18 Sep How to Vote Responsibly
I’ve been feeling disquiet; and it’s been growing. Disquiet as we approach the forthcoming General Election. In a world ravaged and disrupted by COVID-19, in the midst of calls for redress and change in the presence of prolonged and systemic injustice, and in facing economic and social dislocation and uncertainty, there’s been a growing sense that the upcoming General Election is more important than usual. Perhaps even the election of a generation? (And that’s to say nothing of the two referenda.)
My disquiet has caused me to ruminate on my responsibility as a Christian in the upcoming General Election. As I’ve done so, I’ve found my mind circling around two questions:
As a Christian, what’s my responsibility when it comes to voting?
How do I prepare to vote responsibly?
That word, responsibility, I’ve come to understand, is doing more than I first realised. It’s a term we use a lot in our everyday speech, without a moment’s reflection. Are you responsible for this mistake, Nathan? He’s a responsible parent. It’s not my responsibility! It’s an ethical term that relates to a person’s (or an institution’s) obligations or duties within a given context. Yes, I am responsible for the grammatical mistake because it was my duty to edit the article. He’s a responsible parent because he fulfils the obligation to care for his children. It’s not my responsibility to correct a misdemeanour because I’m not authorised to do so. The last example is interesting because it recognises that there are limits to one’s obligations and duties.
When it comes, then, to Christians voting responsibly and preparing to do so, we’re considering our obligations or duties as Christians within the political context that we find ourselves.
Arising out of her reflection on Scripture, the Church calls her members to work for the common good of those political communities where her members find themselves. By political communities, I mean those communities where humans are joined together, such that their lives are intertwined and affect each other; in which there should be a mutual interest in seeking the common good—that is, the set of conditions and combination of goods that enable all members of the political community to flourish. For Christians, as for others, there is an objective aspect to the common good, as the world has been created and is now sustained by the triune God with particular ends in mind.
In using the term political community, I have a more expansive understanding of politics than we are accustomed to using. Robin Lovin has written that “we tend to reserve the term ‘politics’ for the sphere of law and government”. In this understanding:
Politics is concerned with the control of states, and politics among nations is concerned with relations between states. Sometimes, the activities of the state and its agencies are designated as “public”, in contrast to the large and undifferentiated “private” sphere that includes religion, culture, commerce, and family life.
I’m using the term political community in the broader—and original—sense of the wider set of institutions and activities that comprise our life together; and the way these are ordered so that all members of the political community might flourish. This wider conception of the political community includes families, schools and universities, businesses and workplaces, churches, community groups, and their activities. When Christians are called to seek the common good of Aotearoa, New Zealand, it is firstly with this wider conception of the political community in firm view. We are to embrace our roles within and work for the betterment of our families, workplaces, churches, and so on, believing that if these institutions fulfil their purpose, then each member of the political community in Aotearoa, New Zealand is more likely to flourish.
That said, the state is a vital part of the broader political community with a particular role to play, including setting and upholding the law, overseeing the administration of a nation’s institutions, developing policy, protecting the vulnerable, and so on. As Christians living in a modern democratic state, through voting we have a say in who will govern the state, set its laws, and shape its institutions and policies. From time to time, we also have an opportunity to express our views on issues through referenda—as we do at the upcoming General Election. This has not always been the case: for much of history, many members of most political communities had no say in who would govern them.
Christians, then, have a responsibility in the way they vote, as best as they can judge, to seek the common good in Aotearoa, New Zealand. In exercising that responsibility within a modern democratic country, Christians face certain tensions, limitations, and ambiguities. This is not unique to our situation. The people of God have oftentimes found themselves in political contexts facing tensions, limitations, and ambiguities; in other words, in contexts where it’s hard to be completely at home. Indeed, a crucial passage that has shaped the Church’s teaching in calling its members to seek the common good—Jeremiah 29—was originally addressed to those who had been forcibly taken from their homes. Despite their sense of alienation at being exiled from their homeland and out of sync with the surrounding culture, God addresses the exiles as follows:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Like these exiles, we are called to build houses and settle down; to plant gardens and eat what they produce; to seek the peace and prosperity of the political community of Aotearoa, New Zealand.
One significant tension we confront arises from the fact that those who comprise the political community don’t always share the same beliefs, commitments, and values. I say, “don’t always”, because oftentimes they do; there can be significant overlap between what people want for Aotearoa, New Zealand, and a consensus on how to achieve it. But not always; and sometimes radically so. What is true here for the political community writ large, is reflected across and within the different political parties. When it comes to voting for a political party to govern, we all face the tension of choosing one that, in all likelihood, does not fully reflect our beliefs, commitments, and values. When a government, then, is finally formed after a General Election, even if the party one votes for is part of the government, to a greater or lesser degree one will be governed by those who do not fully share the same set of beliefs, commitments, and values.
My beliefs, commitments, and values are shaped by my Christian faith. I hope fundamentally and significantly so. My Christian faith, therefore, informs how I vote, sometimes in a decisive way that calls for courage. But I also want to acknowledge that other things shape—and continue to shape—my beliefs, commitments, values, and policy judgments, and the weighting I give to these when voting. For example, my experiences in life, not least having lived in two different countries, or my background as an economist, which informs my views on the relative success of some policies over others. Your experiences and skills and expertise will also do the same for you. These other factors are one of the reasons why even Christians will vote for different political parties.
