Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I am off to the National SBL meeting (Society of Biblical Literature), and whilst I am away I thought I would leave this for you to bat around. I shall return to the blogosphere next week.

A lot of heat, and very little light is about to be shed in the next twelve months when it comes to political races, and we have already seen some truly surprising things happen-- like Pat Robertson endorsing Rudy Guliani! Surely the eschaton is at hand.

I have no idea how the national races will turn out, but we have just had our gubernatorial (that’s an election where you vote for Goober :) contest among others in Kentucky, and the Republicans were thoroughly beaten in most of the races. At least from this vantage point, this outcome gives us an opportunity to reassess the whole issue of Christian aligning themselves with a particular political party, rather than evaluating candidates on an issue by issue, or candidate by candidate basis. We ought to be evaluating each candidate on their own merits, not on the basis of their current party affiliation. This of course requires more thought, instead of just pushing the straight party ticket button in the polling booth. Christians should be good citizens and be more thoughtful about who they vote for. They shouldn’t just listen to this or that Evangelical leader’s endorsements, even if it is someone like James Dobson or Pat Robertson who have considerable political clout.

In this particular post I want to suggest a series of steps Evangelicals should take in approaching next November’s elections. Some have to do with basic Christian obligation as a citizen of this country who appreciates the freedom and democracy we have, and then some of them have to do with critical thinking about issues and candidates.

1) DO YOUR HOMEWORK—There is really no excuse for laziness when it comes to being an informed voter, especially when we now have such a wealth of information online, and through other viable sources of news about candidates. Do not use the ‘cop out’ of ‘they’re all just the same’, or ‘no politicians are trustworthy’ or ‘I don’t have time for this’. If you have time to enjoy the freedoms you have in this country, then you certainly have time to become an informed voter. Period.

2) PLAN ON VOTING, EVEN IF YOU ARE FRUSTRATED—The percentage of Christians who could vote but don’t is high, much too high, and the end result of such bad behavior is that we often get exactly what we’ve voted for--- Nothing! Or at least, nothing good. Do not let the fact that at this juncture there may seem to be no obvious candidate for a conservative Christian to vote for, for this office or that, deter you. There is better and there is worse, and you’d better figure out which is which, or what we will get is worse. This is particularly an urgent matter since in the last eight years things have certainly gotten worse economically and it terms of our relationships both with our allies and enemies. The politics of fear is trumping the politics of faith and sound reasoning repeatedly, and this leads to disastrous results in the long run for our country.

3) DO NOT BE A ONE ISSUE VOTER-- However passionate you may be about a particular issue, lets say abortion, you should never, never vote for someone simply on the basis of a single ethical issue. Never. Did, I mention not ever. Why not? Because there are a plethora of inter-related important issues that affect our lives, and our Christian existence, and if you privilege only one such issue, you are likely to make a mistake in evaluating candidates. It is fine to allow a stance on one issue to be the tipping point such that you favor candidate A over candidate B, when otherwise it’s pretty much of a wash, but there should be no shibboleth. One illustration will have to do. In a crucial election during the time of the cold war, and with heightened tensions with Cuba. Kennedy ran vs. Nixon. Many people did not vote for Kennedy, simply because he was a Catholic, and we had not had a Catholic President previously. There were even stupid and ill-considered inflammatory remarks made about how if Kennedy got elected, the country would be subject to the influence of the Pope in some objectionable ways. Thank goodness such benighted ideas did not determine the outcome of the election. Kennedy was the right man at the time, and he helped diffuse the Cuban missile crisis. We need to learn some lessons from the political past lest we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

From here on, in this post, I will be talking about matters that pertain to critical thinking on the issues.


