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By the way, are you aware that Pennsylvania has a Voters Hall of Fame? Yep. It is maintained by the Department of State and it recognizes folks who have voted in every November election for the past 50 years or more. According to the Department's web site,
The Voter Hall of Fame inductees hold a special place in Pennsylvania history. They bridge generations - from a time of war and depression to one of peace and prosperity - and understand how precious our freedoms truly are. For 50 years, they have placed their responsibilities as citizens of this Commonwealth first. We are grateful for their lifelong commitment to democracy, and we proudly induct them into the Pennsylvania Voter Hall of Fame. (1)And in this year when there has been so much controversy over immigration, this is signed by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Pedro A. Cortés. Hmm. And do you know how many inductees there are from Warren County? ZERO. How come? I suspect there are some of you who qualify but the word never got out.
With that background we encounter the Apostle Paul's instruction concerning the way Christians should understand civil government. "Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." Do you find that difficult these days? With the incredible level of negativity in almost all political campaigns in recent years, I do. From our sojourn in North Carolina years ago, I remember a ninth-grader being quoted in the paper two days before an election calling the candidates "immature" for all their mud-slinging - a NINTH GRADER! There are times I feel with that old curmudgeon H. L. Mencken that "A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar." (2)
There is an old story of a little girl out in the pasture one day milking the family cow. A local candidate happened by and struck up a friendly conversation. The mother saw through the window that the child was disobeying the house rule about talking to strangers so the voice came bellowing out, "Susie, come inside right now. And if that fellow is a politician, bring the cow with you."
I realize that generalizations like that are unfair, but with our attention these days focused on Tuesday's elections, it is appropriate for us to think about our position as Christians when it comes to what we will do in the voting booth. The choices presented to us are terribly complex if for no other reason than we are asked to make our decision based on the scantiest of information - brief press summaries, quick "sound bites" on the evening news (which are often of the "gotcha" variety), and a few 30-second commercials (more than a few, actually) designed to point with pride, view with alarm and otherwise say as little as possible other than "MY OPPONENT IS A RAT."
Now, before going any farther, let me make clear that what I will say here this morning is not designed either to advocate or attack any candidate. This is a sermon to be preached before any election and regardless of who is running. With the Apostle Paul and the scripture we read a moment ago, we believe that Christians have an ongoing responsibility concerning government. Paul's position was that God ordained civil authority for the good of society, and even though that government might not always be all that it should, it still deserves our honor and respect, not to mention our taxes. Part of honor and respect means taking seriously our task of participating in the political process.
Presbyterians have never had a problem with that. We have always been active in matters of state because we believe that God is sovereign over every area of life. John Calvin was heavily involved in the civic affairs of Geneva. "He was convinced that everything in the public realm, from community sanitation to interest rates, was an occasion to honor God." (3) Thus, we who have followed in Calvin's footsteps believe that the church has a duty to be involved in politics - not necessarily partisan politics, but politics in the generic sense, what the dictionary defines as "the science of civil government." Our concern is not for candidates but for society - "Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord," says the Psalmist, and with Calvin, we are convinced that one of the ways you and I can demonstrate our desire to make this God's nation is by participating in the political process and in the way we vote. Our Christian confession is JESUS IS LORD, Lord of all that we are, all that we have, all that we do. Jesus is Lord, even Lord of the ballot box.
The election is Tuesday. Is there a Christian way to say "Jesus is Lord" in the voting booth? The answer is YES. Granted, the information available to us is less than we might want, and, to paraphrase Lincoln, too many of the people can be fooled too much of the time. But within that limitation, there are some concerns that Christians who take their faith seriously should voice whenever we cast our ballots.
The first concern is for social justice, and we take our cue from what we find in the Old Testament. To be sure, ancient Israel was no democracy and in many ways cannot be compared to what we have in 21st century America. But over and over the word comes to us through the voice of the prophets that a society, Israel or any other, which oppresses ANYONE is wrong! (One wishes that modern Israel would take those Hebrew scriptures to heart in their current dealings with the Palestinians and Arabs living within their borders.)
The primary focus of that prophetic concern was widows and orphans, those in the community who were basically defenseless, the "have-nots" who were dependent upon the "haves" for simple survival. In modern America, those "have-nots" include the homeless, the unemployables, those without health care, the working poor living below the poverty line because of their lack of marketable skills. There is discrimination based on age, sex, and race. What is the position of the candidates concerning those who do not fully enjoy the blessings of "liberty and justice for all?" The writer of Proverbs insisted, "If a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will always be secure." (4) To be sure, no candidate is going to say that the "have-nots" should be ignored. But does the candidate's track record indicate any serious interest in the problem beyond getting votes?
The opposite side of that coin is, "How much concern does the candidate have for the WEALTHY?" Someone (I don't know who) once said that politics is the art by which politicians obtain campaign contributions from the rich and votes from the poor on the pretext of protecting each from the other. That sounds painfully accurate.
