As a matter of history, we know that Jesus of Nazareth didn't vote. Because he was not the citizen of a democracy or a member of a ruling elite, he couldn't. But what would he have done if he had been in circumstances like ours?

That or similar questions (e.g. Who would Jesus vote for? Which party is God's party?) are posed by sincere Christians each election season. They want to be Christlike in all they do, including the exercise of their democratic rights, so they imagine what Jesus would do.

A few years ago, in the thick of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw wrote a book entitled Jesus for President. If they were Canadians, no doubt we'd have seen a Jesus for President version instead. It's not that the authors imagine Jesus running for high office; their view is quite the opposite. The general thrust of the book is that politics-as-usual is so much at odds with the gospel that sincere Christians ought to keep an Amish-like distance from the whole mess. Quoting the ever-quotable Tony Campolo, they say, “Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with cow manure. It may not do much to the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.”

The theology of these “young evangelicals” (although they themselves are rightly uncomfortable with the label) is not that the gospel is too spiritual to stoop to politics. In fact, they are at pains to show that the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is a message for enfleshed human beings living in community in this world. Their complaint is that all the political options we have (or think we have) are so compromised that no Bible-believing Christian could support any one of them. If Jesus wouldn't vote, we shouldn't either.

Although their focus is on the United States, they would say the same to Canadians, Germans, Japanese and Zimbabweans. “Maybe it's time for Christians all over the world to lay down the flags of their nations and together raise the banner of God. The Church's icon is not the Stars and Stripes but a cross-flag, and its emblem is not a donkey, an elephant or an eagle but a slaughtered lamb.”

As Claiborne and Haw argue, the Bible shows Jesus to be absolutely uncompromising. And surely the political programs of every party deviate substantially from the standards of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

The crux of the issue is whether we're inevitably stuck with this problem. I think we are. Compromise is inherent to politics, and if we can't accept this, no Christian political theory is possible. It is not just the platforms of the current parties or the character and positions of the current candidates that are the issue. Democracy is predicated on compromise, at least in the innocuous sense that it requires individuals to commit to a future (“promise”) with others (“com,” which is Latin for “with”). Democracy is an effort to find ways to freely collaborate with others as equals. This alone is tough enough for some of us. But democracy demands more. It requires that we respect others even when they disagree with us. That is tougher still. At some level, democracy is an effort to seek justice for a whole society and advance the common good, knowing ahead of time that not everyone is going to see “justice” and “the common good” the same way. I am convinced that political disagreements would still exist even if all voters and candidates were Christians.

This does not mean that all compromises are equal. There is a kind of compromise that is really nothing more than bargaining between special interests. Our politicians are being lobbied all the time by business corporations and professional associations that want the interests of their clients protected. Little wonder then if these politicians think their task is to negotiate enough goodies for those who apply the most pressure. Christians are petty when they act this way themselves, forming a voting bloc to protect their interests or ensure that their organizations get a big enough share of the pie. This is not “compromise.” It's balancing one selfishness with another.

What if we think some political proposal is not just different, but morally wrong? Can we vote for a party that promises things that trouble our conscience?

“While we may frequently settle for 'half-a-loaf,' we must never compromise principle by engaging in unethical behavior or endorsing or fostering sin,” says the National Association of Evangelicals' admirable 2004 Call to Civic Responsibility. This sounds right to me, yet I can't help hearing theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in my other ear saying such purity is an impossible ideal. Years ago, Niebuhr wrote that “the common currency of the moral life is constituted of the 'nicely calculated less and more' of the relatively good and the relatively evil … by the difference between a little more and a little less justice, a little more and little less freedom.” He suggests that the ideal of perfect love taught and exemplified by Jesus is relevant to all our endeavours, personal and collective, but that even the best efforts of the best people fall short of the ideal. And in falling short, we sin. As Niebuhr sees it, to live in this flawed world is to be faced inevitably with compromise of principle.

I am not going to settle the issue of whether the NAE or Niebuhr is right about this. Perhaps we should ask our most respected Christian office-holders. Regardless of whether injustice can always be avoided in the thick of democratic politics or some measure of it tolerated in order to get as close to the ideal as possible, I believe the NAE is right to say “disengagement is not a possibility.”

I am doubtful that Jesus would have voted, but I think the Apostle Paul would have. He knew what it meant to be a citizen of Rome as well as the City of God, and he exercised his Roman rights. Inspired by the Spirit, Paul told us to pray for those in government; and inspired by the same Spirit, he told us that government is intended by God for social justice. This from a man who was abused by government and saw fellow Christians unfairly denied even the limited access he himself had.

Through his writings, Paul argues that Christians can't escape politics and they shouldn't try, since human life needs sound policies and wise authorities to apply them. The Apostle also shows us that living in community is not confined to casting a ballot, which brings me back to Jesus for President. The best thing about the book and the movement that Claiborne and Haw are part of is that they challenge the prevalent but misguided idea that politics is all about voting. It's not. To think so actually makes healthy democracy impossible. Elected representatives cannot bear the weight alone. The call on Christian conscience is to be engaged in seeking justice together, demonstrating that Jesus' values translate into equal dignity for all. This happens when we treat the poor, the oppressed, the excluded and the demeaned as equals should be treated. This is not the whole of the gospel, but it will be good news to those who receive it.

Dr. James E. Read is the executive director of The Salvation Army's Ethics Centre.

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