Life is complex, and so are ethical issues. One of the things you need to decide is whether it is more important to you what kind of person you vote for, in terms of character, or what the stances are of the person you are voting for. Sometimes we have elected well-meaning good Christian folks who couldn’t govern their way out of a paper bag. Sometimes we have elected very effective politicians, who nevertheless raised some issues for us because of their stances on particular issues. In a perfect world we could wish for candidates who are both skilled as public servants and have impeccable character. Unfortunately, this all too often not the case, especially because of the way our political process now works with PAC money and lobbyists and numerous other unhealthy factors determining who actually can be viable candidates for a major office. In the situation we are in, how much should the candidate’s agreement with me on my list of hot button issues weigh in my decision? How much should their apparent character weigh? What do you do if it’s hard to tell? These are important questions. Personally I would rather have a politician skilled in the art of compromise (which is of the essence of modern democracy and policy making) who is of generally good character, but with whom I may disagree with on this issue or another, than a devout but unexperienced and unskilled Christian person. Let me use an analogy. Would you rather have a surgeon operating on you in a life threatening situation who is a devout Christian, but not all that skillful and experienced in getting the job done right, or would you rather have a surgeon who has an impeccable record in regard to doing his job well, a stellar record of good outcomes when he applied his skills but whom you had some ethical disagreements? I personally would want surgeon B, if there had to be a choice.



Obviously, this list of vital issues is a moving target which will change in some cases, as our country’s situation changes. I wouldn’t think anyone would be weighing where the current crop of candidates stand on the Spanish-American war many moons ago! I would strongly urge Evangelicals not to limit their list to just personal ethical issues, such as matters of sexual ethics, abortion, and the like. These are very important, but as thinking Evangelicals you also need to weigh where candidates stand on various aspects of foreign policy—the trade deficit, the war in Iraq, or economic relationships with China and other third world countries, the position of the candidate on Darfur, the issue of nuclear regulation (in North Korea, Iran etc.), our relationship with crucial Moslem countries where we have a stake but are not embroiled in military action currently—Turkey, Pakistan, etc. In other words, we need to be global Christians, and think globally, especially if our first commitment is, as it should be, to the worldwide body of Christ and the worldwide spread of the Gospel.


Obfuscation and fuzziness has of course become a political art form, and sometimes this is because the potential emperor has no clothes, or hasn’t thought through the issues themselves. The last thing we need o our current situation is politicians who make it up as they go along, or show signs of constantly shifting their views, depending on which way the political wind blows. A good example of the latter would be stances taken on the gay marriage issue. Thus far, the only Democratic candidate for President that I have personally heard repeatedly say he is opposed to changing the current legal definition of marriage is John Edwards. Others have flip-flopped back and forth, depending on the audience. This may be a telltale sign of a lack of conviction on the matter, a very important criteria for evaluating candidates. Are they consistent in their views, unless they receive new information which legitimately leads to saying ‘I was wrong, and have changed my mind on that issue’?


I wish I could tell you that the above outlined process of discernment was easy, but it is not. And there will be ambiguities, and you will have to make some judgment calls. You have to accept that you may well make some mistakes, and all the more is this likely to be the case when there is no clear front-runner that an Evangelical Christian of any stripe might think was someone one ought obviously to vote for.

Over the course of the coming twelve months, pay attention to the ads, watch a few of the debates, read up on the candidates web sites, watch the primaries, and be prepared. It would be a great tragedy if only a minority of Christians voted in the next election who are eligible, and the country continued its downward slide as a result. The old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ could be changed to ‘you get what you do or don’t vote for’. Remember the old adage—all it takes for something bad to happen, or continue happening, is for good people to stand idly by and let that transpire.


ChrisB said...


You say we should never be single-issue voters because "there are a plethora of inter-related important issues that affect our lives, and our Christian existence." You then use abortion as an example.

I think that is the one issue where that single issue should be a deal-breaker. People can debate on the wisdom of the war, on how to help the poor, or on what to do about the environment.

But there should be no debate over whether it's ok to kill unborn children. I can't trust someone who comes in on the wrong side of that issue to make a correct moral judgement about anything else.

There is no other issue quite like that one, and I think it is appropriate to use that one issue to knock out candidates.

Nick Crew said...

Thanks for the advice, this will be my first vote, and I'm frustrated already. Im at Liberty University now and there a powerful peer pressure here with who you vote for. I know that its important to vote, but so much pressure in one direction by the the evangelical culture combined with my uncertainty of a right decision in general makes want to throw up my hands and quit....but I guess I shouldnt do that

Israel said...

