My Dad, a veteran of the second world war, is fond of telling me that in the army, there were two things you did not discuss: religion and politics. One can see why, of course: the military needed its men to get along and have unity among themselves, and there was nothing like religion and politics for dividing people and getting them arguing. I have found that my Dad, in this as in so many other things, was right. Nonetheless, the dangers of division notwithstanding, I do talk about religion—and about politics in those very few areas where politics also involves religion
My personal pastoral practice is not to tell people how to vote. This is partly because I assume that they are smart enough to make such decisions without me giving my unsolicited advice, but also because I try to be careful not to offend. I feel that if I must give offense, it should be over the Gospel and the scandal of the Cross, and not over politics. I will cheerfully tell you who should be the Lord of your life; who should be the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Canada is something else. But a part of bringing one’s life under the Lordship of Christ does involve political concerns in some way, since the Lordship of Christ touches every part of our life. And in this current climate when feelings are running high, opinions are polarized, and (it seems to me) a touch of hysteria is in the American air, with some people proclaiming that electing the wrong candidate will bring about a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, it becomes all the more important that we be all reminded of the abiding Christian realties and of our abiding Christian duties.
Our first duty is to pray. St. Paul is quite clear: “First of all [that is, of first importance] I urge that entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all, for kings and all who in in authority, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all piety and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Note that he does not tell us to pray for rulers only if we happen to like them. In his case, the king at the top to be prayed for was Nero—an emphatically unlikable character, and one whose persecution of the Christians would cost Paul his life shortly after he wrote these words. Nero might have been wicked, but he was still the lawful governing authority, and (again according to Paul), “There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom. 13:1). Whatever Nero’s personal short-comings (and of these he had no shortage), he was still God’s instrument for the restraint of social chaos, and the Christians still had a duty to pray for him.
The Church always did this, praying for rulers, even throughout the dark days of pagan persecution (as they often reminded their persecutors). If they could pray for rulers like Nero, certainly we should be able to bring ourselves to pray for our own rulers, of whatever party or policy they may be. If our rulers do well, we should light a candle for them. If they do badly, we should light two.
Our second duty as Christians is gratitude. Gratitude to God should always characterize our life, and especially in North America where we have so much to be grateful for. America and Canada have never known foreign invasion (let’s forget about the War of 1812 for now). We have lived in comparative peace. Moreover, we live amid affluence and plenty. This is not to deny the existence of some hardship and poverty in our lands, but even here we still need to place our national situations in a global and historical context. As the evening news stories tell us, many in the world have it much worse than we do.
One of the blessings for which we should be grateful is the opportunity to have free elections, and of democratic process. That is, we do not suffer tyranny as Russia did throughout much of the twentieth century, or as Germany did in the 1930’s. If we do not like our rulers, we can vote them out of office, and such changes are accompanied without bloodshed or rioting. We should not take this blessing for granted, for many nations in the world do not currently enjoy it. In North America we have the freedom to criticize our government and vote for whoever we choose, without fear of reprisal. We show our gratitude for this blessing partly by giving thanks to God (the source of all blessings, even political ones), and by voting. Many people, it seems, are tempted to stay home on voting day, cynically thinking that changing rulers is no more significant than changing the hood ornament on a car. I sympathize with this sentiment, but still think it is a mistake. And voting on election day, besides showing our gratitude to God for our freedom, also gives us the moral right to complain about the results in the months to come after it is all over.
Our third duty is remembering the Kingdom, and the things that truly endure. A favourite old hymn of mine, “Amazing Grace”, ends with the words, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” This is true: one day, the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (see 2 Pt. 3:10). We, however, will still be alive, and will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of our Father (Mt. 13:43), and will go on shining for ten thousand years, and endlessly after that, like the hymn says. Does anyone really imagine that after we have been shining with joy for ten thousand years in the age to come that we will still care who was the President of the United States in 2012, or the Prime Minister of Canada? That is not to say that these things are unimportant. On the contrary, they are important. But not all-important. Only Jesus is all-important. We are told over and again by the Scriptures to keep our eyes on Jesus, to seek first the Kingdom of God (Heb. 12:2, Mt. 6:33). We should not let lesser things distract our gaze from Him, or deflect us from our primary task of seeking His Kingdom. Politics is okay, but it is human, and will not outlast this age. It is the Kingdom which will outlast this age, and in which we will shine forever like the sun. As we progress through this age to that Kingdom, let us pray, and have gratitude, and remember the things that eternally endure.