The conventional wisdom is that "People vote their pocketbooks" - we will support those candidates who promise to GIVE to us but never those we suspect might COST us. Some organizations ask candidates to sign a "No New Taxes" pledge and excoriate any who refuse. But occasionally candidates demur because they do not want to have lied to voters if an emergency situation arises that would require new taxes. In 1988 Bruce Babbitt was one of several candidates for the Democratic nomination for President but he pulled out of the race early after saying that his plan for America included an increase in taxes; Babbitt said, "The Good Book turned out to be right: the truth shall make you free. Sometimes a little sooner than expected." The question for you and me is, "Is Jesus really Lord of our vote if we cast it based primarily on our own self-interest?" The answer to that, unpalatable though it might be, is clearly NO.
How about stewardship of resources? That is really a two-pronged question. In one sense, the issue involves our environment. The Genesis record says that humanity has been given dominion over the earth, a responsibility for the intelligent management of God's creation. As we know, we have done a pretty poor job of it - toxic waste, acid rain, depletion of the ozone, climate change at an alarming rate - but how are the candidates proposing to help us improve? Again, none of them is going to announce that they are in favor of pollution, but what is the office-seeker's record on these concerns?
The other sense of resource stewardship is financial. What does the candidate say about minding the cookie jar - spending? Everyone agrees that there is an inherent inequity in mortgaging the future of our unborn grandchildren to finance our profligacy, and the debt that this current administration has run up is unconscionable. But does the candidate take that injustice seriously enough to advance a viable plan for correcting the problem, one that makes economic sense and is more than political rhetoric? If Jesus is Lord of our ballot, those questions will impact our vote.
How about personal integrity? Almost every significant election in recent years has had questions in this regard. How much, if at all, should a candidate's character be a consideration if Jesus is Lord of the ballot box?
The answer is an unqualified, "It depends." In my view, what it depends on is whether or not the candidate broke the law, and if so, when. Was it a youthful indiscretion or is there a pattern of continual scoffing at laws the individual finds personally inconvenient? As the Apostle Paul says, "Everyone [and that means politicians too] must submit himself to the governing authorities."
In recent weeks we have been treated to the sad spectacle of Eliot Spitzer's resignation as Governor of New York following revelations of his dalliances with a high-priced call girl. Prostitution, in most parts of this nation, is illegal, and he knew it. Had anyone known about what was going on, the man never would have been elected. Following the resignation, Lt. Gov. David Patterson took over and a day later confessed to several extra-marital affairs during a "rough patch" in his marriage. He made his quick confession because, in this day of Tabloid TV and 24/7 cable news cycles, he knew that the truth would have come out soon enough and the embarrassment would have been even greater. Governor Patterson is still in office.
Why? Civil government is concerned with what is lawful and unlawful, not what is moral or immoral. Granted, the two often will be intertwined - civil rights, sexual harassment, drug use, driving under the influence, bribery, for just a few examples - but the issue for the voting booth is this: Has the candidate demonstrated that he or she respects the rule of law, the chief requisite for an orderly society? In my view, if a questionable action does not break the law nor is it part of a continuing pattern, it is not a Christian issue.
As we noted at the beginning of all this, politicians are not looked upon as paragons of virtue anyway. I read of an embassy reception where Ann Landers was approached by a rather pompous Senator. "So you're Ann Landers," he drawled. "Say something funny." Without hesitation she replied, "So you're a politician. Tell me a lie." (5) Our leaders of government, for good or ill, are role models for our young people. We need the best we can get. If everything else is exactly equal (and it never is) - same good programs, same understanding of intelligent resource management, same sense of justice, same high view of the law - I will vote for the one whose character and personal life will not embarrass us.
One final issue. If Jesus is Lord of the ballot box, does that mean Christians should only vote for other professing Christians? That was never much of an issue until 1976 with the candidacy of Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian who was very vocal about his faith. In 1988 it was an issue with the candidacy of the Rev. Pat Robertson. As to religion this year, that has come to attention because some folks have tried to paint Barack Obama as a Muslim because of his unusual name (that is not true, by the way - he is a committed Christian and has been for many years). To answer the question I borrow a quote from Martin Luther when he was asked something similar: "I would rather be governed by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian," he said. Amen! The unfortunate truth is that too many who profess Jesus Christ as Lord show less concern for what God considers a just society than some who make no profession of faith of any kind. One would wish that would never be true, but we all know it is. For myself, I have no objection to any candidate claiming to have the Ace of trump up his or her sleeve, but I do object when they claim that Jesus put it there. As responsible citizens, our task is to vote for the individuals who will best be able to reflect the divine will for us all - Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists - ALL!
Election Day Tuesday - a chance for us to exercise our divinely-ordained civic responsibility. We will vote for different candidates because we will not all come to the same conclusions when the questions we have been asking are posed. That is all right. Political difference is wholesome; it is political INdifference that is bad. If you are qualified to cast a vote Tuesday, do it! And try as best you can to cast it to reflect the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, even of the Ballot Box.
Back in the darkest days of the War Between the States, a clergyman said to Abraham Lincoln, "I surely hope the Lord is on our side."
The president replied, "I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right; but it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side." (6) My prayer for us all on election day is the same.
2. Jon Winokur, Ed., The Portable Curmudgeon, (New York: New American Library, 1987), p. 219
3. Richard Watts, "The Good Samaritan, Presbyterians, and Public Policy" Pamphlet, (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Peacemaking Program)
5. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1985), p. 341
6. ibid., p. 463