Thursday, March 15, 2007

Voting Christianly

Recently the Sydney Anglican Media website (and in the print version, Southern Cross) has published a number of articles on politics and voting in the lead-up to the NSW state election next weekend.

In particular, this article by an old friend of mine started off so well, criticising an individualistic approach to voting in which I threaten to vote for another party unless my needs are met. This attitude is expressed in the well-known bumper-sticker (with endless variations): "I hunt/fish/drive a 4WD/practise origami and I vote".

The author then goes on to assert: 'A better attitude is “I am a member of society and I vote for its good.”' With this I wholeheartedly agree. This generous attitude is implicitly linked to Christianity's critique of selfishness: 'I want you to vote Christianly rather than for self-interest.'

Unfortunately, these excellent points are then somewhat undermined when the article goes on to articulate how to 'vote Christianly': 'I implore you to make your vote count… not necessarily along your party lines but on the basis of how the policies will affect Christians.' Why just Christians? I realise that we are to especially do good to those of the household of faith (Galatians 6.10), but let's not forget the first half of the verse: 'So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.' Why restrict our deliberations on social goods to Christians? Isn't this just a slightly expanded form of the very selfishness criticised at the start of the article? 'For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?' (Matthew 5.46-47)

At the heart of voting Christianly is love for neighbour. I care who is elected because I care for my neighbour.

I heartily applaud the efforts Glenn (the author) has gone to in his local area to engage the local candidates and try to get his congregation to think about their political involvement, but the very limited range of questions he asked them implies that Christians are an interest group just like any other.* Someone may say: 'everyone else looks out for their interests, why can't we look out for ours?' Because we follow Jesus. The interests of others are more imporant than looking out for ourselves (Philippians 2.4). I would rather vote for a party that was going to create a society in which the poor were cared for and Christians persecuted, than one in which Christians were given priviledges and the poor oppressed.**
*I picked on Glenn's article because his was most explicit about this approach, however, the assumption is implicit in a number of recent pieces.
**I realise that the freedom to proclaim the good news about Jesus is a great blessing, not to be lightly lost. However, in defending this freedom, I think we should be arguing that the freedom to persuade others of what is true is an important aspect of the common good, rather than trying to stand up for 'our rights' as a minority group. O'Donovan even argues that the Western value on freedom of speech arises out of the Christian imperative to proclaim the good news.


Martin Kemp said...

I would rather vote for a party that was going to create a society in which the poor were cared for and Christians persecuted, than one in which Christians were given privileges and the poor oppressed

I would rather a society where the poor are cared for and the right to preach is upheld, and I want to work towards a situation where we don't end up with an either/or.

I also think it's worth considering that perhaps some of those who 'vote for the gospel' are actually voting for what they see as the good of society. They would say that voting 'Christianly' is a vote for what's best for everyone and that greater social care would be a result. Some of them might not be as self interested as we think.

michael jensen said...

I wholeheartedly agree Byron: we don't vote Christianly by protecting the rights of Christians. That just makes us like everyone else. We are NOT an interest group.

Mister Tim said...

We are an interest group - I must respecctfully disagree with Michael.

We are trying to change our society. We have ideas about how society should look and we are trying to make them happen. Mostly we do it 'on the ground' through evangelism; sometimes we influence the political process. Only our motivation is different - we are trying to make changes to the glory of God and to the benefit of society as a whole and we do it (or should) with an attitude of love. Then again, one could describe the environmental movement as an interest group trying to make a change for the good of scoety as a whole, acting not just in their own interests.

I was also thinking about this from much the same perspective as Marty: one could define voting 'Christianly' broadly but let's say assume that it's pro-ability to tell the gospel, anti-abortion, ant-gay marriage, pro-scripture in schools. A Christian who priorities voting for these things could well be coming from a perspective of love to others, believing that these are in all people's interest, whether they realise it or not.

Of course, this whole thing is not an either/or - but it is a question of priorities. Using my example above, what should we prioritise more if we can't have everything - a strong stance on abortion, or anti-poverty? One is about protecting life, the other making it more comfortable.

Of course, the whole thing is more complex and I think we can have it all - or at least try to - if not all on election day, then through political advocacy and 'on the ground' direct social action in between times.

Sorry this is a bit rambling - thinking it through myself as I write. The only Christian 'right' that we really need to preserve is the right to live for Christ - to meet as Christians, preach the gospel, and be Christ-like. I assume this is not threatened too much (even the Victorian case referred to in the article you linked to was overturned on appeal). So then, everything else Christians are commonly seen to advocate for is not about the rights of Christians, but about how we think society is best ordered.

