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People of Faith Should Vote with a Well-Informed Religious Conscience

The Christmas season has arrived again and the hustle and bustle of the holiday rush will occupy our time and thoughts over the coming weeks. Yet, another event is beginning to seek our attention that will captivate our minds for the next year; the 2008 presidential election.

We have not had so many choices of candidates from both parties in many elections, and thus we might find it hard to decide for whom we will cast our vote. Such anxiety over how we will vote is only intensified by the confusion we hear from candidates who are vague on where they stand on issues that are important to us. We are faced with a serious choice, but not an easy one.

Why write about the future election on a blog about faith? This is a legitimate question, but one I can answer from the recent history of the influence of religion in the elections for the highest office in our nation. Indeed, many have rightly observed that during our most recent elections for president, religion has played a key, if not a deciding factor in campaigns.

This is not to imply that the religious influence in politics is always a negative, for although church and state must always remain separate, personal religious beliefs cannot be put aside when it comes to participating in the most important act a democracy performs–voting. To be sure, for someone to ask me to check my faith at the door of the voting booth is not only a violation of my political rights, it is also impossible for me to do.

But this raises a serious question that often clouds the debates about the relationship between religion and politics. Does one party have a legitimate claim to care more for religious values than the other? Or, to put it more bluntly, does God favor the views of one party, and thus does God have a vote in the political races that take place in our nation?

To be honest, I fear that many think the answer to these questions is yes. In fact, in recent elections it appears that one party, the Republican Party, has arrogantly offered itself as the only party that cares for the values of religious people, namely those of the Christian faith. This is not to generalize all members and voters within the GOP, but the evidence from past, and now present, campaigns is there.

Yet, the blame for religious domination by one party should not be laid entirely at the doorstep of Republican headquarters, for in their neglect, and even fear, to talk about religion and values in the public sphere, or to fight to push neglected moral issues to the forefront of political debates, the Democratic Party has relinquished its place at the religion and values debate. Thus they have failed to bring honest, thoughtful, and possibly dissenting views on issues that are religiously important, but which can be equally supported from a Christian position.

The problem with this approach to politics is that one party hijacks Christianity as a political tool, while the other views religion as politically poisonous. This inevitably leads to one party using religion for political advantage, persuading religiously minded people that they are indeed God’s party. Those religiously minded people tend to accept such religious rhetoric as gospel without critically thinking about each issue from a thoughtful religious position. In other words, one party or candidate may say they stand for certain religious values, but such positions may not be supported by thoughtful and logical reflection on the scope of the Christian faith.

Let me be clear. Despite opposition from those who think religion has no place in politics, I am a firm believer that my faith should inform the way I vote. However, in a political environment where argument has replaced dialogue, and rhetoric has replaced substance, I am not entirely sure that many of us are thinking critically and constructively about political issues from a well-informed religious perspective. Committing this fallacy leads us to assume that some positions are more authentically Christian. Yet, these positions may not be true to the teachings of Jesus and the biblical tradition.

Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.