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The perils of an election year

Christians should avoid giving in to crippling fear about political outcomes

A voting booth at Summit View Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City, Mo. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel

The perils of an election year
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As the calendar flips to 2024, Americans of all political persuasions are liable to find themselves in a state of nervous agitation. Election years are always times of heightened tension or excitement, but it would be hard to think of one in living memory that has provoked such fear and uncertainty. Republicans face a bruising primary season, one that may prove more hard-fought than current polls suggest. For Democrats, Biden would seem the inevitable nominee were it not for his frailty, age, and unpopularity, which have led some to speculate about a surprise convention-day switch.

If we do face Trump v. Biden 2.0 in November—a prospect few Americans want to see—the contest will take place amongst even more fraught conditions than those of pandemic-era 2020. These include a Republican candidate facing multiple grave criminal charges, a Democrat facing a revolt from his base over conflict in the Middle East, and at least one serious third-party campaign to wreak havoc on the polls. Not to mention widespread doubt among voters over the integrity of the voting system.

How should Christians respond?

Above all, with fearless unflappability. We speak often of “freedom” in America, especially in election years, all the while betraying our bondage to the worst unfreedom of all: the crippling weight of fear, from which Christ offers to set us free. In an age of epidemic anxiety, there is no stronger witness that Christians can offer the watching world than a refusal to give in to worry, a refusal to let our confidence be shaken or our happiness dimmed by political outcomes.

Such serenity is often misunderstood as pietistic withdrawal or false complacency. It is neither. Indeed, one need not be a Christian to see the wisdom in refusing to get caught up in election-year hysteria. Even a student of recent history can recognize that most of the time, “the most important election of our generation” turns out not to deliver on the hype. In 2020, many conservatives worried that a Biden victory would result in the abolition of the Electoral College, Puerto Rican and D.C. statehood, the packing of the Supreme Court, and other profound constitutional changes. As bad as many policies of the last three years have been, none of these conservative nightmares came close to fruition. Nor have we witnessed a return to 1960s-era violence, as the riots of 2020 and the chaos of Jan. 6 might have led us to believe.

One of the most practical things we can and must do this year is learn to exercise charity and forbearance toward fellow Christians.

All of this could change, of course, and there is no question that American society is in the midst of profound and unsettling disruptions that are likely to leave our children and children a considerably more dangerous and unhappy world. But most of the key trends have been unfolding for decades, often largely unaffected by who inhabits the White House or which party controls Congress. Such things matter, to be sure, and we must vote wisely, but we should also keep our eye on the bigger picture. For Christians, the biggest picture of all is the perspective of eternity, and the confidence it affords that God will work His purposes out for our good no matter what happens in November.

Given these considerations, one of the most practical things we can and must do this year is learn to exercise charity and forbearance toward fellow Christians. To be sure, we should not fall into moral relativism or fashionable false equivalence. Both political parties may be cynical, dishonest, and power-hungry and both may have advanced policies that have done grave evil at home and abroad—but only one party has openly committed itself to a vision destructive of human life and human nature. Still, voting for a candidate does not imply endorsing all their personal platforms, and certainly not their party’s platforms. It can be a complex prudential judgment.

This is especially the case when we consider the decision not to vote, or to vote for a third party, a decision many are considering this year. Many Christians will angrily accuse such a citizen of “throwing away their vote” or “helping the other guy win.” But we must resist such binary thinking. A third-party candidate may have no real shot at winning, but then, neither does Trump in California, or Biden in Alabama. A vote is an attempt to send a signal, and the person who votes third-party or abstains may be trying to send an important signal about the direction our politics needs to go in the future—a signal that may not affect this election, but that will help shape the next one. Or they may just be honestly convinced that both leading candidates are equally immoral or dangerous. Such a decision may or may not turn out to be correct, but it may deserve respect.

Whatever happens in November, it is unlikely to cause a national revival. However, the way that we approach November, the witness of faith and charity we offer an anxious world, could plant the seeds of the revival we so desperately need.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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