That said, in a question of priorities, if I had to choose I would rather a government who would take action against poverty than one who would protect the Christian definition of marriage.

byron smith said...

perhaps some of those who 'vote for the gospel' are actually voting for what they see as the good of society.
Marty - this is what I was trying to get at in my second footnote. I didn't express it very clearly. I am all for freedom of speech, and think it a high priority in considering potential governments, but I don't think Christians should conceive of it as 'protecting our rights like other groups'. It is precisely for society's good that we (and everyone else) be free to share what God has done in Christ.

And yes, far better would be to not have to choose, but for the sake of a little polemics, I wanted to highlight that concern for neighbour, not defence of self (and those like me), ought to be our primary reference in political action.

Tim - I agree that we are trying to change society and yes, would see closer affinities to the environmental movement than, say, the Horse Riders Party or the Outdoor Recreation Party or the Shooters Party or the Fishing Party. All of the latter are sectional interests looking out for their own good (primarily - at least that is what their name indicates). I also agree that many Christians think and vote with the common good in mind, not just the-good-for-the-church. My post was simply to express concern at some specific articles that seemed to shift the focus from the common good to the good for Christians.

(And yes, the specific claims made about Victoria seemed (in my limited knowledge) to be quite inflated.)

Thus - I think we're in substantial agreement (though I assume your example of what a Christian might find important issues were selected based on common stereotype rather than personal belief - I assume you would include numerous other issues in there too: poverty, justice, reconciliation, environmental responsibility, corporate governance, etc. etc. etc.),* and your point about being able to 'have it all' (or aim for it all) in political advocacy is also important. However, I still agree with Michael, that we are not an interest group like the Shooters, the Riders, the Fishers or the Outdoor Recreators. Part of the difference is not simply that we have a broader vision than just ourselves, but that we have a broader vision than just one or two issues.

*Also, for example, it's quite possible for Christians to be anti-abortion while not being pro-anti-abortion legislation - that is, to believe that there are more important, urgent and effective ways of protecting the unborn than through seeking legal prohibition (cf. suicide: I'm anti-suicide but don't think re-criminalisation is the best way forward).

Drew said...

Thanks Byron - a great comment, and I very much share your sentiments.

A few thoughts - Christians are, to a degree, agnostic when it comes to government. That is to say, our responsibilities as Christians do not change with a change in government. Which is why I think we find democracy so confusing - we are given a choice to exercise. How to exercise it, when we are so ambivalent about human governance?

Secondly, it is very difficult to determine what is in the best interests of society. Was persecuting the church? Perhaps yes, but evaluating this is impossible.

Thirdly, perhaps Michael was suggesting that we are in no way a unified interest group. However, we may be part of other interest groups...

byron smith said...

our responsibilities as Christians do not change with a change in government.
Though the specific shape of which battles we fight might change.

we are so ambivalent about human governance
Yes, human government is both a blessing from God - rulers are God's servants to do us good - and yet potentially beastly when they seek to claim supreme power beyond their jurisdiction.

Secondly, it is very difficult to determine what is in the best interests of society.
True, but we have to try. Just because this is a complex question ought not to paralyse us, though it ought to make us humble and quick to listen to other suggestions and comments. Though God can bring good out of evil (like growing the church through persecution), we ought never seek evil for the sake of good.

Thirdly, perhaps Michael was suggesting that we are in no way a unified interest group. However, we may be part of other interest groups
It is true that part of what makes it difficult to speak of 'the Christian vote' is the variety of answers Christians arrive at in our deliberation upon the common good. However, I'm not sure that this is what Michael was getting at. I think he was saying that we don't look out for our own interests, but for the interests of others (Philipppians 2.4). Hence, even insofar as we are part of other groups with interests, we ought to look to the common good: my neighbour's good, rather than the good for me.

byron smith said...

Here's a useful little article by John Dickson on 'Voting Christianly'. H/T tdix.

Drew said...

Thanks Byron for completing my thoughts :)

And yes, Michael was making a different point - guilty as charged!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Good post. As usual when O'Donovan actually says something true and useful, he is old hat, hardly original. It has long been shown that the earliest defenders of free speech were Christians who belonged to dissenting bodies--i.e., they were not state churches and their free speech was restricted by state churches who didn't want them proclaiming "heresy." But these dissenters, prominently including Anabaptists, Baptists, Quakers, etc. did not argue just for their own free speech and religious liberty: they defended it for others, including Jews and "Mohammedans," as Muslims were then known.

