It's election season, and that means some of the people seeking political office will also be seeking the Christian vote. But what is this thing called "the Christian vote"? What makes a vote specifically or distinctly Christian?
Self-professing Christians represent a great diversity of political views, so much diversity, in fact, that one might wonder if these views can be understood to form a coherent political platform, let alone a consistent Christian position. Moreover, the Christians doing the voting are sometimes known to advocate for political positions that do not seem to reflect a Christian witness.
It's not easy to be a Christian voter. The temptation, always, is to put one's faith and hope somewhere else--the glory of the nation, the power of the military, the success of the market--or to give one's ultimate trust to someone other than God. Being a Christian voter means that one must constantly ask, how does this or that political position reflect and further the love of God for every person, community, and place in this world? It means that one must have a fairly clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
But what makes a Christian?
Though appearing simple, this question is beset with confusion as Christians argue amongst themselves and with others about what is most fundamental to their faith. In some respects, the arguing and the diversity of positions are a good thing, because faith is a complex and far-reaching phenomenon. It can't be reduced to a single soundbite. Even so, it is important from time to time to return to this most basic of questions so that Christians can determine if they have lost their way or become hypocrites.
As a way to focus our thinking, I propose that we start with some words of Jesus: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).
Love is not optional for Christians. It goes to the heart of Christian faith and life. One could even say that love is the decisive test that determines one's faithfulness to and worship of God. To be a Christian is to act in ways that participate in the divine love that creates and nurtures and heals the world. The moment one ceases to love is also the moment one ceases to be Christian. Why? Because the action of love is the practical proof that one is in communion with God and that one knows who God is. Love is our fundamental point of access to God. Without love it is impossible to know God, because "God is love" (1 John 4:8).
The love that is being talked about here is not abstract or merely a pious sentiment. To be real it has to be worked out in the practical living we share with others. If people fail to love in the day to day, they forfeit any claim to know God. Scripture is clear on this: "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20).
Moreover, the love of God is radical and all-inclusive. It seeks to be active in everyone and everything, because, from a Christian point of view, every creature that exists does so only as the expression of God's loving delight in it. Divine love is what makes life possible. It is the power that inspires and enables people to live into the fullness of their lives.
But love is hard. The temptation is to want to limit love to the scope of personal, communal, or national ambition, or it is to place conditions upon and boundaries around it. It is to divide the world into the lovable and the unlovable, and then direct one's energies accordingly. Jesus sees it differently. He says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45). He wasn't kidding.
The question for Christian voters, therefore, is whether they can turn their vote into a petition for more love in the world. I realize that there are some Christians who believe their faith has nothing to do with political action. But that is like saying love pertains to the confines of private life: the messiness of public life operates by rules other than love. Does the love of God know boundaries like this, or does it seek to be active everywhere?
Putting "the Christian vote" in terms of this far-reaching love sounds utterly naïve and impractical. We live in a hard world where difficult choices need to be made, choices that will clearly benefit some but not others. Moreover, there are others who really mean to hurt this country and its people.
Taking this realist, even cynical, line is a failure of Christian imagination. It is also a failure of fidelity to Jesus as the one who lived in a hard world very much like our own.
My aim is not to make America a Christian nation. It is to ask Christians to think more deeply about whether or not they mean to vote in ways that extend God's love in the world. My hunch is that if they do, we might see politicians who give them something to vote for.
Norman Wirzba is the author, most recently, of Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity. You can follow him on twitter @nwirzba.