Every four years, I get nervous as election day approaches. Inevitably, well-meaning ministers publicly announce their endorsement of a presidential candidate and call on all "professing Christians" to elect (or re-elect) the nominee. Church leaders on both right and left confidently answer the same question ("What Would Jesus Do?") with different answers ("re-elect Bush!", "vote Kerry!"). Yet both camps are guilty of the same mistake – confusion over the "two cities," collapsing of the "two kingdoms," and a conflating of the eternal (gospel) with the temporal (state).
While competing political interests have invoked divine blessing on their policy agendas for millennia (Lincoln noted this irony in his second inaugural address), I will address the unshakeable belief of many American evangelicals that God is a Republican and that Jesus would vote for GOP candidates. This myth prompts a correlative question: "can a Christian be a Democrat?" (a question which strikes many of us as odd as, say, "can a Christian be a Yankee's fan?") As a Reformed, confessional evangelical and a Democrat I often get this question.
A few initial observations about the question's presuppositions: first, it's a sad irony that today's politically conservative evangelicals commit similar errors (pitching a conservative political gospel) as did the mainline churches (promoting a liberal social gospel) in the 1960s. Both confused the distinct roles of the two cities, and the believer's dual citizenship in both. Second, equating a political party's platform with God's purposes will inevitably cheapen the gospel, inviting an inexorable slide toward civil religion and, ultimately, cultural Christianity. Third, purporting to herald Trinitarian policy preferences is a tad presumptuous. Do politically conservative evangelicals really believe they know what position Jesus would take on policy issues like welfare reform, global warming or Third World debt relief?
Now to the question: while Scripture calls us to be exemplary citizens within society, it neither mandates nor precludes membership in, or support for, either political party. After all, America is not a theocracy but a constitutional republic, and neither political party "speaks for God." The public policies they promote may be sound, even just, but that doesn't make them "Christian." Because neither party has a corner on the truth, it's as unwise for Republicans to seek God's stamp of approval for their pet issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, school prayer) as it is for Democrats to do so for theirs (e.g., civil rights, social welfare, economic justice).
That is not to say our faith doesn't inform our public policy prescriptions. It can and should. But it is not advisable to construct a "political Apostle's Creed" of core issues. Before labeling a policy as "Christian," evangelicals must remember that many political debates are not ultimately about ends, but rather the best means to achieve those shared ends. Reasonable Christians will honestly disagree over which policies are the most prudent and sensible. Even if it were possible to identify an issue in which theoretically all Christians should agree, Scripture will rarely, if ever, answer the question as to which policy prescription temporal authorities should pursue.
Thus, Christians can be Democrats for the same reason they can be Republicans. Christ commanded us to "render under Caesar," which includes our thoughtful participation in the public square. Both political parties promote policies which Christians can affirm, and it's our civic and biblical duty to work out our political involvement with fear and trembling. Though Lincoln's theology was hardly orthodox, it was biblical on this point: let us all prayfully consider whether our positions are on God's side, rather than the reverse.