Whether we like it or not, we’re right in the thick of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election cycle. Some greet this with a weary sigh while others, like me, love the drama of another historic moment in America’s story.
Regardless of where you fall on the scale of interest, the most important question is how Christians should conduct themselves during this election season. The world is watching God’s people, not just for how they vote, but for how they act both online and in conversations with family and friends.
So how now should we behave? I’m far from a perfect model, come election time, but I’ve come up with these five things to consider in 2016:
Remember What We are Doing
What are we doing when we get involved, research the issues and vote for a candidate for president? We’re choosing an imperfect leader to lead imperfect people. We get in trouble when we imagine we are doing anything else. In my experience, I’ve seen two equally wrong approaches to politics. Some are tempted to look at candidates as saviors. “If we can just get ____ elected, then ____ will happen.” This only ever leads to dismay and disappointment.
The Christian Gospel reminds us that, at best, human leaders are imperfect stewards of power that belongs to God (Romans 13). What’s more, no leader can fulfill all of our hopes and dreams. Even the greatest leaders in human history had deep flaws and could only make partial improvements to the quality of life of their people.
Christians vote best when they know that the city they are looking for is not a new and improved America, but the city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10).
Ironically, it is a false utopian approach to politics that often leads to the equally wrong, but opposite tendency: cynicism. Frankly, I hear a lot more cynicism these days than utopianism. We’ve been set up for this by assuming too much from our leaders, by projecting on them more than they were created to do.
There is good reason to doubt candidates. We live in a post-Watergate world where we’ve been disappointed and betrayed by leaders at the highest levels of power. Far too few heroes have not been exposed as people of weak character.
However, sometimes cynicism blinds us to what is possible in politics. Sure, it can be a dirty business, but to disengage is to abdicate the stewardship we have as citizens of a democracy. To disengage is also an endorsement of the status quo.
Politics can be leveraged for the common good. If we understand what we are doing, if we have reasonable expectations for our leaders and if we faithfully steward our vote, God can use us to accomplish good in the world.
Consider the Wide Range of Issues that Affect Human Dignity and Flourishing
The tendency in politics is for interest groups to look out for their own self-interests, but Christians should think not only of themselves but what is best for the flourishing of our communities.
This means we adopt an approach that not only asks how a candidate best helps our own families, but deeper questions about the common good. Which candidate champions human dignity—for the unborn, for the trafficked, for the impoverished and for the marginalized?
What’s more, we should avoid latching onto the sound bites and catchphrases of each campaign, but look deeper into the men and women running for office. We should examine their records of public governance and private enterprise.
The temptation around election time is to gravitate toward personalities instead of issues, to choose a “team” rather than to make a careful and sober analysis of each candidate.
Behave Like Christians in the Way We Talk about Candidates and the Way We Talk to Each Other
Not only is it important to steward our influence for the common good, it is important to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel. This might be the greatest test in a rough-and-tumble election season, especially given all the tools that allow us to easily and immediately express our opinions.
There is a place for righteous outrage against injustice, but we should be careful about attacking people instead of policies. 1 Peter reminds us that we are to exhibit both courage and civility (1 Peter 3:15). After all, we follow Christ, who in His public life was the perfect synthesis of truth and grace (John 1:17).
Passions run high in a political season. At times, we will say or post things we regret. But we should strive to say and do everything under the influence of the Holy Spirit, remembering that because we are ultimately victors (Romans 8), we don’t have to resort to defensiveness, nastiness and anger. We can see our ideological opponents, not as avatars to be rhetorically crushed, but as people created in the image of God.
Understand that Good Christians Disagree
There are many issues about which good, faithful followers of Jesus might disagree. Your view on the appropriate marginal tax rate might be different than your neighbor. It doesn’t mean he’s an enemy of the cross, so don’t treat him as such. What’s more, even people who agree on the issues may disagree on the right political strategies or the right next steps.
Engage in friendly and even heated debate, but don’t let politics become so central that it keeps you from loving your brothers and sisters in Christ.
What matters more than winning an election is unity in the body of Christ. Love your fellow Christians more than you love your candidate or your party. By doing so, you demonstrate to the world that before you are a citizen of America, you are a citizen of a new Kingdom, inaugurated by the One whose sacrifice unites those who are often far apart.
Have Fun and Be Grateful
Don’t get so wrapped up in the election that you forget to have fun. Take the issues seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy the SNL spoofs of the debates. Watch those viral Jimmy Fallon clips, even if they skewer your favorite candidate. And above all, be grateful.
We often complain about the craziness of the our political process, but we forget that in this country, we enjoy freedoms that are foreign to most of the rest of the world. We can choose our leaders. We can run for office. We can mock and criticize public officials without getting sent to jail.
Sure, those robocalls get wearisome. The signs litter our public spaces. The campaign ads are increasingly lame. But remember this: Nobody in Cuba or North Korea is complaining about partisanship. Partisanship is the complaint of the privileged.
This article appeared in a different form in September 2015.