How Should a Follower of Jesus Vote?
by Alicia Johnston
Please welcome Alicia Johnston as a columnist for Adventist Today. Alicia Johnston is an obsessive reader, a poor guitar player, and a lover of sunshine. She serves the Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as the pastor of Foothills Community Church, (foothillsaz.org). In a previous career she was a counselor and holds an MA in Clinical Psychology in addition to an MDiv. She got very tired of school before she was done.
Though it seems inconceivable now, there was once a presidential candidate that I not only supported, but believed in. This was someone whose political philosophy was exactly what we needed, who had integrity, and who I knew would be good for our country. It was the first time I was interested in politics, and I studied every twist and turn that election year. I knew the lies and mistakes of my opponent, and I excused or explained away the lies and mistakes of my own candidate. No politician is above them. If my guy won, I knew things could be better. Of course he lost.
Have you ever seen one of those bumper stickers that says, “Jesus for President”? I thought my guy was good. Can you imagine the loving, wise, compassionate savior of humanity as the leader of the free world? Christians argue about who to vote for—but if Jesus was on the ballot?
Alas, it’s only a dream. Jesus is not on the ticket. No one slightly resembling Jesus is on the ticket. So what should we do? As Christians, what role should we take in civic engagement? In the world of Jesus and the world of the Bible, politics were more straightforward. You lived with what you were born into. Only the very elite who were involved in the political world of Rome could directly influence government. That’s probably why the advice in the New Testament is simply to be a good citizen and obey the law until it conflicts with your loyalty to Jesus, then follow Jesus. They couldn’t vote, so the New Testament doesn’t speak directly to what we should do, since Jesus is not on the ticket.
Jesus for King
The Gospel of John has something to say about politics. Jesus had recently begun his ministry on earth. He was healing people, he was drawing crowds, and then he fed a group of five thousand people from basically nothing. The people came to a rather logical conclusion. This guy is popular, so he could raise an army. He can heal people, so his soldiers could go right back to fight after an injury. And even if his supply line gets cut off, he can create food from nothing. This man is powerful. We want him to be our king.
Jesus knew what was happening. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself,” John 6:15. This was really an astounding move. Jesus could have been king. Jesus could have been emperor. Jesus could have been the most powerful man in the world. We tend to think that in order to achieve something, we need power. The approach to politics that many Christians have taken is to try and accumulate power so they can get laws past that are in line with the will of God (as they understand it). The religious right, the moral majority, legal campaigns against activities conservative Christians have seen as sinful, all these have been an attempt to accumulate and exercise political power for the kingdom of God.
There’s just one problem: you can’t follow Jesus and ignore the decisions he actually made and the things he actually did or didn’t do. Jesus didn’t want to be king. Jesus wasn’t interested in political power. So why are some of his self-proclaimed followers obsessed with it?
The Kingdom of God
It would also be wrong to say that Jesus was not political. Jesus was intentional about his life and the language he used. When he entered his public ministry, he knew exactly what he came to do, and that was to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. In ancient battles, the first news that the family at home heard of whether the kingdom was secure, of whether their loved ones were likely to return, and of whether their future was safe was through the runner who was the first to carry the news back to the city. There was a word for when this news was good. In the Greek, that word was euangelion, and we translate it gospel or good news. Jesus was there to announce the good news, that the battle had been won, that the king was on his throne, and that the king is none other than God himself.
Jesus and his followers also used words and phrases that were normally reserved for the emperor, such as “son of god,” “savior,” and “lord.” The church called itself the ekklesia which was a term for a political group that gathered in the Greek city-state to make decisions of political importance. Jesus was not afraid of politics.
In fact, I think a quote from the great Mahatma Gandhi applies here, “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” Religion has everything to do with politics. In fact, religion has everything to do with everything of importance. If you are a follower of Jesus, that loyalty must be first in your heart and mind at all times and impact all things.
So Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God, but what is the kingdom of God? It’s what happens when God is in charge. Yet it is also not a kingdom at all. All this political talk of Jesus’ caught up with him. He found himself standing before a Roman governor, being questioned about this kingdom of his and whether he was claiming the title of king of the Jews. “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world,’” John 18:36.
Fighting for the Wrong Kingdom
Though it’s not unheard of, particularly this election year, the political process in America does not normally involve physical fights. It certainly doesn’t involve the type of brutal sword fighting Jesus was referencing, but we have our own ways of fighting for our political candidates. They fought with swords, we fight with slander, anger, and passionate debate about the vile wickedness of our opponents and the level-headed practicality of our candidates. That’s our way of fighting today. It’s on the radio, on attack ads, on social media, and seemingly everywhere we turn. We have our own way of fighting.
There are a lot of things broken in this country, and Christians should advocate for change. We should advocate for good government that doesn’t disadvantage the poor, protection for the vulnerable, equitable rule of law for all people, justice, and accountability for those who exploit others, because these are all biblical values. If I’m reading my Bible right, these are the result of following God as our leader.
However, when we fight for a certain politician or political party, we are placing our faith in them, and playing by the rules of a different kingdom. We are playing the power game, thinking that our loyalty for one party or candidate will be rewarded by that candidate using the power we have given them in the way we want them to. They don’t. For years, decades even conservative Christians mobilized voters to get politicians elected to end abortion, and it never happened. Politicians from different parties are not dramatically different. Every politician is beholden to lobbyists and big donors. We spend all our time advocating for candidates, trying to transfer power to the guy we think will make things better, when even Jesus himself rejected political power.
Jesus for Savior
If you think giving the right person political power is the answers to our problems as a nation, you have put your faith in the wrong person. If you think that one political party or another will be our salvation, you are fighting for the wrong kingdom.
This country doesn’t need more Christians putting their energy and influence behind advocating for a Christian nation or someone they believe is a Christian leader. This country needs Christians who recognize the fallibility of every government this world has ever seen. Adventists in particular should be aware of the way governments are dealt with in prophecy. In Daniel they are represented by an image (an idol perhaps) of man-made materials mostly of metal that are destroyed by a divinely crafted stone. Throughout Daniel and Revelation, they are fearsome beasts who fight, kill, and destroy. They follow the dragon. They oppress the poor. They concern themselves only with riches, power, and idolatry. None of them are good. All of them are destroyed in the end.
Yet we treat these people like saviors. We act like the right politician is going to fix this mess of a political system. We attack people who disagree. We are consumed with anger that people would be ignorant enough, selfish enough, or emotional enough to vote for the candidate we oppose. We are convinced that the opposition is morally bankrupt and incompetent. In all this fighting, we reveal who our savior is.
What a mess the politicians would have on their hands if Christians stopped being loyal to them and started caring about the things that matter in the kingdom of God. What a mess they would have if on the local and national level we demanded transparency in government so oppressors could be held accountable, if we required campaign finance reform so the rich and powerful couldn’t exploit the political system, if we started asking why the poor struggle so much and what are the systemic problems that are keeping them down, and if we started demanding equal justice for all people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and financial means.
Maybe some of my suggestions make you nervous because you’re afraid I’m talking about something outside your political ideology. I don’t intend to do so. I’m one of those unfortunate (or fortunate) people whose views don’t fit well in any political party. What I do believe is that we are allowing partisan loyalties to distract us from the loyalty that matters. We have lost our relevance in this country because we have sold ourselves to political parties instead of the kingdom of God. We are fighting for a kingdom that is irrelevant in the end. We are making idols of politicians. And in the process, some of us are getting really nasty about it.
It’s actually quite a relief to let go of the notion that salvation can be found in the election cycle. A lot of people have a lot of fear about what will happen to this country. But I know a better country with a better King. I know a real Savior. I have put my hope in One who will not disappoint. And that’s where my loyalty, my hope, and my salvation is found. Goodbye, kingdoms of the earth. Welcome to the kingdom of God.
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed… He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision,” Ps 2:1-4.