It’s that time again: every other commercial flashes before your eyes with images of glad-handing sycophants shaking hands with factory workers, bragging about their achievements and imploring you to vote for them. The other commercials do the opposite: dark-shaded, unflattering photographs race by with ominous music as some political candidate is smeared for whatever it is they did or will do. (They probably didn’t and they probably won’t, but whatever.) At the end, the voice of Whomever drones the familiar chant: “I’m Whatserface, and I approve this message.” This will go on until November, when half the population researches the best solvent to remove bumper-sticker glue.
When I was a young man, I idealized the notion of an election cycle with no smearing. I thought, “Why can’t people just be nice and let their own works and integrity stand for themselves?” I just didn’t like the hate, and I still don’t. But then again I foolishly thought that a perfect political system could be found in a broken world, or that everyone had the best intentions. It can’t, and they don’t. I also didn’t realize that the grand-standing of political races really had all the verity of a pro-wrestling match: the crowds come and cheer on their guy, the other one is booed as he yells into the microphone with exaggerated pomp, the referee wears a fancy suit and pretends that the rules of engagement are austere and fair. All the while, the ones who know how the game is played get chastised for suggesting that the show is just that—a show—and that the real battle for Democracy happens in the shadowy filing cabinets of bureaucracy and legalese.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not spouting some conspiratorial drivel about how the whole system is rigged and your vote doesn’t matter. It does (at least in America). Neither am I saying that political offices and the people who occupy them are irrelevant—far from it! Elections have consequences—sometimes grave consequences. But more often than not those consequences are buried under a mountain of talking points and superficial platitudes. No one reads the fine print until the election has come and gone and people wring their hands, saying, “How in the world did we get here?” Well … we the people approved this message, that’s how.
Christians do funny things with politics, and reconciling them to their spiritual life is a multivalent experience: they might jump head-long into a sort of old-world Manifest Destiny, believing that God will bless us with lower gas prices if only we had a more moral collective. On the other hand, they might eschew politics altogether, sitting on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon (as Simon and Garfunkel put it), pretending that governmental designs have no lasting effects on their lives. Both extremes are wildly ignorant, but in different ways. Yes, God is present in the entire world, and no earthly government is perfect or permanent: “Trust not in mortal man,” and all that (Ps. 146). On the other hand, pretending that your faith has nothing to do with your politics is like saying your skin has nothing to do with your body. You live in it, so how could it not? Even worse, getting angry because your church says you should keep the commandments of God is really just getting angry at the Bible when it says you should “choose life over death” (Deut. 30:19).
Lutherans hold a mediating political theology that I believe is both Scriptural and realistic to guide a Christian, especially in an election season. It’s called the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. On the one hand (the so-called “Right Hand”) there is the Kingdom of Grace: this is the church, the gospel, the free-and-clear gift of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here there is no social status, no taxation, “no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male and female” (Gal. 3:28), no law or condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). It is not, never has been, and never will be a democracy by the people. It is a divine Monarchy, and God the Father is our King. We live and die by his grace and providence. Nothing you can do will earn his favor, and no offense is too great to be forgiven. You are his citizen, set free to be free (Gal. 5:1) and to serve others as Christ served you.
The other Kingdom (the so-called “Left Hand”) is the Kingdom of Law: this is the world in which you live. So you have relationships: you are a father, a mother, a son or daughter; you have a job with a title, a salary, and a tax bracket. You have papers in your fire-proof safe that legally declare your citizenship of a particular land at a particular time. You are under the law, and there is no grace here. There are only consequences if you break those laws.
The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is a paradox. As long as you live, you live in both Kingdoms. By grace you are saved, and not by works. But by works and not by grace do you live decently and at peace with your neighbors. The Kingdoms are interrelated, but offer very different statuses of existence. Consider: if I sin by being angry at my brother, I’m guilty of hell in the Kingdom of Grace. Yet in the Kingdom of Law, if I harbor a grudge against my brother there’s no law I am breaking. Contra wise: if I murder my brother, by repentance and faith in Christ I can actually (scandalously!) be forgiven in the Kingdom of Grace. Yet in the Kingdom of Law, I will spend the rest of my life removed from the general population (or in some cases be executed). These Kingdoms aren’t contradictory; it’s how God designed them, and he is in control of both Kingdoms (cf. John 18:36 and Rom. 13:4).
