Sometime ago I indicated that I planned to devote one program before the election to the theme of “The Christian and His Vote.” On August 2, less than a month away, Tennesseans will be going to the polls for the final election of local officials and will vote in the primaries for state and federal officials. Hence, today we shall dispense with the current aspects of religious news and examine a few of the many reasons why Christians especially have a peculiar responsibility for and interest in voting – at least they should have.
Shortly after Hitler’s blood purge in Germany in the 1930s, a group of American teachers and ministers were meeting in the heart of Berlin. An internationally known scholar of the New Testament from the University of Berlin addressed them. The meeting itself was held in his library and upon his instructions the Americans came to it two-by-two so as not to arouse suspicion. While he talked about the prospects of religion under Hitler, an American started taking notes. The face of the German went pale and he said “Don’t do that. You will endanger my life. Destroy what you have written here.”
One minister remarked afterward, “As I watched those men tearing up their notes into tiny pieces and throwing them in the fire, I saw in one moment what democracy ought to mean to us in America.” Under our system here the state is the servant of the people. When, under a dictator, the reverse becomes true, untold evil awaits a nation. The crucial point for us is that wherever tyrants have come to power, they did so in almost every instance because of indifference on the part of the mass of citizens toward their civic responsibilities.”
How do we Americans rate with respect to these responsibilities of ours? Well, in 1880, 78 percent of the eligible citizens in this nation voted. Yet, 60 years later, only 53 percent voted, and in that year, you will recall, two colorful and dynamic figures were the standard-bearers and, until then, the unbroken third-term tradition was at stake. In 1948 our voting percentage dropped to 51 percent, while our record in 1952 was only slightly better. It should be a matter of shame resting upon us as a people, a free people as yet, that so many of us so disregard our heritage that we never take the trouble to vote.
And yet, it would be a mistake to say that the nearly half of us who do not vote are intentionally bad people. Edmund Burke said in this connection that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” While many Christians and affiliates of other religions stay away from the polls through indifference, gamblers, racketeers, and big time criminals are rounding up their supporters and seeing that they vote.
All this is not merely a political duty resting upon us; it is a religious responsibility to exercise our franchise since democracy as we know it is directly in accord with the Christian teaching of the infinite worth of every human being. Many years ago the Englishman, Lord Bryce wrote, “Religion has ever been the motive power of true democracy,” and adds that no free government can long survive without recognition of moral sanctions. It was the conviction that man belongs, not to the state but to the Creator which motivated the founding fathers in laying a firm and strong political structure of this republic, making it possible for the people to control the state at all times, if they only wish enough to do so.
There is another aspect of our voting behavior, or misbehavior, which should make us shamefaced. We in America, who have been entrusted with such a heritage, find ourselves today the nation that is the foremost advocate of the free way of life, the rallying point of all nations that love liberty. This makes it particularly anomalous that we of all people should sell our birthright for less than a mess of pottage. How can we expect elected officials to take their responsibilities seriously if about half of the electorate is so indifferent to the character of leadership in this nation that they will not even take the trouble to register and vote?
All of us have heard, perhaps sometimes we have said, that politics is corrupt, that government is run by a machine. If so, the responsibility for such corruption lies squarely at the door of every indifferent citizen. The Bible deals with no subject that it does not illumine. This is true in the matter of elections. In the book of Exodus we are told that, on one occasion, Moses was visited by Jethro, his father-in-law. A great crowd of people was waiting for an opportunity to present their case to the lawgiver. Jethro pointed out to his son-in-law the perils of such a situation. “You and the people with you will wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you, and you are not able to perform it alone,” said Jethro. “You must at once elect deputies. They shall be the ruler of thousands and of hundreds and of fifties. Let the people come to them for judgment. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but lesser matters they shall decide for themselves. Now, this is the criterion by which these leaders are to be judged. Provided out of all the people able men such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness, and place such over them.”
The Revised Standard Version puts it more concisely and in more current form by saying, “… choose able men from all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy, and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people.”
This is one of the earliest records in all literature of a free election, and it would be difficult to find a higher standard by which to judge rulers. Note that four qualifications are underscored. [The first is] ability (and for us that should mean ability to do the job for which he hopes to be elected, not whether he can shake hands a certain way). The second criterion is fear of God. The third [is] men who are trustworthy. (What do you know about the candidates for the August election in this respect?) And the fourth: men who hate a bribe.
There is some historical evidence that Alfred the Great, an able monarch who ruled England during the ninth century based his Saxon constitution of sheriffs in the counties on this mosaic example of government set forth in the Bible. It is not impossible that the free institutions of our English-speaking peoples originated in this system of representative government instituted 3,000 years ago. I am aware that if any of my history colleagues are listening, they are probably thinking this is a very flimsy linkage, but it is not impossible, and conceivably may be true.
Rather frequently someone raises the question, “Should religion and politics be mixed?” Before that question is answered, it should be made clear just what is meant by it. Certainly few would argue that a church should become a lobbyist and turn his pulpit into a political rostrum. Religion and politics should not be mixed in such a fashion. If the minister engages actively in politics, acclaiming one specific party, or it he electioneers for one candidate, he is leaving his pulpit to descend into the turmoil of the political arena, using by implication at least authority for political affairs which the church has conferred upon him for religious and spiritual purposes. However, even here it is entirely conceivable that a great moral or spiritual principle may be at stake in an election, and in such case the minister may have a duty to speak out without hesitation and regardless of consequences. All in all, it would seem that the church, as a church, should avoid identifying itself with political programs and platforms, but this does not mean that the members of the church, as citizens should not be individually concerned.
If the question, “Should politics and religion be mixed?” means that the moral influence of religion be infused into political life of the nation, then the answer should be an emphatic “Yes.” No finer standard of judgment could be applied to the candidates in any election than was set forth in the mosaic declaration 3,000 years ago, “Moreover thou shalt choose from all the people able men such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness, and place such over them.” If we are to secure as national, state, and local leaders men who possess these admirable qualities, the people who are entrusted with the use of the ballot must in some measure possess these qualities themselves, or at least have respect and admiration for such qualities. No form of government existing today demands so high a standard of life for its successful continuance as does a democracy. One reason why democratic government has collapsed in many nations is that the moral level of the people was not sufficiently elevated to maintain it. Here we are at the heart and core of the church’s task. If the church fails to nourish a noble life among the citizens of the nation, what other institution can be depended upon to do so?
It is not sufficient merely to proclaim the necessity of high moral standards, for that alone will not be enough to make mean men generous, cruel men kind, greedy men unselfish, or vile men clean. Morality must be under-girded by deep moral convictions, and these convictions must be expressed through practice in being alert, informed, and active citizens, who register and vote and who keep constantly in mind the fourfold standards of judgment which the Bible proposes for leaders – able men, God-fearing, trustworthy, who hate bribery. The whole question is somewhat like the poem contributed by an anonymous person who put it this way:
God give us men a time like this demands;
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor – men who will not lie …
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty and in private thinking.