American Civic Life

What Does Christian Civic Engagement Look Like? ‘A Vote is a Prayer’

By Nikki Toyama-Szeto, Senior Columnist
TRUCKSVILLE, PA - MAY 15:  (C) Elisabeth Ford, 33, holds her son, while casting her vote at the Trucksville United Methodist Church polling station during the 2018 Pennsylvania Primary Election on May 15, 2018 in Trucksville, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

TRUCKSVILLE, PA - MAY 15: (C) Elisabeth Ford, 33, holds her son, while casting her vote at the Trucksville United Methodist Church polling station during the 2018 Pennsylvania Primary Election on May 15, 2018 in Trucksville, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

For me, a vote is an act of intercession. It is a prayer to that says, “God, I long for things to be different in this way.” In our American context, it is an act of personal agency, but also an act of interdependence with the others in my community: Our collective voice will decide the results. 

Regardless of the results, my faith, which helps me to understand personal righteousness (justice) and will inform how I respond, how I show up as a neighbor in my community, what I do. I will support (but try to not be subsumed by) those policies that seem to promote Christians values — preference for those on the margins; a drawing near to those who have been outcast; protection of the orphan, the widow, and the vulnerable; preservation of God’s created world and a voice against the consumerism that promotes profits over people and creation; promotion of peace and affirmation of the dignity of each person, because in our faith creed says each is made in God’s image and to do violence against one is to do violence against an “image bearer” of God. In all of this, it is Jesus (the God/person, the example set in Jesus, and the teachings of Jesus) who informs and embodies these values, as I understand it through the Bible. And it’s because I understand Jesus to be God made into human form, to have conquered death by rising from the dead, reconciling me to God, that he is a reliable guide. But more than a guide, Jesus is the source of life and of breath.  

I think a lot of Protestant Christians share a similar set of values but differ on what faithful Christian engagement looks like and what should be prioritized. Some traditions erect a strong division between the “sacred” and the “secular,” viewing participation in things that aren’t directly related to the church as potentially polluting. Others consider it an essential part of their Christian faithfulness to foster political structures that reflect their Christian values and priorities. 

I probably exist somewhere between these. I view my political participation in the same way I view the various roles and responsibilities in my life — as a parent, spouse, neighbor, citizen — these are all areas that represent an opportunity for me to express my Christian faith. In the same way that my faith informs my understanding of my race, my gender, and the world around me, I welcome my faith to help me think through my vote.  

But while seeking to be thoughtful about how my faith informs my voting, I try to keep in mind two counterbalances. The first: I don’t expect a political system to fully reflect my faith. I long for our government to think about the poor and vulnerable, in the same way that my faith tells us to care for the vulnerable, but I also understand that the role of government is distinct from that of a church. I look for the many ways God might work to provide, both within our political systems but also as a complement to them, through our faith community partners. 

Second, I try to avoid the false sense that I can reach an “objective” perspective. I think it’s the fullness of our spiritual, emotional, physical, and social realities that makes us human, that shapes our perceptions, decisions and judgments. And rather than aspiring to being “detached” or objective (can we truly be objective?) I try to be mindful of my own values, experiences, and how they shape (or, in some instances, create weak spots in) my understanding, and then seek to demonstrate empathic curiosity. I want to be a person of strong convictions and clarity, with a generous, hospitable posture towards others. I hope that hearing other people’s opinions makes me kinder, perhaps helps deepen my convictions, and keeps me open to changing my mind.  

A word of caution about single-issue voting: The teaching of Jesus is astounding in that it is both simple enough for first century illiterate folks to grasp and so complex that academics and philosophers continue to ponder and wrestle with it centuries later. Shalom is similar: it is at once straightforward and, especially when it comes to what it looks like in a pluralistic society like ours, remarkably complex. If voting feels simple to you, I’d urge you to invite in one more perspective — perhaps of a Christian from a different background, experience, or political persuasion from yours — just to force yourself to wrestle with another viewpoint. I believe that this is one way of loving God with your whole self, with your whole heart, and with your whole mind. 

One of the convictions that I’ve appreciated is that of a pastor who also held a political office — he said, “A vote is a prayer.” My understanding of prayer is that it is a conversation with God, a conversation that nurtures a friendship with God.  A vote, a prayer, a conversation. 

Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the Executive Director of Christians for Social Action.