And may I give one name for people to research because the media has a clear blackout of this man, and this is what he says about his faith:

I have never been one who is comfortable talking about my faith in the political arena. In fact, the pandering that typically occurs in the election season I find to be distasteful. But for those who have asked, I freely confess that Jesus Christ is my personal Savior, and that I seek His guidance in all that I do. I know, as you do, that our freedoms come not from man, but from God. My record of public service reflects my reverence for the Natural Rights with which we have been endowed by a loving Creator.

The man who so unequivocally declares his faith in jesus like this, is not Romney or Huckabee, it's 10-term Texas Congressman, Ron Paul.

If you have 8 minutes, there's a really good video you can watch about Ron Paul right here:

His campaign website is here:

Sorry to seemingly be promoting, but you just won't hear about Ron Paul on CNN or Fox. And for the record, I am NOT American, yet even i can see this one thing so clearly, that Ron Paul is not a politician, he's an Elder Statesman! Please investigate him.

wnpaul said...

I was about to gently take issue with your advice not to be a one-issue-voter, even on such matters as abortion. The abortion license seems to be such an unmitigated evil that it almost warrants a one-issue-vote. Except, as I thought about it, I realized that while such a vote might be a moral statement, in all likelihood it would not make any difference on this issue. The President of the United States cannot turn the country around on this issue. Even a veto will not halt a determined congress.

Therefore I conclude that the time and place for a single-issue-vote on the subject of abortion or any other issue would be congressional or state legislature elections rather than gubernatorial or presidential elections.

All of that said I should probably confess that I am not an American, and while I have lived in the US, currently I live in Vienna, Austria. But of course who you folks elect as President affects us over here as well :-)

Journeyman said...

Really interesting thoughts. As an American Studies graduate from the UK I watch American elections with interest, especially the primaries which always seem more fun.

However, regardless of the political institution in power, the challenge for all Christians is to pray for those who have positions of power and authority.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Chris;

And here is where I must gently disagree with you. In the first place the Bible really says nothing directly about abortion. I agree there are some indirect implications against it, but that is all. If it was the ultimate ethical issue for us, would God really have inspired no comments on it, when it was happening rampantly in the Biblical era and there were even abortion producing drugs (which may be mentioned in passing by Paul)? Secondly, are you really saying that the life of the unborn child is more important than the life of the mother, when there is a truly life threatening situation for the mother-- say an ectopic pregnancy? I don't think so. Thirdly, a pro-life position needs to have some consistency to it. If all life is sacred then there can be no debate that war and capital punishment are violations of that truth. If then one wants to say BUT, there are exceptions on those two issues, I see no reason whatsoever to say there could not be exceptions to the rule in the case of a life-threatening pregnancy. So, while I have no problem with making abortion a deciding issue in who you vote for, its wrong to make it the deal breaker if the candidate is otherwise excellent, especially when I don't think any of these candidates are actually Pro-abortion, they are pro-choice for the mother, which is not the same thing.

Ben W.

Kevin said...

the funny thing about the single issue abortion voters is that all it takes to convince them someone is pro-abortion is them saying such. actual statistics never seem to make their way into the argument, even after the fact.

i will use the current president as a perfect example. he is pro-life (anti-abortion) and i know many (including my own family) who voted for him solely on that issue and because he is a "christian". and while abortion is still legal, they will point to his supreme court nominations as final justification for that vote.

but looking at the record, abortions have actually increased during his presidency for various reasons. (see Dr. Glen Stasson at or article 050121_abort at so how does that vote for the pro-life guy look now? he actually managed to reverse a decreasing trend of abortions in the US. impressive!

this is just one example why ben's advice is good and sound. as simple as you want to make it, it's never quite that easy.

Todd H said...

I hope this thread doesn't degenerate into just an abortion-related debate. That being said, the point I have been thinking about the most lately is #4. Character is so important to me, and has been a large part of my voting decisions in the past, but now I am also wondering about the importance of electing people who can govern well. Ideally, it wouldn't be an either-or type of choice, but I think now I would rather have someone who is skilled at leadership, compromise, and decision-making than someone who I agree with on all the issues or who has great character but poor political skills.

Jeremiah said...

Well said Kevin...

Alex said...

Amen Ben,

I am voting for Ron Paul but I encourage everyone to look long and hard on their own initiative to determine the candidate that they think is best. Let's all put some effort in this time around into preserving the country that we all love.

