Where is the line between voting according to our moral convictions and voting to enforce our ideas of morality on others? It is not an easy line to find, and is often easiest to see in hindsight. For example, it is now clear that the abolitionists were exactly right in voting for freedom for all slaves, leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. They were not enforcing their morality on others; they were rightly recognizing a universal moral imperative whose time had come. On the other hand, in the era of Prohibition, well-meaning people were sure God had called them to eliminate, by legislation, the scourge of alcoholism from the earth. Their intentions may have been good, but few would now doubt their error. The line is there; but each new generation has to discover it for themselves in the struggle of faith.
I would offer three rules of thumb to help locate that line between holding our moral convictions firm, and yet refraining from enforcing them on others. I suggest the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37) as a valuable theological frame of reference.
First, any kind of religious test for moral responsibility for our neighbor contradicts the truth of the gospel. The parable makes it fully clear: genuine love for neighbor reaches well beyond the community of faith to include all humanity in its sheer need. The pious and the religious walked on the other side of the rode, unwilling to touch trouble due to religious scruple; but Jesus has made it crystal clear in the very heart of his teaching that love for neighbor even includes—perhaps especially includes—love for the enemy. Hiding religious propaganda inside a legislative agenda does no credit to the Christian gospel. The God of the gospel already holds the whole world in his hands; and those who are responsible to him recognize their moral responsibility for their fellow humanity, irrespective of religious adherence.
Second, moral action in society is pragmatic, not pure. The purist always insists the facts of real life meet the test of a pure moral theory. Does this half-dead man on the road fit my moral agenda for helping others? The priest and the Levite cling to the purity of their theory, and walk away unmoved. The true test of Christian moral action in society is always pragmatic: what real difference does possible moral action make in the lives of real people? The Samaritan sees the man in his need, and responds. He does not respond according to a predetermined “worldview”; he responds according to the concrete reality of the need of the moment. To carry out moral convictions over into the way we vote means avoiding the temptation of the priest and Levite, which is to cling to purity no matter the human cost; and instead to walk the way of the Samaritan, measuring our actions by the real impact for good on the concrete situation of the present.
Third, it is crucial to remember the meaning of the biblical word “righteousness”. In the Bible, righteousness is not an abstract moral norm, but a relationship of mutual obligation. Those who honor the obligations implied in a relationship are deemed righteous. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear: we do not choose (as disembodied individuals) moral responsibility for our neighbor; we have (as those joined by our co-humanity) such responsibility. My neighbor, simply by the sheer fact of his/her existence, has a moral claim upon my life, under the gracious mercy of God. Nor is my responsibility to my neighbor based upon his/her worth of merit; once again, the word of Christ concerning love for enemy is essential. My responsibility to my neighbor is based upon our common relationship to God, who joins us in mutual obligation in society. Thus, from a biblical perspective, moral responsibility for the good of my neighbor is never merely voluntary; it is grounded in the essential right of being human in God’s good world.
To summarize: two extreme options seem unwarranted. The Christian cannot simply run and hide from society, as if private obedience were enough; no, in the Scriptures, the kingdom of God and a civil society are in fact two sides of the same coin. On the other hand, the Christian cannot assume that society is there simply as a mirror of Christian moral conviction; no, love for the enemy implies a genial and graceful acceptance of a pluralistic and cosmopolitan global society. In between these two extremes, every Christian struggles to find the line where moral conviction matches the real needs of society as expressed in concrete legislative proposals. The challenge of Christ to us all is the same: “go thou and do likewise…”
Paul McGlasson is the author of No! A Theological Response to Christian Reconstructionism and is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sullivan, Indiana. He received his MDiv from Yale Divinity School, and his PhD from Yale University in Systematic Theology. He is the author of several books, including God the Redeemer, Canon and Proclamation, and Invitation to Dogmatic Theology. Before entering the parish ministry, McGlasson taught theology for several years in college and seminary.