Writings by Cole Huffman

Why I Don't Preach the Vote

It doesn’t happen with as much frequency or gusto as it used to, but in each presidential election season I am stopped in the halls of our church by concerned citizens urging me to please address our civic duty to vote, or please gather our people together “to pray for this election.” I am opposed to neither. Let me state it differently: I am for voting and praying for officials and elections.

There is a long and esteemed American tradition of preachers speaking out on current issues, fomenting a right response. Many times in our history God has used a preacher’s timely prophetic oratory to channel winds of change. But when I hear some of my clerical brethren today speak to the times in the current political clime, I don’t hear statesmanship as much as ranting. As one person told me approvingly of her pastor’s preaching, “He really tears into that Obama!”

God has something to do with everything, including governing. Americans, like no other constituted people on Earth, have a sixth sense of this. Witness the Democratic Party at their national convention reinserting a reference to God in their platform. Some of their constituency bitterly protested but it still passed. Just Balaam’s ass braying in Charlotte, you say, O gentle GOP reader?

Let’s say I stand in the pulpit and charge our people to vote. That would please a section of our congregation who want to see their preacher alert to the nation’s peril. These are those who, for the most part, are no longer comfortable in a society rapidly becoming unrecognizable to them, but find comfort in knowing their pastor feels their pain and validates their concerns. Most in my congregation, however, would take such a charge to be something I felt I just had to say, they guess, and as long as I don’t seem Chicken Little about it they may even pull out their phones and make a note to themselves to ensure they’ve registered. Fine, well, and good.

So why don’t I preach the vote? Two reasons, the second one I’ll conclude with. The first reason has to do with how voting has taken on an added dimension for many evangelicals in the last thirty to forty years. It’s not just civic responsibility anymore that sends us to the polls but a sense of civic rescue. A definite set of assumptions about the sanctity of the nation inform the rescuer idea. Some of these assumptions I find mistaken in part, some in whole—and some of the anger and attitudes spawned by these assumptions have hurt the progress of our gospel. As a friend of mine says, “God is not in the business of saving America but saving Americans.”

A lot of evangelicals still wag fingers of warning in the face of the nation for abandoning God. This is not always out of place or over the top. Would to God that His church be known more for our courage of convictions! The other pole from civil religion is not full on apathy but a namby-pamby kind of being that one writer calls “speaking in the wimperative.” Errant assumptions frame this posture too, like Jesus never intentionally offended anyone, or if we’re doing things Jesus’ way people will always be receptive to Him.

What Flannery O’Connor said was true of the Christian novelist trying to get his message across can also be true for Christian citizens:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.”

O’Connor wasn’t referring to “violent means” literally, but using words and storylines in arresting ways to knock the reader off his platitudes and tear away his assumptions—what he’s used to “seeing as natural” are in fact distortions. But there’s an application for this within the church as well as without, for not all within the church who think they hear and see just fine actually do.

I’ll say it clearly here: You should join me in voting in this presidential election. It’s always important. (See an earlier post on this, “How Then Should We Vote?”, in the Archives above; go to December 2011.) But I’m not going to preach the vote. Don’t assume my not doing so means I don’t hold the same fundamental beliefs as you about our mutual civic responsibilities and privileges.

This takes me to my second aforementioned reason for not preaching the vote, which I’ll state as a conclusion. Voting is under biblical authority, but touting it from the pulpit gives the sense that it is a biblically-set responsibility. I think this is an important distinction. Being that it is not a biblically-set responsibility, to not vote, while a lapse of citizenship, is not a sin against God. Some of the attitudes I’ve taken into voting booths, on the other hand, have been.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:57 PM
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