Anthony Douglas said...

In Glenn's defence, Byron, he may be merely guilty of ambiguity. How an election outcome 'affects Christians' might well be shorthand for 'affects the ability of Christians to keep working for the good of society' rather than 'protects our rights' - given his immediate choice of example.

Other than that, I'm with you. Except that the question is virtually irrelevant - none of the major parties have any policy that I can see will affect Christians one way or the other. So I have to vote on the basis of how they will affect the people I'd like to affect...

byron smith said...

Good post. As usual when O'Donovan actually says something true and useful, he is old hat, hardly original.
MWW - you really have it in for poor old Oliver, don't you? He actually links free speech not to post-Reformation Europe, but to the experience of the early Church at Pentecost, where the Spirit was poured out even on slaves. If even a slave might be speaking the Word of God, we must listen carefully to everyone. Is that an old hat move?

Anthony - I may have got Glenn wrong (and hope I have), but the linked website at his church seemed to imply that it was our rights that were important.

And does your response mean you would only ever consider voting for a major party? I just heard on the radio that one in five of those trapped on the trains yesterday are going to vote for the Greens or vote informally. We'll have to see if they maintain the rage until Saturday...

psychodougie said...

i assume those promising to vote green were doing it with the assumption that their vote would not get the greens into power - rather be a protest to the incumbents, who they knew would receive their vote anyway.
they're just making them earn it the hard way (ie, through the filtering down of preferences).

although still unclear about our responsibility as law-abiding citizens to vote formally (as opposed to donkey voting), that may make a stronger point than voting for the greens (neither of which do i either dis- or en-courage).

byron smith said...

Doug - voting Greens may be an effective protest vote in at least three ways. In the upper house, it directly affects the number of seats they may win (including the very real possibility of holding the balance of power). In the lower house in NSW, it is possible to vote for one (or two or three) candidates and then stop without your vote being declared informal (unlike in Federal elections, where unless you number every box for the House of Reps, it's invalid). Thus, preferences can be limited by those who wish to protest. Furthermore, as I understand it, the percentage of primary votes a party gets directly affects their funding for next election. Thus, voting for a minor party first helps them do better next time (or gives them a voice to do better if they have anything worthwhile to say). Finally, voting first for a minor party shows up in the results and will be analysed by the media and noticed by the major parties. If, for instance, the Greens get a significant minority (and a significantly larger minority than last time), then the major parties might think about being more environmentally responsible in order to win back those voters who they've lost. Thus, it's possible to shift the terms of the debate slightly.

As far as I am aware, I don't think there is any legal obligation to give a formal vote (you just have to turn up and take a balllot paper - not sure that you even have to put it in the ballot box). Christianly, I suspect that we have an obligation to love our neighbour. If you think that this is best served by a donkey vote, then go ahead (though I suspect that we have not yet reached that stage). BTW Some Christians in the Anabaptist tradition believe that Christians ought not to vote at all. See the discussion back here.

Unknown said...

I'm glad to see there's at least some Christians trying to wrestle with the question of how to honour God and love our neighbours within our political system.

I had a chat with a first year student at Uni yesterday who "hates" that he has to vote now, and has no idea about what he's voting for, or what any policies are, or even what the state government is involved in :-(

However, as far as the discussion goes, I agree with Byron that we shouldn't simply think of "protecting Christian rights" with our votes.

I'm thinking particular of the "Scripture in Schools" issue. I'm less interested in what people are going to do about it at the polls (if it's even really an issue at all!) and more interested in what they have been doing about it! Why get so worked up on the one day of the year when the rest of the time, a huge percentage of schools across our state have little or no Scripture anyway because it's fallen off the agenda of our churches!

Anonymous said...

As Anthony said, my guilt probably lies in ambiguity. My candidates all knew that my parishioners will evaluate them based on their public policies. But the questions we asked, not limited to the three on notice, were specific to Christians.

This does not make us an interest group, but draws out the ramifications of specific policies that are not under the public spotlight.

And as Martin Kemp suggested, if we lose our rights to preach then we lose our right to work for the good of society.

byron smith said...

Hi Glenn, thanks for clarifying. I really do think your engagement with the local candidates is an excellent thing. So voting Christianly is about more than just the policies that will affect Christians?

byron smith said...

PS Glenn - hi, by the way; it's been a while... Hope you're flourishing and the south coast is treating you well.

Anonymous said...