Atlanta, GA.

Matt said...


Any chance that you'll post a follow-up to this note on your friend's, Tom Wright, message on political theology?


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Matt:

His talks are online at


Paul said...

Hi Ben,

(I always like to introduce myself just a little, so I'll say I'm someone who's read some of your books and has been reading your blog for a few weeks)

I'm curious about two things in your post, though I think there are quite a number of points worth further discussion (like what constitutes things being "economically worse").

Question one: from whence arises our obligation to vote?

Question two: why haven't you brought any specifically biblical wisdom to bear on the question? If it is the obligation of CHRISTIANS to vote, shouldn't we be looking to the testimony of the wisdom if our Israelites fathers or to Jesus?

I'll spell out the subtext of my question so as to not leave it in doubt. It is my opinion that this obligation to vote is part of the American political myth (though it exists in other democracies), alongside the notion that the military is "fighting for our freedoms", etc.

I can conceivably imagine someone making a case for a voting obligation on natural law or humanistic grounds, theoretically applicable to everyone in our society. I have a much harder time imagining someone demonstrating that God demands that christians vote.

I'd be happy to see how you have been thinking about the issue though.

Dave said...

Loved the post, but I have to take issue with one point: The thinking evangelical would do well to consider the Spanish-American War, which in my opinion has more similarities to our current conflict than any other. Just substitute "Remember the Maine" and the now debunked allegations against Spain for 9/11 and WMD, and the rest is obvious--a speedy victory followed by a protracted, brutal insurgency conflict (Philippine-American War). If only we had remembered the Maine, maybe we wouldn't have been duped this time around.

Robert said...

I would suggest that on many levels, Christians need to be aware of an effect of cultural "backlash," and ponder the course of action previously taken. See, e.g., this horrifying dispute about a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which amply illustrates the results that can follow from a failure to achieve full awareness of the broader world in which we must inevitably participate:

James Pate said...

Hi Dr. Witherington.

What makes you think Kennedy was better on Cuba? He botched up the Bay of Pigs.

Percival said...

Regarding Ben's comment to Chris on abortion. True, the Bible doesn't say anything directly about it, but I believe church fathers had something to say about infanticide. The Bible doesn't directly condemn slavery either, but for the Civil War generation it was THE issue. I believe abortion is the issue for our time.
What we need to ask ourselves as the new abolitionists is what is the best way to reduce abortion and turn the moral conscience of the nation and the world towards protecting innocent life. There are difficult issues to resolve like what to do with frozen embryos. But bringing up ectopic pregnancies and UNrelated topics such as the death penalty (which I also oppose) does not give proper weight to the moral gravity of the issue.
To me "pro-choice" is a deal breaker, just as it would be if a candidate was on target for everything but also condoned slavery or forced sterilization of poor people. Ridiculous comparisons? Only because our society has already completely been turned on these issues.

AG said...

Let me ask this question to youand what would be your thoughts regarding abortion in this hyperthetical:
If your wife or my wife or daughter was raped and became pregnant would abortion be an option? If not why not? If yes than explain the tension?
We need to begin to personalise some of these 'moral' concerns we have and view them in the light of empathy. I know that if something as horrendous and vile as that were to happen to my wife, how dare I as a christian male dare to inflict 'morals' onto the trauma she has experienced by asking here to then bear the child of her attacker, only to relive all that has taken place for the rest of her life, or then place that innocent child in adoption because of the sin of another. Its not always black and white, as christians i think morality is important but at what cost? Jesus himself was called immoral for mixing with tax collectors and sinners, so how far are we willing to push it. I personally think oyu are wrong in the approach you are taking to the issue.
You cannot seriously tell me that if a candidate ticks all the 'chriostian' boxes but allows woman 'pro choice' they is wiped? That in my mind is plain ridiculous that one owuld forget about everything else that is good about a candidate purely because they think aborion is more important than everything else.
Anyway.....we need to remember to personalise the issue more, simply sitting or standing ona soap box looking down does not spread the love of Jesus nor solve the issue, it creates little pharisees pointing the finger.
Like i said earlier, if something bad happend to a family member would we expect the pregnancy to continue? .....doesnt seems such an easy deal breaker any more does it?
All the best

P-Style said...