Our responsibility as Christians is to vote with integrity in relation to our beliefs, commitments, and values, as best as we are able. A reason we confront tension in doing so is because of the limitations we face, in that no party fully represents our different positions. In extremis, the demands of integrity may cause one to abstain from voting; however, the conditions for doing so are very abnormal, such that voting responsibly can almost always be discharged with integrity given the limitations one faces.
We face two further limitations when it comes to voting. First, although we have some apprehension of the common good for Aotearoa, New Zealand and what is required to achieve it, our understanding is not comprehensive. One cannot possibly know all the challenges and opportunities facing persons and communities throughout this whenua. Nor can one completely comprehend what resources need to be orchestrated to meet these challenges and opportunities, especially if they require particular expertise. This does not mean we need fall into a morass of moral agnosticism or scepticism when it comes to knowing and pursuing the common good. It does, however, mean that when we do so, it is with a good measure of humility.
Second, not only are there limitations to our understanding because we are finite creatures and the issues facing our political community are often complex, we also wrestle with sinful impulses. Our desires are disordered and inordinate, though hopefully less so because of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. This means, unless one is a saint, sinful impulses continue to influence our decisions and actions. Particularly relevant here, when thinking about voting, is our tendency to have an undue concern for our own interests and the interests of those social groups to which we belong. For this reason, we should be attentive to the temptations we confront generally to aid us in voting responsibly.
In sum: we have a responsibility to seek the common good—the peace and prosperity—of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and this includes voting with integrity when it comes to our faith, given the tensions and limitations we inhabit. How, then, might we prepare to do so as we approach the General Election?
I offer three pieces of counsel, none of which is astounding or groundbreaking, but all of which are easier to write or read about, than to actually do.
First, we should pray. We should heed the instruction given to the exiles to pray to God for our political community. And, as part of that prayer, we should ask God to give us wisdom as we decide how to vote. We should allow the disquiet or concern that we feel about the upcoming General Election to move us to prayer, believing that when we humbly come before the triune God, wisdom is generously supplied (Jas 1:5).
Related, we should pray for our political leaders. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 instructs us in the context of public worship, but, by extension, also in personal prayer:
I urge you, then, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
During both “lockdowns” in Auckland, I found myself getting frustrated with politicians on both sides of the house in various ways. Several times, I gave voice to these frustrations with family and close friends. At one point, I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to be more diligent in praying for our political leaders. Although it would be misleading to say that the frustrations have gone, since praying I’ve become more sensitive to the challenges that our political leaders are facing. That’s one of the things prayer does: it opens us to further understanding, including what others might need in their vocations and lives.
Alongside prayer, there’s the need to become informed. What are the major policies of the political parties? What are the values and principles that underpin these policies? How might these policies contribute to the common good in Aotearoa, New Zealand? What challenges, trade-offs, and opportunities are in view? Taking the time to become acquainted with the major policies of the various political parties in the lead up to the General Election is integral to voting responsibly. Perhaps it’s worth setting aside two-to-three hours over a weekend to do this work.
Finally, it’s worth taking time to discuss your thinking with a few others—perhaps including those who you know don’t share your political standpoint. Indeed, in a time when polarisation and incivility abound, it is significant when we take time to listen to others’ viewpoints, and to share our own with humility.
After the General Election—hopefully, not too long after—we’ll find a government has been formed. To greater or lesser degrees, we’ll find ourselves confronting the tensions and ambiguities described previously. This sense may be exacerbated by the outcome of the two referenda.
What do we do next? Well, first, what we always need to do: trust in God and God’s work in the world. Even in the midst of these tensions and ambiguities, I believe that God providentially appoints those who govern (Rom. 13:1), while never endorsing or condoning everything that governments do. Indeed, politicians, like everyone else, will be required to give an account of their lives, including how they governed. Therefore, as N. T. Wright puts it, we are called to follow in the footsteps of the people of God through history who have been called upon to “accept that the rulers of the world were both appointed to their tasks by the one creator God and accountable to that God for the way they carried them out”. We can take some comfort from this affirmation.
Finally, we need to recall that our responsibilities as members of the political community in Aotearoa, New Zealand continue. We may have discharged one responsibility in voting, but our wider conception of politics means we have an ongoing responsibility to seek the common good in and through our homes, schools, businesses, workplaces, churches, community organisations, and so on. Here, I want to finish by highlighting a further responsibility as Christians, to share the good news about Jesus Christ with our family, friends, and neighbours. This encouragement may seem jarring in an article on politics; however, it is a vital part of what it means to pursue the common good. People coming to know Jesus Christ as their crucified, risen, and ascended Saviour—as the one who is also the Lord of all creation, including every earthly power and authority—is a furtherance of the common good in the ultimate sense: the opportunity to enter into the fullness of life with Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit as we are released from the dominion of sin and death. When we share the good news of Jesus Christ with our family, friends, and neighbours, we offer an invitation into the fullness of life—now, but also in the life to come. When people accept this invitation they, in turn, take this life of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit back into their homes, schools, businesses, workplaces, and communities for the sake of the common good and for the glory of the triune God.
(Image: “Effects of Good Government in the City” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, CC Zero)