Beyond the Booth

by Joel Biermann

Religion and politics

One of the cherished notions that typically guides the lives of Americans is that politics and religion do not mix. Of course, there are some areas of overlap that Americans accept and even expect, like a prayer at a presidential inauguration or candidates ending speeches with “God bless America.” But, on the whole, it is taken for granted that there needs to be a clear distinction or even a wall of separation between church and state. People do not want the government telling them what to believe about God, and they do not want the church telling them how to vote. Actually, they do not want anyone telling them how to vote.

In our lives as citizens of a democratic republic, the voting booth is considered sacred ground. In this revered space each person exercises his right of franchise and votes for people, proposals and platforms as he chooses. Voting, it seems, is the ultimate exercise in individual choice and the expression of personal opinion. No one tells you how to vote; no one but you decides how you cast your ballot. And no one knows your vote unless you tell them — well, almost no one.

God knows, of course; Christians know that. And Christians know that strict divisions between the different parts of their lives make no sense, or at least they should not make any sense. As people who follow Christ, we understand that no part of our lives lie beyond the claim of our Savior and Lord. As believers, we belong to our Lord completely, and our lives are normed by Him entirely. God directs all the spiritual and all the material aspects of our lives. He teaches us not only how to receive His gifts and worship Him, but He also teaches us how to be creatures as He intended. Such direction touches every part of our lives — including the political part of being the citizen of a nation. There can be no doubt, then, that God most certainly goes with you into the voting booth and has something to say about the ballot you cast.

A two realms guide

Emphasizing the unity of the spiritual and temporal aspects of our lives to better understand a Christian approach to voting does not negate the distinction between them. In fact, it is the biblical and confessional understanding of God’s two kingdoms or realms that guides this right understanding of voting. Simply put, the teaching of the two realms helps us see that God is directly involved in caring for His creation in two different but complementary ways. In the spiritual realm, He answers our need for a right relationship with Him and through His church gives us forgiveness and grace in Christ. In the temporal realm, He enables us to live in right relationships with one another as He provides for all that we need to live in this world and through His appointed government extends His justice in the world (Rom. 13:1–7). The realms are not in opposition or competition, but together work to accomplish God’s purpose of claiming, preserving, saving and finally restoring the whole creation.

It is in this context of the two realms that we understand what it means to vote. Voting is an activity of the temporal realm, one of the many ways that we strive to uphold God’s justice and live in right relationships with other creatures. As citizens of a democratic republic, we participate in government in ways unimaginable to our fathers in the faith. When we vote, we are the government. Voting, then, is no mere right or privilege; it is a holy obligation, a responsibility, a small but significant vocation given by God to each Christian citizen. You need to vote.

What does this mean?

So, how does God want you to vote? Actually, that is not a trick question; it has an easy answer: God wants you to vote for the people, principles and platforms that will uphold and advance His justice in the world. In other words, you should vote in ways that will best serve your neighbor and his needs. A Christian never votes for the proposal or the candidate that promises to make her own life somehow better or that resonates with a favorite cause or interest. The Christian’s objective is always aimed out, focused on doing what helps the other. When the time comes to determine how best to serve which neighbor, things get quite interesting.

Christians often debate fiercely among themselves about what is just, most just or patently unjust. But justice is not an amorphous idea or a hollow husk waiting to be filled with meaning according to the dictates of particular conscience or the whims of personal conviction. The definition of justice is not determined by what makes sense or what feels right or what seems fair. God, who created the world and set in place the rules for how the world works (Psalm 96:13), establishes what is just. That is precisely the function of God’s eternal Law that is hardwired into the very fabric of the creation (FC EP VI 6–7). For Christians who seek to honor God and serve their neighbor by the way they vote, God’s Law is the guide. And God’s Law is not a chaotic competition of conflicting rules or standards. Yes, discerning the path of justice can be complicated. Since we each have almost 8 billion neighbors — just counting the human ones — taking into account the application of justice for every neighbor is an overwhelming task. But even here, God’s Law provides us a way of sorting through the myriad demands. They are not all the same, and do not make equal claims on us.