I find it hard to believe that in such a partiasn system (as it seems to exist in the US) that a cadidate can be destinguished personally and not almost exclusively based on party affiliations and policy. Perhaps I can be enlightened - is it normal in the US for elected members to cross the party lines when it comes to voting?

wkwmqrv - why keep walking, many queens ride in vehicles

Luke said...

It's amazing how you right-wing died in the wool republicans were preaching this same message 8 years ago, and 4 years ago. You got your way and you got the "Christian" vote (whatever that means), and what has happened? The abortion you preached against and the deal-breaker issue you voted for is still as much alive today as it was then, if not more so.

Being a Christian does not mean you vote Republican or pro-life. We cannot fuse the cross and the sword and send these messages to our churches. My church was basically a republican campaign during 2004 and it absolutely made me sick b/c we think getting the "Christians" in office is going to make the world better and save it. This is anti-biblical and an utter mistake.

Women who have had abortions, as well as homosexuals, should be drawn to Christianity due to Christians acts of sacrificial love. Instead, b/c of you "Christian" right-wingers, they absolutely hate us. When is the church going to learn that our only hope is Jesus and not politics. When are we going to learn that our laying down our lives for those around us through sacrificial acts of self-giving love is the way we show Christ to people?

People cannot tell we are Christians by who we vote for, nor by the laws we make in the government, but by our love and by our lives.

Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, and James Dobson, and James Kennedy have done an absolute injustice to our Lord by endorsing candidates and preaching their ridiculous right-wing republican political messages. Evangelicals just do not get it, and we bring shame to our Lord because of this ridiculous practice.

Vote where your convictions lie, but do not tell me what is the Christian vote or bring this right-wing crap into our churches. The Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world are radically opposed, and sadly we are trying to fuse the latter with the former.

M. said...

I have been thinking about those same questions for some time.
WHY should a Christian be involved politically--WHY should a Christian vote. Adin Ballou had some interesting thoughts about this in his Christian Non-Resistance (

Human governments are portrayed and specifically referred to as instruments of God's wrath (Pharaoh, the Assyrian Monarch, Nebuchadnezzar), tools of his vengeance. He uses them much like Satan in the life of Job. Human governments are also described as being under Satan's control...Luke 4...1 John etc... In Corinthians, Paul instucts them not to go to courts of law because they (the govt officials) are ungodly--unbelievers.
It seems to follow that trying to make the world a better place by contributing to something that is a tool of vengeance and under control of Satan is counter to what the New Testament teaches. Kind of like trying to clean up the brothel be becoming a prostitute. We should live quiet lives and seek to live in peace with everyone as much as it depends on us. We should submit as Christ and the apostles did to their authority when they press down on us. Accept punishment (1 Peter) for doing good. Let our lives be a testimony the to love of God.

By voting, we are giving consent to a system, a government that is inherently tyrannical, now matter how much freedom we think we have.

I used to be onboard with the whole voting thing. Thought it could change things. Doesn't seem to have worked. (how can one man represent the views of millions of people anyway?) I think that this is just an extension of the Social Gospel that becaume popular at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. We were never instructed to go out and try to make the world safe for Christians to live in or use political force to compel others to live up to Christian standards. We were told to spread the Good News and make disciples. WE, each individual, have to do this. We can't vote someone in to office to take care of our responsiblity.

I would love to hear a good well thought out Biblical case for voting and being politically involved.

Ben Witherington said...

Some good discussion going on while I was away. Several points of importance. Firstly, the NT is very clear about Christians being good neighbors and good citizens of their respective subcultures. It is not an accident that Paul appeals to the fact that he is a good citizen of Rome, when the need arose, and in Philippi he demanded an apology on the basis of the law, exempting him from bad treatmnent without a hearing and trial. Secondly, Paul repeatedly, as does 1 Peter, inculcates a clear respect for governing authorities. Of course he never speaks of voting because there were no democracies in that era, but we do have for instance a sort of voting procedure in Acts 1 to decide who would be the new member of the Twelve-- involving casting of lots. In other words, civic duty is absolutely an issue in the NT, and it looks different in different cultures. If one is going to accept the benefits of democracy, then one has an obligation to participate in it to the degree that is does not violate one's Christian principles. Voting is certainly not ethically objectionable on any Biblical grounds, and since there are ways Christians can't fully participate in the larger culture, one must do one's best to do so, and so honor Christ by honoring "whatever is true, whatever is noble, what ever is lovely whatever is admirable, whatever is excellent" (Phil. 4.8).



