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"Christian Conscience and Politics"

By Frank Kacer

Talk about an oxymoron, Christian conscience and politics - makes you lightheaded thinking about it.  How can you have any type of conscience and still be involved with politics?  Like it or not, if you vote, or give an opinion on anything political, legislative or judicial, you’re applying your conscience in one way or another.  As Christians, we’re to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:5), and are responsible for every careless word we speak (Matt 12:36).  How much more accountable are we when electing someone to public office, or speaking out on the death penalty or any other hot political topic.  What do I mean by “Christian conscience”?  Most simply, I mean our moral judgment based upon Christian (biblical) truths.  Our God given and redeemed conscience should compel us to do what is right before God, and be consistent with His revealed word and will.

This makes sense, but problems start when we begin to act on our view of what is right.  What happens when your conscience brings you to a certain decision, but another Christian strongly differs?  Has God’s word failed to give clear direction?  Is the other person’s faith too weak?   Or, are they just lacking in commitment. One person says we must vote, even if it’s for the lesser of two evils, while another says it’s ungodly to vote at all in those circumstances.  One supports legislation that begins to attack a major moral problem, while another says the approach falls short and actively works against it. Is it conceivable we could both be wrong, or are we both right and free to differ? 

In this article, I’m going to first surface some of the worst problems that crop up when our conscience causes us to differ.  Then, I’ll address some basic principles to help prevent divisiveness from destroying the unity Christians are to have in this world. 

Experience shows that anyone even superficially willing to engage in political discussions quickly becomes aware of two things.  First, Christians have a radically different view of reality from non-Christians.   The reason is obvious.  Not only are we indwelt with the Holy Spirit, but we also rely on God’s standard of truth – not man’s.  Second, sincere believers will often disagree strongly on issues.  When someone is passionate about a cause, they may view their position as the only right one.  The situation can become explosive when we justify ourselves and denigrate those that differ. 

How does this happen?  To begin with, one’s stance on an issue could be based on detailed research, Biblical study, or a general feeling they understand it well and there’s only one right way to approach it.  If this is so, those that differ are by definition wrong.  If I believe I’ve taken the moral high ground, the other side becomes misguided at best.  If mine is the principled approach, you must be a compromiser.  When pushed, I may start to label my opponents pejoratively, or start to question their intelligence or ability to understand the obvious principles that I see so clearly.  I’ll also start to see them differently than I used to, “I remember when he used to take strong principled stands, I don’t know what’s happened to him, he’s compromised so much.”  Worse yet, I may begin to think the other person is in sin, or even question whether he’s a Christian.  I may even use my political position as a test of orthodoxy.  I’ll begin to overlook the areas we used to agree on, and only focus on our disagreement.  I can even rationalize this by believing our alienation is their own fault since they’re the ones that can’t see the light like I do.  If only they would return to reason, we could accomplish so much together.  Guess what, once we start to characterize others in these terms we’ve gone a long way toward creating an enemy for life. 

These are some of the problems Christians can run into in the political arena.  Have you experienced any of these?  How would you bring about a mutual understanding to ensure Christian friendships are maintained and kingdom work is furthered?

It’s sobering to realize that Christians have a much more difficult time coming to terms with differences than our opponents do.  We’re accountable to an Almighty God for everything, and are conscience-driven.  We also have the Bible, which is God’s standard to judge our lives, our actions, and our words.  When we claim the moral high ground and believe we’re right, and others are wrong, we’re making a significant, spiritual claim.  This is not to be taken lightly since our Christian unity can be at stake. 

Obviously, the topic of Christian conscience is not an easy one to address.  It’s almost guaranteed no one will be satisfied with some or all aspects of what is presented.  Nevertheless, if Christians are to be involved in the world for the greater good, and the glory of God, then I believe it’s important for Christians to openly address major stumbling blocks to our mission.

I identified above a number of problems that routinely crop up when Christians have significant differences on political issues.  I’ll now try to navigate this minefield and provide some practical advice for all of us by giving several principles I believe can remove unnecessary hostility if well understood.  By the way, these principles are not just about politics, they apply to opinions on any number of societal, cultural, legislative or judicial factors.  With that said: 

Principle #1: The government is not the church.  God established governments for our good, but did not place them under church authority.  As such, government cannot be expected to act like a church or be governed like a church – under the authority of God’s word and pastors.  In like manner, we can’t appeal to it in the same way that regenerate believers can be within a church.  Though government does not formally recognize God’s word as the ultimate authority, a society established by a Christian culture would be expected to be governed by documents reflecting Biblical principles.  Such is the case with our nation (e.g. our Constitution). 

Principle #2:  Christians have more in common through Christ than we will ever have in the world.  Those that rely upon Christ’s death on the cross for their salvation will be spending an eternity together with Him.  The short life we have now is described as a vapor.  Shouldn’t we then strive with all our might to understand and mutually respect each other while we can, vice tearing each other down?  In this life we’re still in a fallen world, and wrestle with our own weaknesses and imperfect understanding of God’s will. We do know, however, that a fellow Christian is precious in God’s sight (look what it cost Him for our salvation!).  Shouldn’t we then look upon each other the same way, speak well of each other, encourage each other, and even support each other even when we still have differences?