When you cast your ballot, consider the following triage: First, your overriding responsibility is to your nearest neighbor who has the most acute need. The defenseless neighbor faced with imminent death has a more pressing need for justice than the one who may lose access to a favorite meadow where he likes to stroll. Second, the protection of human life outweighs the enhancement of human life. Third, people always rank ahead of animals; and fourth, the stuff we accumulate and want to keep always ranks last. Fifth, and finally, respect for each human person, or basic fairness, ranks ahead of any alleged right to keep what is “rightfully yours.” Christians know that what they have belongs to God, and every one of their nearly 8 billion neighbors is someone for whom Christ died — someone to whom we owe justice in the temporal realm and someone to whom we owe the proclamation of the Gospel in the spiritual realm.

Of course, one must expect that different Christians who faithfully and accurately apply this guide will nevertheless reach different conclusions about the best vote to extend God’s justice. We each have different near neighbors and different understandings of their needs. It should also be expected that there will be more agreement at the top of the triage checklist and less at the bottom. Basic moral questions touching on the protection of life have simple answers with little room for nuance; intricate policy issues seeking to address economic inequality have complex and variegated answers, and all of them may be legitimate options in the pursuit of God’s justice.

There is something sacred about voting — it is a holy task given to you by God and done for the sake of your neighbor. Cast your ballot wisely, selflessly and confidently. Seek God’s justice for your neighbor and God’s grace for you as you follow your Lord into the thick of a messy and broken world that He is eager to save.

The Rev. Joel Biermann serves as a professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

This article originally appeared in print in the August 2020 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

9 thoughts on “Beyond the Booth”

  1. John J. Flanagan

    I accidently typed TRUMP 2030 instead of 2020 in error. But the point of my comment is direct and unapologetic. The Democratic Party is not a political party deserving of the votes of even one Christian. Their policies and platform are pure evil and dangerous to the future of this country. If a Christian really believes in their own faith and convictions, it is evident where our votes should go. Trump and the Republican Party is not perfect, but on the issues which count, they have my vote for sure.

  2. John J. Flanagan

    Dr Mark Gronemeyer
    Your comment is simply a misguided point of view. It matters greatly whom a Christian will vote into office, and a Christian should be a good citizen and familiar with the issues as well as the qualifications and positions held by those seeking elected office. It also matters whether the person or party a Christian decides to support holds views and favors policies which will affect the lives of succeeding generations. Many of us who follow the politics of our country are college educated and unimpressed with mere political slogans and simplistic and untrue statements like, “the Republicans are for the rich, and the Democrats help the poor and struggling.” What rubbish indeed. The Democrats are only about power, and have been leaning towards the Left for many decades. And issues like abortion, the killing of innocent unborn children is a very important platform for this party of infanticde. This is no party for a Christian to support in any way. I am conservative, a Republican, and prolife. I know many Republicans by the way, and all of them are not rich. The rich politicians, to name a few, are the Clintons, the Bidens, and Nancy Pelosi, and they used the government to earn their corrupt living. TRUMP 2030

  3. Karl W. Randolph

    “Everyone knows Republicans pass legislation that favors the rich while Democrats help the poor and struggling middle class.”

    The Democrats are also liars. I lived in San Francisco while Dianne “DiFi” Feinstein was mayor. By her actions, she taught me that the Democrat party is the party of the rich and special interests. The poor can go jump in the Bay. Her political base was not the poor and middle class, two groups being driven out of the city also by her successors, but the rich and special interests, such as the LGBTQ+ interests.

    San Francisco is run by a corrupt political machine, the “Burton Machine”. Kamela Harris came to political power through that Burton Machine. She has a record of protecting pedophiles, promoting murder of the unborn, oppressing the poor, persecuting Christians and because she has access to many very rich Democrats, thanks to the Burton Machine, she can raise money for the Democrat party.

    This is not a defense of the Republican party, for their record shows them to be dishonest hypocrites. For example, they claim to be pro-life, but do nothing to stop murder.

    When we have been given the opportunity to try to clean up corruption found in both political parties, to protect our neighbors from injustice, we should make use of that opportunity. Not every country gives us that opportunity.

