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In my survey course of U.S. history, we discuss the official beginning of the republic of the United States. We look at the similarities and differences with the English constitution and the French Revolution, and we debate what worked well under the Articles of Confederation, what didn’t work well, and the genius and shortcomings of the U.S. Constitution. The discourse surrounding the Articles of Confederation and Constitution in the early republic revolved around power: should the central (federal) government hold the most power? Or should the states hold the most power? The Articles gave more power to the states. It didn’t work, and the Articles were scrapped in favor of the U.S. Constitution, which gave more power to the federal government. Yet the debate over who should hold the most power continued. This debate created the first two political parties, the Federalists and the (creatively named) Anti-Federalists. And the debate over power continued.
In the 19th century, the U.S. struggled with federal vs. state power in light of states that allowed slavery and states that did not. As the country continued to expand at the expense of indigenous peoples, slave states and “free” states worried about which group would have more federal power. If the Civil War decided the federal government ultimately trumped states’ rights, the 20th century demonstrated the issue did not fade away. School integration once again tapped into issues of state vs. federal power. Ultimately, the U.S. becoming a world power in the aftermath of WWII and maintaining a permanent military presence shifted power in the hands of the federal government, perhaps permanently. And yet the debate continues. Whether it is environmental issues, health care, education and school funding, treatment of women and minority groups, or immigration and ideas of citizenship, much of the debate still revolves around who has the right to make and enforce decisions. Individuals? States? Or the Federal government?
In the survey course, we also talk about political ideology and how it relates to Christian theology. A number of thoughtful students remarked that neither party ideology (now or at the founding) lines up with Christian theology. Is there a Christian perspective on whether power should be more concentrated in the hands of the states? Or a central government? The scriptures are very clear about what it means to love God and your neighbor, but it seems to me that the scriptures are deliberately uninstructive when it comes to the ‘correct’ political ideology.
In listening, observing, and processing the current presidential race in light of past presidential races and fractious political discourse in American politics, part of me is relieved. While Christians certainly have a stake in political outcomes, there is no real “Christian” political party. Can you imagine such a political party? Most people, let alone churches cannot agree on the interpretation of scripture – can you imagine a more nightmarish foundation for a political party? Of course, both political parties, in the past and the present, claim to be the true party for Christians, but neither (or both, depending on your point of view) can really claim a clear scriptural basis for their basic political ideology. Political parties certainly use particular issues to appeal to Christian voters, but is that the same thing as a fundamentally Christian perspective on the ideology of the role and function of government in in the United States?
So if neither the Democrats or the Republicans can claim a fundamentally Christian ideology, how does a Christian vote and engage in politics? I know many Christians who are Democrats, many Christians who are Republicans, and many who are Independents, Libertarians, Green party and other affiliations. Some choose to vote on a single issue, some on a few key issues, some on character instead of issues, and some (many? I’m talking to you, 18-25 year olds) do not vote at all. For many voters, making this sort of decision is simply too complicated and time consuming. In fact, it would require thoughtful consideration.
Is it too much to ask that Christians are thoughtful in their decisions about who to vote for, in light of a political system where there is no political party based on a Christian view of power and the world?