Biblical principle was easy to derive. For example, if I’d gone to them asking whether it was OK to marry a dog.
In that context, to tell me no would be legitimate. The reason it would be legitimate is because we can tell from the Bible that bestiality is wrong. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be the church leader teaching me not to marry a dog, it would be the Bible.
However, most life decisions the Bible doesn’t address in this way. In choosing to do my course, I had to consider any number of factors. The Bible never told me what to do, or what not to do. But there were any number of biblical principles to consider – e.g. being a good steward of money, it being good to learn about God, etc etc etc. It would be legitimate for my church leader to teach me to get my ideas about the principles in order – but it would be my responsibility to make the decision itself.
That’s true even when there are things about the Bible which are hard to interpret. It’s OK for a church leader to teach his or her congregation how to think about bits of the Bible where there are multiple interpretations of what the Bible teaches (although it is important that they themselves are open to challenge).
What isn’t good is for the church leader to say how that applies to the decisions of everyday life which are more complex. Our decisions are impacted not just by bible knowledge but also by the knowledge and understanding that we have about our own situation. There’s two sides to that, only one of which is in the domain of the preacher.
If the Bible teaches something – even in a less than clear way – there is an authoritative teaching we should listen to. However, that doesn’t mean that any application of that principle into the complexity of everyday life is necessarily true, unless the Bible has a specific teaching about something.
Now, when it comes to politics, and our decisions about who to vote about, there’s almost nothing that political parties debate about that any principle of the Bible can clearly say “yes” or “no” about. The Bible does tell us that we should care about people unable to support their families as a result of the recession; it doesn’t tell us whether Romney or Obama have a better economic policy to deal with the issues. We might think that one or the other are clearly right or wrong – and we might think that the other side are stupid for disagreeing with us – but we can’t claim biblical authority for that opinion.
Some people might point to specific issues (e.g. of religious conscience or whatever) as being issues where the Bible tells us what to do. But these issues are such a small part of the good or evil that a politician might be able to do. (Furthermore, I think that Christians often overestimate how clear the application of the Bible is to these issues.)
In the whole complexity of political decisions, it is frankly bizarre to me that people think they can say that the correct Christian opinion is to vote for Obama or Romney. If you’re an evangelical, you can call the other political side incompetent. You can call them stupid. But you can’t call them unchristian.