  4. Rev. Martin E. Kiesel

    While I commend Rev. Dr. Biermann for the article as a whole, there is a premise in a key sentence which is featured at the top of the third page which I find greatly troubling.
    The featured sentence states: “God wants you to vote for the people, principles and platforms that will uphold and advance His justice in the world. In other words, you should vote in ways that will best serve your neighbor and his needs.” When it comes to the Kingdom of the Left, the justice of God is normed by His Law. Specifically this should be the Ten Commandments. Telling us that we should vote “in ways that will best serve your neighbor and his needs” can lead to all kinds of misunderstanding and mischief. If we do not put God’s clear commands first, we open the door for the government to help our neighbor by stealing from some to give to others, “helping” our beligered neighbor to take the life of an infant in the womb, or as Luther put it, “other great shame and vice”. Ultimately, voting should not be a matter of conscience, but of following the precepts of right living as God has laid them out in the Ten Commandments and voting for the party and cantidates who most closely follows those precepts. John Joseph Flanagan is absolutly right!

  5. Dr Mark Gronemeyer

    As a Democrat and a Christian, I find ALL the previous replies vulgar and insulting. Not to mention uninformed, intolerant and un-Christian like. The article makes it very clear, in it’s subtle words of “protecting life” including using the word “right” whenever possible as some sort of subliminal message, that one should vote Republican ; a view I find intrusive and without merit. To vote Republican touting them as the Party of Family Values and Pro Life is a ludicrous especially in the upcoming Presidential election.. Republicans endorsing Trump as an example of Family Values and doing nothing to make abortion illegal in 47 years cannot be a reason to vote Republican. The Democratic Party is not in favor of abortion but supports it as the law of the land. The abortion rate continues to be greatly reduced by birth control and education not by legislation to close clinics. Your other derogatorily statements about Democrats are simply vile.. I am appalled that Christians are encouraged to be one-issue voters. Everyone knows Republicans pass legislation that favors the rich while Democrats help the poor and struggling middle class. What would Jesus have us do ? I don’t rely on the church for guidance in my voting especially with the pompous and pious. attitude displayed by the previous comments.
    Pray for those who are hungry.
    Pray harder for those who will not feed them.
    Pray for those who struggle each week to pay their bills.
    Pray harder for the wealthy who do not care.
    Pray for those who are homeless.
    Pray harder for those who deny them shelter.
    Pray for the sick and lonely.
    Pray harder for those who will not give them comfort.
    Pray for those who cry out for dignity.
    Pray harder for those who will not listen.
    Pray for those oppressed by unjust wages.
    Pray harder for those who exploit them.
    Pray for those who bear the yoke of prejudice.
    Pray harder for those who discriminate against them.
    Pray for those whose basic needs are denied
    Pray harder for the public officials who cater to the greedy and ignore those bound unjustly.

    1. As a conservation and a Lutheran, I find your claim, “As a Democrat and a Christian,” vulgar and insulting. Not to mention uninformed, intolerant and un-Christian like.

  6. John Joseph Flanagan

    Just to add a note concerning the above observation. I am not saying a true Christian must always be a Republican, while we let the heathens, miscreants, and nominal Christians have their own affiliation in the left leaning and radicalized Democratic Party. Fallen humanity occupy all the major parties, and all are sinners in need of God’s grace, but choices, even political ones, should be made through the prism of our faith. If a Christian knowlingly chooses to vote for a pro-abortion politician and does not support a pro-life candidate, it is a direct indication that their supposed faith has no impact on their values and decisions. There are times in life when we cannot sit back on our duffs and use the “two kingdoms” dichotomy to rationalize support for a political policy which entirely conflicts with the teachings of Holy Writ.

  7. John Joseph Flanagan

    I agree with everything you have said, but I believe you are “beating around the bush” and addressing the issue of politics too politely. You have went around the edges, but showed no real examples or given direct practical advice. If we use the biblical prophets as both spiritual and political activists for the Kingdom of God, we can see they were quite direct about identifying the problems and social and spiritual pulse of the Jewish nation. It often cost them dearly. In my view, the political choices are tied directly to our spiritual life as Christians. Simply put, we have two political parties in which to consider casting our votes. Since the Democratic Party promotes abortion, sexual immorality, transgenders, socialist state rule, and behaves in a ruthless Machiavellian manner…why not just state categorically that the opposing party is more apt to be pro-life, pro-family, pro-religious freedom, etc? The two sides are the difference between evil and good, and yes, Republicans are flawed as well, but it is time for the church to stop waffling, stop trying to appear neutral, and make a full stand for the Republican Party. The Democrats are not our friends, and we best discern the difference between the two parties and vote accordingly.

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