I remember at the last federal election an organisation prepared a document that outlined the policy positions of all the major parties on a wide range of issues. It was done for clarity and minus the spin and the like from the media and the parties themselves. Does anyone know if there is something similar available for this election? It would be very useful.

Living in Canberra now I'm kind of glad I don't have to vote in the upcoming NSW election - I would find it a very tough decision to decide how to vote. The federal election later in the year will be very interesting though.

Also, I'm likely to have to prepare a topical bible study on Christians and politics for my group at some point this year. Can anyone recommned some resources/reading/etc?


byron smith said...

Michael, I'd also love to hear of any resources for Bible study on this topic that people have. I was thinking of putting something together myself for the months prior to the Federal Election and would love to see what others have done.

As for putting together the various parties' policies on one chart - my wife and I tried to do this a few years ago for one election. It's a lot of work! But would be great if someone could do it before the Federal election. If someone's already done it for this one, I'd love to know too!

norm said...

No one can take away our "right" to follow Jesus.

Even if it becomes illegal to meet, illegal to pray, illegal to own/read the Bible, illegal to share Christ - there is no question that no one, no institution, no law, no culture can take away what we can have in Christ.

Romans 8:28-38 is apposite. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

Great thoughts Byron!

byron smith said...

Norman: precisely. Although the government can make it easier or harder (and easier is better, even if God can use the harder), Christians will continue to meet together and will continue to subversively tell of the authority of king Jesus. Voting does have a place, but our primary political actions remain forgiving one another as we have been forgiven, submitting to the rule of Jesus, and serving our neighbour for the sake of God.

Mister Tim said...

Byron - yes, we are in agreement and yes, my examples were picked based on common stereotypes - but I also wanted to try and pick an extreme example of things that (almost) only Christians are typically interested in to show that the whole argument (about prioritising) stacked up. I just wanted to emphasise that the issues that Christians are commonly seen to obsess over are less Christian 'rights' and more what Christians think will make for a good society and what they would need to legislate to protect all in society. However, I do agree that many socially loving things, like poverty, justice, etc) seem to be overlooked in favour of Christian 'morality'.

Also, re your response to Doug - there is a legal obligation in Australia to vote - though I'm not sure how it's defined. But, I think that just turning up and taking a ballot and not voting is merely the easiest way to avoid getting caught not voting, if that makes sense.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Let me know how the vote went. I love following someone else's system for awhile.

As for O'Donovan, it sounds like he's improving (thank God). That move with the early Christian slave has been done before, if I remember correctly, but it certainly hasn't been argued often or recently, so good on 'im.

Part of my dislike of his earlier work is disappointment. He started out well in Resurrection and Moral Order, but then took the book in directions I didn't like. I not only disapproved, but felt let down from the opening chapters--and then had the nasty shock of watching people I thought knew better gush all over the book and O'Donovan. Well, that tended to sour me and I now I have to remember that he, like anyone, can have later thoughts that are improvements.

So, properly rebuked by your rhetorical question of whether or not I "have it in for" him, I promise to try to keep an open mind for his work in the future--cautiously.

byron smith said...

there is a legal obligation in Australia to vote - though I'm not sure how it's defined.
Tim, I did a bit of a search and couldn't find the answer. Any lawyers out there who know?

Michael - thanks for filling out your picture of O'Donovan. Which parts of RMO did you find disappointing?

As for the election, it is this Saturday (24th March). Looks like the Labor government (roughly the equivalent of the Democrats) will be in again fairly comfortably. For the last decade or so, Australia has been voting Liberal (=Republican) nationally and Labor in State elections.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for some very good points, Byron. While there are issues on which Christians might take a common stand, there is a disturbing trend towards standing up for Christian rights.

I am not a lawyer, but the idea that the legal obligation is only to turn up and collect the ballot paper is rubbish. The law for Federal elections says "It shall be the duty of every elector to vote at each election" and "An elector is guilty of an offence if the elector fails to vote at an election." (my emphasis). Similarly, the NSW law says, "An elector who fails to record his or her vote at an election when required to do so is guilty of an offence and liable to a penalty not exceeding 0.5 penalty unit."

It is not clear whether casting an informal ballot counts as voting or recording your vote, but this is a completely hypothetical question, as the methods for determining who has not voted are restricted to the list of who has taken their ballot paper.

Having said that, the fact that the electoral commission were able to obtain an injunction against Langer when he advocated the now-informal 1,2,3,3,3.. votes might suggest that the responsibility is to lodge a valid vote. I believe that in Victoria it is actually illegal to advocate voting informally.