Kudos to believers who strive to vote like Christians. Some do so by electing candidates who best represent the Christian values they cherish most. Others do so by electing candidates whose overall approach to government they believe best serves the good of all. By voting in these ways, believers attempt to love and seek the peace of their neighbors.
Unfortunately, many people who are attempting to vote Christianly are actually voting Christendomly. By “Christendomly,” I mean striving to retain or recover the collaborative relationship that Christians have long enjoyed with Western governments. (See this recent Wayne Grudem column as an example.) Such collaboration began in the fourth century, when the Roman Empire went from ignoring and persecuting Christians to tolerating and eventually embracing Christianity as the state religion. Since then, believers have grown accustomed to promoting Christian values through civil mechanisms. In several places, Christianity became the mandatory state religion.
Christendom in the United States has always been more complicated. Though Christianity was never the official religion, civic leaders exercised considerable liberty in applying Christian convictions to public governance. This yielded a variety of benefits for Christians, including the protection of Sundays as a day of worship, holidays in the civic calendar, clergy presiding over civil ceremonies, chaplains in hospitals and the military, support in public education and the media, and generous tax exemptions.
Nothing in Scripture requires governments to bestow such favor. Christians simply convinced the authorities that it was in their best interest to do so. Likewise, nothing in Scripture suggests that Christians ought to work their way into positions of civic power or otherwise influence governing authorities. Nonetheless, this began happening at a certain point and has long endured.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the American experience of Christendom has been waning. Evidence of this is undeniable: desacralizing Sundays, secularizing holidays, overhauling marriage, excising Christian evangelism from chaplaincy, disparaging Christian beliefs in education and entertainment, and attempting to withdraw tax privileges from religious institutions.
It’s been demoralizing to lose our privileged status. It’s the closest thing to persecution many have experienced. But what has it to do with voting? My point is this: many Christians confuse Christianity with Christendom. For them, to vote for measures to retain or recover the vestiges of Christendom is to represent Christ—is to vote Christianly.
Yet even a cursory reading of Scripture demonstrates that Jesus and his followers made no effort to wield influence among governing authorities. This wasn’t because they were powerless to do so or convinced that the world would soon end. They saw themselves as continuing God’s work through Old Testament Israel. That work—even when Israel was numerous and powerful—never entailed infiltrating the power structures of other nations in order to wield positive influence through them.
Though God providentially placed a few exceptional Israelites in pagan power centers to protect his people from extinction (Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Esther), no Scripture equates their work with the responsibility of God’s people as a whole. Rather, God sets his people apart from the nations to do something unique through them. Whereas God uses other nations to preserve global peace and order, he uses his covenant people to establish a different kingdom that will eventually supplant all other nations.
The earliest Christians believed that governing authorities presided over an old order that was passing. They believed that Christ called the church to represent a new order that would never end. Seeking first this new order, God’s kingdom, was their mission. It was their socio-political agenda. So they established churches in every city that served as embassies of God’s kingdom. They invited all people to leave behind their old ambitions and to join them in seeking first God’s kingdom as revealed in Jesus.
To vote Christianly, then, is to participate in the electoral process in ways that seek first and bear witness to God’s alternative kingdom. To vote Christendomly is to use the electoral process to retain or recover Christian privilege. In this election, as with any election, we must resist that urge.