Obviously, the Kingdom of Law is finite, and the Kingdom of Grace everlasting. So in the maintenance of the paradox, how do these Two Kingdoms work together? Simple: your earthly life and citizenship in the Kingdom of Law is informed by your life and citizenship in the Kingdom of Grace. What does this mean? It means that I get over the grudge because God put his grudge against me on Jesus. It means I love my brother because Christ loved me and gave himself up for me. It means I serve my neighbor because the Spirit of peace enflames in me the love of my fellow man. It means God didn’t save you so that you could be selfish, uncaring, and “sin boldly” whilst receiving absolution like a magic trick on Sunday morning. It means God saved you (Kingdom of Grace) so that you can do good works (Kingdom of Law) “which he prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
So what does this mean (and not mean) for American Christians in election season?
It means that voting is a work in the Kingdom of Law. And how you act in that Kingdom is either an act of service or an act of harm to your neighbor. Because of the way this Constitutional Republic is organized—your representatives representing you “the people”—voting is one of the easiest acts of service (or disservice) you can give to your neighbor. In fact, I would go so far as to say not voting at all is a sin of omission, since you are failing to serve your neighbor even in this simple way.
To that end, it also means that your Christian faith as expressed in your good works informs your service on election day. What is best for my neighbor (not necessarily what is most agreeable) is what I will bring into the voting booth with me. Churches should not endorse individual politicians or parties as if good works are exclusive to individuals. They should rather examine (as saved people in a broken world) what God would have them do best to serve their neighbors according to the system of government—especially since that system is designed to change according to the will of an increasingly godless populace. In church, Christians should expect to be exhorted toward moral and godly living always. Not just in election season, we should want to be turned toward the consideration and service of others, and toward being a good citizen of our land “so that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:2) That includes addressing moral and political issues on the regular.
This does not mean that you can hold whatever political opinion you want and declare it to be inconsequential to your faith. This is as dangerous to your soul as if you were running a prostitution ring in your basement during the week but then come Sunday you slap on a tie and go to church to pass out bulletins. (I suppose a better analogy would be an abortion doctor serving communion.) A white-washed tomb looks pretty on the outside but smells like death on the inside. Some politics are obviously outside of God’s will (Gal. 5:19–21), and he knows what circle your pen darkened behind the cardboard divider. You can’t serve both God and mammon, but you can serve God with mammon; so you better darn well figure out which is which before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms also does not mean that if a fellow Christian disagrees with you over any number of political issues they are necessarily demonstrating themselves to be a Pharisee or a hypocrite. They might be, but it’s probably more complicated than that, so show a little charity. There are myriad issues that inform the reasons people vote. Some are naturally going to be prioritized due to the changing passions and harried instances of human life. But being broken by nature, politics is always a zero-sum game: sell your soul over here in order to get something good over there. Either way, you look at it you lose (Simon and Garfunkel again). But some losses are patently worse than others, and you would be a fool to equalize them. Instead, use your godly wisdom to arrive at the best holistic decision, and pray that God’s will be done.
In short, the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms for an American Christian means I vote according to what is best for my neighbor in the Kingdom of Law so that all might be compelled by the Spirit into the Kingdom of Grace. This is an act of service, informed by the love of Christ, and aimed at the health and well-being of all.
To be perfectly clear: you are entitled as an American citizen to vote for whomever you wish. To be even clearer: you are not entitled as a Christian citizen to vote for your neighbor’s harm. But debating what that harm is is precisely what makes election season (and politics) so vibrant, so passionate, and well … so entertaining. Like a pro wrestling match.
I’m a pastor and I approve this message.