Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We’re told that it is impolite to discuss religion and politics. I hope we can demonstrate that this is not correct.
We’re told that the church should have nothing to do with politics, otherwise it would be a breach of the separation of church and state. This too is wrong. The separation of church and state is an idea from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It reads, ‘“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, there is not an equivalent statement in British or Australian law.
In Great Britain, the church and the state are intertwined, with the monarch being the head of the Church of England. Bishops are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and receive seats in the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords.
In Australia, the situation is quite different to the US and the UK. There are no formal, structural links between the church and the state. We are (mostly) free from the state dictating our doctrine and internal systems of governance (a blessing which many of our fellow Christians do not presently enjoy).
That is what the separation of church and state was meant to achieve. It was never the intention that the church and the state would never influence each other. The very suggestion that religious convictions should be excluded from public debate is completely contrary to the idea that all citizens are meant to participate in our democracy.
So, how are Christians supposed to vote and to engage in the wider political process?
First, we are meant to act like the Old Testament prophets, reminding those in power of their obligations as they rule under God. That means we need to ask how the comments made by politicians, candidates, experts and commentators measure up to what God tells us in the Scriptures about who He is, who we are, and what He expects of us. Are the people and policies we are being asked to support motivated by what God says is right or by what is presently popular?
Second, we must vote wisely. Some issues are questions of wisdom: e.g. Should we spend more on health or education? Should we do more to encourage business and to support people who need assistance?
But some issues about clear choices between loving our neighbour and hating them. Supporting abortion and euthanasia are clear examples. How we respond to refugees who flee from persecution because of their religion, race or political views is another.
This election, there are clear moral issues: What is marriage? What is the ideal environment for raising children? What should be taught to children about gender and sexuality? These are not issues we get to decide for ourselves; God speaks quite clearly in the Bible and our responsibility is to obey. We cannot ignore what God tells us even when we are acting as citizens of a secular state.
So, we need to know what the Bible says and how to apply it to our society, not just to our lives as individuals. Then, we must do all we can to be informed about the positions held by those who seek our votes. We should be particularly concerned about how they will make their decisions and how open they will be to hearing our views. One helpful resource is the Christian Values Checklist, which will soon be published by the Australian Christian Values Institute at http://www.christianvalues.org.au/index.php/checklists/current-elections.
Spend your vote wisely. The candidate who receives your first preference vote will receive about $2 in electoral funding at the next election (provided they receive a minimum number of votes). If you decide not to vote ‘1’ for your preferred candidate because you don’t think they’ll get elected, you’re making it harder for them to succeed next time.
Finally, as we pursue what is good, we need also to pray for those who rule over us. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says:
“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
The ruler at the time Paul wrote was the notorious Roman emperor Nero (AD 54–68). So, whether we agree with the policies or morals of our rulers, we are commanded to pray for them. This is beneficial for us, but may also lead to their salvation.
This election time, let us speak prophetically, vote wisely, and pray constantly.
Yours in Christ’s service,
P.S. Since publishing this note, my attention has been drawn to Section 116 of the Australia Constitution, which states:
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
So, there is an equivalent to the First Amendment in Australian law.