My First Vote

I didn’t know a lot about policy when I voted. I didn’t know anything about policy, actually. But I did have other ways I could think about how to use my vote.

On Tuesday, Christians in eleven states plus a range of U.S. territories will need to decide whether or not to vote in the primaries—and if they do, they’ll need to decide how to vote. I’m writing to those who are making that latter decision.

There are a range of criteria you can use to determine who to support in an election: The candidate whose policies make the most sense to you; the candidate who has the most relevant experience or the freshest perspective; the candidate who seems to care about the issues you care about most; the candidate who seems to share your background and outlook. In all likelihood, you’ll probably vote based on a combination of those things.

I’d like to explain how I chose who I’d support the first time I voted, and why I think that the factors that guided my vote should also play a part in helping you decide how to vote this Tuesday.

I looked up at my dorm building my first day of college orientation excited for the freedom I’d enjoy, the brilliant people I’d meet and the sex I would probably have over the next four years as I developed the skills that would let me enjoy a wealthy adulthood writing pulpy best-sellers. Three months later, I was a born-again Christian.

The idea that God was anything more than a vague, apersonal force or some kind of base system of logic was, more or less, brand-new to me. This wasn’t the way I was raised. It wasn’t anything I had had that much experience with. I doubted that, until then, I had known even a dozen people with active relationships with the living God. And while I didn’t really understand everything it meant to believe that God not only had a personality but actually became a person, I at least recognized that it was a big claim. It was significant. And it was probably going to end up changing the way I looked at everything.

I had only just turned 18, and instead of trying to figure out what this meant for the way I vote, I sat that year’s mid-term elections out. I decided to just read my Bible, pray, meet other Christians, and try to get my head around what the fact that there’s a “magic zombie living in the sky.” I spent the next two years praying about what that meant for the way I interacted with the people right in front of me, and what it meant for my school work and eventual career.

My junior year in college was a presidential election year, and for no real reason I can remember other than peer pressure, I decided that I was going to vote. Everyone around me was voting—my classmates argued vehemently about politics in class discussions; my professors and guest lecturers seemed to take civic engagement as a given. But when I tried to figure out how my faith required me to vote, I got mixed messages: “You can’t be a Christian and vote Democrat in this election,” someone said quite matter-of-factly in Bible study one night. That was news to the insatiable evangelist with a “Young Christian Democrats” pin on her backpack at a worship event that weekend.

I was in art school, studying language and stories. I was not a theologian. I doubt I even understood what the word “theology” meant. I was also not a policy expert. I’d never even taken a public administration or political science class. But I knew that my faith was supposed to influence every dimension of my life, so if I was going to vote, I had to bring my faith into the decision of who to support.

The Bible was filled with commands to be calm, sacrificially loving, tender and generous and steady even when in danger or under active persecution. To repay hatred with love, to not let your confidence in Jesus’ eventual victory dissuade you from the need to retaliate against those who threaten you. It promised that people from all people-groups—even the groups we’re naturally predisposed to mistrusting or resenting—will be represented in the Kingdom. And part of our jobs as Christians is to not give the impression that we think we have anything to fear.

So, the first time I voted, I voted for the candidate who didn’t seem to be trying to make people afraid or angry. I didn’t want to reward the kinds of stories that made people afraid or angry while I was living under the banner of the God who so loved his enemies that he went to the cross for them, and who, upon his resurrection, told people to be not afraid.

If you are voting in Super Tuesday’s primaries, you probably have a range of qualities and qualifications you are considering as you weigh which candidate to support. I strongly encourage you to add another topic to the list of issues you are considering: What do we know about God’s plan for human conduct, and which candidate’s messages could encourage people to live in line with that plan?

The Bible tells us that a human life lived in line with God’s spirit will radiate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. You could very well decide that a politician whose arguments are rooted in anger, in fear or in fractiousness is a politician who will help the church stand out more clearly by contrast.

But personally I think that we should take seriously the fact that the way we vote, the messages we reward, and the attitudes we help elevate to higher profiles in the national discourse tell the non-Christian world around us a lot about what our vision for human flourishing is. The attitudes we support in politics will always have an impact on our attempts to witness to the world around us. Whether we like it or not, a reality of our mission field is that the “Christian vote” is tracked, tabulated and shapes the society’s understanding of who we are and what we really believe. The people we are trying to invite into the community of faith give as much much weight to the things we proclaim with our actions as to the things we proclaim with our words.

I’m not a perfect representative of Christian values in the political arena. Just a few months ago, I was unfair and impatient with representatives from the police force and local government at a town hall meeting on my block. I’m not reminding you of this in an attempt to condescend to you—I fail at this as often as I succeed. I’m not writing this in an attempt to chastise or shame you. I’m writing this to encourage you. God has trusted you enough to put you in this place at this time to prayerfully make these decisions before the watching eyes of the people and institutions around us.

We’re surrounded by people who hear us preach about a God of love and justice, victory and mercy and hospitality. Consider carefully how you can demonstrate what it means to be made in that kind of image.

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  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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