M. said...

Dr. Witherington,
Thank you for your gracious answer.

I found out too late that you were speaking at Truett in Waco a few weeks ago. I would love to have been able to attend.
I hope my disagreement doesn't offend you. I am really trying to find the truth in all of this and I am not seeking to belittle anyone.
I have heard the same arguements from other people over the years and after studying them further I have concluded that they just don't support participation in government.
Paul did appeal to his citizenship on several occasions. I don't see how this is an endorsement of government. In fact, his appeals were pointing out how the officials were breaking their own laws.
Paul was doing good in God's eyes...carrying out his ministry.
Paul was doing evil in Caesar's eye's...(that's why he was arrested and beaten and threatened with beatings).
Paul appealed to his citizenship to stop the beatings...pointing out that the government officials were violating their own laws.

I'm not sure how it follows from this that we should participate in government by voting. I think Paul was taking advantage of the fact that he was a citizen of Rome so that he could continue on with his work of spreading the Gospel. It was merely a tool he used to get past a roadblock to his ministry.

Being a good neighbor and citizen does not necessarily mean participation in government. I can show respect for someone without supporting them or their actions.

The problem with a Christian participating in government has to do with support of vengeance and force being used against others not to mention how it steals from some to satisfy the coveteous desires of others (subsidies, welfare, etc...). George Washington said government is not eloquence, it is force.

I'm not sure a blog is an efficient place to carry on this discussion. I hate to take up so much space making a point.

Percival said...

I'm sorry that I won't take time to explore the moral difficulties that you posed. Those are issues we all must wrestle with of course. I realize that all the related issues do not seem clear cut at times.
However, I would like to clarify something. It is not that abortion outweighs all other issues to me. It is just that I find it hard to respect someone's moral philosophy that is "pro choice". Just as I would loose respect for a politician if they were correct on many issues but said, "By the way, I am for forced sterilization of poor people." Forced sterilization is not a political issue these days, but a stance like that might tell me something important about the core values of that person. Don't you think?

And to Luke. Anti-abortion is not a right-wing issue. The fact that so many people think so is a tragic political reality of the day. There is nothing about the issue itself that is partisan in nature.

Sorry it took me so long to respond. I live on the other side of the world.

Jon said...

May I make three brief comments for consideration by Dr. Witherington and other participants here?

1. Perhaps it is time to retire concern about the life of the mother as a serious issue in the debate about abortion politics since very few Americans support a ban in these extreme situations – varying statistics I have seen indicate a low of 6% to a high of only 15% of EVANGELICALS oppose such an exception. Also, statistics suggest the health of the mother is the main reason given for having an abortion in only 4% of cases.

2. Isn’t the juxtaposition of abortion with the death penalty a pretty typical but ultimately unsatisfying argument? Are the persons whose lives will be taken – in other words, an indisputably innocent baby and a convicted criminal – really the same? Is the “choice” that is made really so similar: a woman who decides to end her baby’s life because she isn’t ready, has too little money, is single or has enough children already (these compose the overwhelming majority of cases) vs. the state through a complicated and lengthy trial in which a person charged with heinous crimes presents a defense and finally is judged by a jury of peers?

3. “Pro-choice is not the same as pro-abortion.” This statement seems closely related to the positions of folks like formerly pro-life government official Douglas Kmiec, who says he supports Mr. Obama because he’s definitely pro-choice but truly wants to make abortion rare. Like others on this blog thread, I sometimes tire of this never-ending struggle and wish it would go away, but I must say that I saw the issue specifically for this election in a new light upon reading the article at the link below by Robert George, a Princeton professor of legal philosophy who also happens to hold a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. This is a level of extremism I cannot look away from.

Or go to this link and seek the George articles in the middle.

Thank you for hearing me out.