Principle #3: People have at least two fundamentally different ways of approaching problems.  Though there are exceptions, everyone tends to be either a “pragmatic” or a “principled” individual.  For both types the goal may be the same, whether it concerns a particular piece of legislation, a school board policy, replacing an unqualified public office holder, or debating gun control.  A principle driven person can clarify what fundamental issues are at stake, but may also hinder any incremental progress toward a shared goal by being inflexible.  A pragmatic person runs the risk of using potentially dubious means to justify an end, yet may represent the only way of making any real progress towards a valid moral goal.  Though it’s hard to reconcile the two approaches, by respecting each other’s problem solving strengths we need to work harder at seeking solutions combining the best of both camps.

Principle #4: Different paths to reach a common moral goal may be equally valid.  Many of life’s decisions fall into the category of preference and not directly addressed by scripture.  We shouldn’t force fit a principle from the Bible that’s not clearly there, nor demand “our way or the highway” when faced with other competing, ethical strategies.  Reality teaches there are limits to resources, and some strategies will have a better opportunity for succeeding.  We need to be willing to defer to others after objectively balancing the expected result with the best opportunity for success.  Remember, relying upon a miracle to occur can be presumptuous on what God will ultimately do.

Principle #5:  A person's salvation is not dependent upon their approach to politics.  It’s tempting to believe a person isn’t a Christian when they differ in some fundamental way from our view of what needs to be done, or how to go about solving a problem, or even what is “right”.  Though a consistent bias in a particular direction on a number of life and cultural issues can call into question what standard a person is basing their views upon, to question their faith is a serious matter and is not to be based on a political litmus test.  To do so only creates divisiveness and places oneself in the position of God – knowing the eternal state of someone’s soul.  That is not our job.

Principle #6: Compromise is not necessarily a sin.  It’s tempting to use the “compromise” term when we don’t agree with another person’s approach to a problem.  In our everyday life we make all kinds of routine decisions and rarely worry about major moral issues.  But for weighty, complex matters such as illegal aliens, euthanasia, or how to deal with the homeless, it’s tempting to use scripture in a black and white, simplistic manner and view partial solutions or an incremental approach as not only compromise, but sin.  When we pejoratively use the term “compromise” to trump anything but our way, we had better be on solid, clear, Biblically based moral grounds. 

Principle #7:  Standing on principle may mean we become independent of the outcome.  If our conscience compels us to take a particular stance for good Biblical reasons, we need to realize we’re removing our influence from the eventual outcome.  For example, if my conscience prevents me from voting for any candidate for an elective office, I’ve made myself irrelevant to the result.  There will be a winner, but I’ve chosen to not aid any candidate.  It would stand to reason, therefore, that I should be willing to accept the outcome since I chose not to participate.  At the same time, I shouldn’t demand others follow my example if they don’t have the same conviction as I do, and they want to influence the outcome.

Principle #8:  We’re not commanded Biblically to rely upon a miracle to achieve results.  We may hope for a miracle, we may be joyously surprised when a miracle occurs, but we’re never commanded to rely upon God providing a miracle to occur.  This may seem obvious, but many people take this approach by default by not getting politically involved.  In effect, they rely upon God to bring about righteous changes through other means than through His people.  Scripture is clear, we’re responsible for our actions and inactions, and are not to be presumptuous upon God by expecting a miracle to save the day when we could exert influence ourselves.

Principle #9:  A godly goal (the ends) can never justify ungodly means.  What benefit is it to sin, or use the world’s questionable tactics to win a battle?  What kind of example does that give to a world skeptical of Christianity?  What differentiates us from all others if we’re just as unethical as the ungodly?  Wouldn’t it be better to have run the race in a righteous manner and lost, than to have compromised our Christian testimony for some finite earthly gain?  The Bible is clear, sinful tactics are not God’s way (Romans 3:5-8).

Principle #10: Voting may have the sole purpose of curbing greater evil from occurring.  As hard as this may be to take, particularly when all candidates are unacceptable, I believe we still have a duty to exercise our citizenship responsibility.  The Lord ultimately raises up those that rule over us.  If all candidates are vile, I believe we must curb the greater evil from occurring.  I understand how one’s conscience may not allow this option.  I also know that those taking this path may be accused of voting for evil, or violating principle, or be given some other strong exhortation.  I encourage us, however, to assume the best motives of each other, unless proven otherwise.  Also, I encourage us to assume that those who vote are fulfilling what the government is asking of them – to choose who is to rule, even if the options are distasteful.  Remember, the Lord brought the candidates to that place, and now a realistic assessment must to be made of the best option to limit the greatest evil from occurring.

The ten basic principles presented above are a sampling to consider when dealing with other Christians in the touchy arena of politics and cultural correctness.  As a society we tend to be competitive and want to win.  Never forget, however, that our Lord and Savior was a servant to others, even to the point of giving His own life for us.  How much more should we be humble towards each other, consider each other more highly than ourselves, and assume the best of others when cultural engagement comes to a naturally divisive issue.  Who are we to think we have all the answers?  Remember, the Bible talks more about how we’re to treat each other than how we’re to approach a particular moral or national issue.  May we strive, therefore, to continue to work together for the common good, consistent with our understanding of Biblical admonitions.

Frank Kacer
Executive Director, Christian Citizenship Council of San Diego

Originally published as three separate articles in the January – March 2006 issues of Good News Etc.