High stakes: What role should Christians play in the 2012 elections?

In less than 24 hours, Americans will go to the polls to decide the most important and decisive presidential and Congressional election since 1860. The stakes are high and the country is deeply divided. Many evangelical Christians are fired up and heavily engaged in this election, feeling strongly for one candidate or the other. Other Christians are disappointed by the choices and feeling unmotivated to turn out at the polls at all on Tuesday. They’re wondering, “Does my vote matter? What’s the point? Should Christians be involved in the political process at all, or should we just say to both political parties, ‘A pox on both your houses?'” 

Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades and having had the opportunity to work inside the world of policy and politics as a follower of Jesus Christ, I have come to several conclusions about what role all Americans—and particularly Christians—should play in the political arena. I hope these ideas will be helpful as you come to your own convictions. In Implosion: Can America Recover From Its Economic & Spiritual Challenges In Time?, I lay out five key points. Today, allow me to share two of those five:

1. Christians need to pray faithfully and consistently for wisdom and direction for our national leaders.

We may not always be happy with what our leaders are doing and saying, but we need to pray for them anyway. Failing to do so is disobedience to God. As the apostle Paul instructed Timothy and the church he pastored in Ephesus, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Paul told the church in Rome to “render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7).

The apostle Peter reinforced this message. “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world. For the Lord’s sake, respect all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right. It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters. Fear God, and respect the king.” (1 Peter 2:12-17, NLT)

The Christians who founded this great country certainly were men and women of prayer. Indeed, because of the First Great Awakening, many of our nation’s early leaders had become deeply faithful in praying and fasting. They most definitely prayed for God to protect and guide those in authority. But they also prayed that God would remove tyrants and unfit men from leadership and replace them with new leaders who had great wisdom and sound judgment to govern the struggling nation. Should we do any less today?

2. Christians need to exercise their right to vote and mobilize others to vote as well.

We are not slaves of an empire. By God’s grace, we are free people and citizens of the greatest democratic republic in the history of mankind. Very few people in history have had a say in who got elected in their countries and what values and policies those leaders would defend and advance, but we have that very privilege. How dare we ignore and squander it? We should take this right seriously. As Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

Over the past four decades, the number of Americans of voting age who describe themselves as born-again Christians has risen from 50 million to more than 80 million. While such Christians do not have the numbers to dominate American politics, we can play a decisive role. But we cannot have any influence on the direction of our country if we don’t get involved. So if we want to help our government fundamentally change direction—if we’re committed to doing everything possible to avoid an economic and cultural implosion—we need to be serious, focused, and involved in the political process.

What does this mean for you if you’re a Christian? At the very least you should register to vote and then go to the polls to vote your conscience. Encourage others to register to vote too. Become informed on the issues, and help educate your friends. Pay close attention to what the candidates are saying and what their records are. Study all candidates carefully. Don’t make any rash decisions. Weigh all the elements—a candidate’s character, history, marriage, experience, voting record, views on the issues, speeches, statements, articles, ads, advisors, and allies. Don’t expect candidates to be perfect. Remember that campaigns are about choices. You will be presented with flawed candidates. That’s a given. So you must carefully choose the least flawed, most principled, most experienced, and most effective candidates during primaries and during general elections. Don’t ignore a candidate’s moral failures. Don’t ignore unorthodox religious views. Don’t ignore that uneasy feeling you have in your gut that you can’t explain but that you sense is trouble. Study hard, and weigh everything carefully. Patiently ask God for wisdom. And don’t simply pray; fast as well.

When you find a candidate you like and can trust, ask the Lord whether he would have you help that candidate with your time, your talent, or your treasure. The Lord doesn’t call every believer to get actively involved in a campaign beyond voting, but some he does. Do only what the Lord tells you to do, no more but no less. And when the time comes, vote—and mobilize others to vote—and then trust the Lord with the results. As the prophet Daniel told us, ultimately it is the Lord who “removes kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:21). So don’t let yourself become depressed if your candidate loses. God is still in control. And don’t gloat if your candidate wins. Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ, the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Not all Christians are going to agree on every issue or every candidate, of course. But consider how much impact Christians could make in reshaping the fundamental direction of the White House, the Congress, the federal courts, and the Supreme Court (as well as local and state government) if we unified behind leaders who share and represent our values. Consider a few facts:

  • In 1976, 35 percent of voting-age Americans (about 50 million people) described themselves as “born again,” according to a Gallup poll.
  • That same year, fully 50 percent of self-described born-again Christians voted for Democrat Jimmy Carter, playing a critical role in helping Carter win the presidency over the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford.
  • By 1980, the number of self-described born-again Christians in America had increased to 39 percent, according to Gallup.
  • That same year, born-again Christians broke against Carter, voting almost two-to-one (61 percent to 34 percent) for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan and playing a key factor in Reagan’s victory.
  • In 1984, Reagan won 78 percent of the Christian vote in his landslide victory over Democrat Walter Mondale, who received only 22 percent.
  • Republican George H. W. Bush won a stunning 81 percent of the evangelical vote in 1988 as part of his lopsided victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis, who received only 18 percent.
  • However, when born-again Christian support for George H. W. Bush declined significantly in 1992—he secured only 59 percent of this critical voter bloc—Bush ended up losing the presidency to Democrat Bill Clinton, who received 21 percent (Independent Ross Perot siphoned off the remainder of born-again Christian voters).
  • In 1996, Bill Clinton increased his share of the evangelical vote to 43 percent, which helped him defeat Bob Dole, who secured only 49 percent—the lowest percentage for any Republican in two decades.
  • By 2000, the number of voting-age Americans who described themselves as born again had increased to 45 percent (about 87 million people).
  • That same year, Republican George W. Bush, a devout and outspoken evangelical Christian, won 57 percent of the born-again Christian vote (which was far more than Dole but actually less than his father, George H. W. Bush) and only very narrowly defeated Democrat Al Gore, who received 42 percent.
  • In 2004, George W. Bush specifically and heavily courted Christians and won 62 percent of the self-described born-again Christian vote and defeated Democrat John Kerry, who secured only 38 percent.
  • In 2008, Republican candidate John McCain was faring poorly among Christians for much of the election cycle. His numbers improved after he named Sarah Palin, a devout and outspoken evangelical, to the ticket, but not enough to defeat Democrat Barack Obama. In the end, McCain won 57 percent of the born-again vote, while Obama won 41 percent.
  • In 2010, a stunning 77 percent of self-described born-again Christians voted for Republican candidates running for the House of Representatives, while only 19 percent voted for Democrat candidates, resulting in a landslide victory for the GOP in which they picked up sixty-three congressional seats and won back control of the House.

How will the American government be shaped in the future? Christians could play a key role in answering this question. But one thing is certain: disunity will destroy us. Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3:25). If in coming elections Christians are divided between candidates who share our biblical principles and constitutional convictions, who practice what they preach, and on the other hand candidates who are opposed to our principles or who flip-flop on them or cannot be trusted for other reasons, then elections will be won by candidates who do not share our values. In turn, we will lose the opportunity to turn this ship of state around.

But if Christians register to vote en masse and unite behind serious, substantive, pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-growth, pro-defense candidates who truly use the Constitution as their guide, then we have a real chance to put solid candidates in office and empower them to make the reforms we so desperately need to rescue our country from the abyss.

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