Priests in Voting Booths

Opinion by Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto

1008votingstory1.jpgWhat’s a Christian to think of politics and the upcoming elections? For Christians in their role as ‘voter priests,’ it’s a serious business, says Uwe Siemon Netto, and considering the world’s thirst for oil, there’s much at stake.

Next month, Americans will elect a new government that could face the most dangerous period in U.S. history, primarily because of the global oil crisis that can affect every aspect of public life for decades and centuries to come: war and peace, civil order, foreign affairs, health and medicine, the economy, agriculture, food, possibly even the unity of the nation.

Are we “waiting for the lights to go out,” as Bryan Appleyard titled a scary essay in the conservative London newspaper, The Sunday Times, four years ago?

Appleyard’s point merits serious contemplation even if some pundits consider as overly alarmist the prediction of Sweden’s Uppsala University that the world will start running out of petroleum in 10 years’ time. The prospects of wars over the last barrels of oil, of food riots, of a short age of petroleum-based medicines in pharmacies and hospitals might not appear all that immediate but seem real enough in our lifetime.

In this situation the Church must remind Christians of the responsibility God has given them as they vote Nov. 4. This responsibility can be summed up in four short sentences:

  1. Christian voters will follow nothing less than a divine calling to be a special kind of priest.
  2. As voter-priests they will not preach the Gospel.
  3. Instead, as in all worldly pursuits, Christians serve God in the voting booth by serving their fellow man.
  4. If they do so with love and circumspection rather than for selfish ends, they rank as members of the universal priesthood of all believers.

This is in a nutshell the Lutheran contribution to the debate about faith and politics. It provides a healthy alternative to this campaign season’s jabber by “false clerics and schismatic spirits,” as Martin Luther called churchmen lecturing government on how to handle its business. Seen from the Lutheran perspective, Christians act as God’s masks when they cast their votes. Through them He bestows power on political leaders, and the voters then serve God by holding leaders’ feet to the fire.

Church-owned publications cannot endorse political candidates. Of course, we have a clear position on issues of theological concern, such as the sanctity of life and of marriage as the union between one man and one woman. But The Lutheran Witness would be wrong to tell Washington how to fight wars in the Middle East, end the immigration quagmire, or salvage Social Security. Such problems cannot be resolved by faith but only by reason, a gift from God to help us function in this world. The church ought to tell secular rulers to use this gift wisely.

However, the Lutheran church has to remind Christian voters of this fact: They are the divinely appointed sovereigns of a democracy and as such compelled to exercise their office by virtue of good sense. In these dangerous times they must have the courage to ask candidates to be brutally truthful about the dire state the world is in, and how they intend to deal with this, even at the risk of proposing unpopular measures. Should voters base their decision on prejudice, ideology, conjecture, ignorance, selfishness, and a sloppy desire for an easy way out, rather than informed logic and neighborly love, they neglect their priestly duties.

Playing ostrich under these circumstances is not an option. A Christian failing to vote resembles the useless servant who kept the pound entrusted to him laid away in a napkin (Luke 19:20). The same applies to Christians deaf to the calling to run for public office. Some sects tell their followers to shun this fallen world. The Lutheran church teaches the opposite: Christians must engage the world. Never mind that as fallible human beings they are bound to make mistakes; God will ultimately correct those, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the dark days of Nazi rule.

1008votingstory2.jpgGod’s charge to voters in a democracy has chilling implications. Voters can’t just say, “It wasn’t me,” when things go wrong as a result of their choice. Germans who elected Hitler in 1933 didn’t get away with this excuse. Biblically speaking, they had received their authority from God (Rom. 13:1) but squandered it by handing power to the wrong rulers. In today’s terms, the divine assignment to the voters precludes cop-outs such as, “I didn’t realize that the world is running out of oil, and that antihistamines, antiseptics, artificial limbs, aspirin, cortisone, and heart valves are all made from oil,” or, “I had no idea that the infrastructure in America was rotten.”

The voters’ priestly rank in the secular “left-hand kingdom” involves noblesse oblige; it comes with responsibility. Their first responsibility is to ask questions, to inform themselves and reflect on the most significant issues the next government will have to handle.

No other church body is theologically better equipped than the Lutheran to keep hammering on this verity: Priestly service in a democracy consists of an interlocking chain of divine assignments of love.

Thus in Lutheran eyes the view of some liberal and evangelical theologians that the Gospel transforms culture seems utopian. It has caused Christian idealists of the right and the left to see their own country or the Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia as precursors of the Kingdom of God. But Christ did not die to make society nicer or fairer; He suffered to redeem the believer from sin, thus giving him eternal life.

If Christian voters are priests in the left-hand kingdom, so are Christians as rulers. All secular authorities are ministers of God, according to Rom. 13:6. Paul used the Greek term leitourgoi, which is the root of the English word liturgists. This suggests that secular rulers and the celebrants in church have parallel assignments in their respective realms. One of their many assignments is to proclaim truth—the eternal truth, which is Christ, in the case of pastors, and the truth about the state of the world in the case of politicians.

This is particularly important to remember in a situation as unstable as the present one, with nuclear war between Iran and Israel looking plausible; with genocidal wars being fought in Africa; with new armed conflicts shaking the former Soviet Union, where Moscow’s leaders, their eyes on natural gas and petroleum deposits in the Caucasus, are attacking once again neighbors they once subjugated; with radical Islamists bent on defeating the West in Afghanistan, and gaining power in other parts of the Muslim world; with booming India and China competing with the United States and Europe over the world’s depleting oil supplies.

Which brings us back to oil. In the mid-1970s, when this writer was managing editor of a Hamburg newspaper, the world received its first warning that this fabulous gift to humanity was perhaps not infinite. There were long lines at the gas stations. Politicians, corporations, shipping magnates, scientists, inventors and private citizens were busy finding alternatives.

But then came another oil glut, and for three decades these new ideas were discarded. America allowed its railroads and public transport systems to degenerate to Third-World levels. Passenger vessels stopped taking people from point A to point B but served instead as floating malls called cruise ships. While the rest of the world developed fuel-efficient cars, Detroit built the Hummer. All this has occurred in bipartisan harmony under the less-than-watchful eyes of legislators more interested in pork than the wellbeing of future Americans. And the voters, the nation’s sovereigns, allowed this to happen.

Erich Kaestner (1899–1974), a brilliant German author with a fiendish sense of irony, coined the aphorism, “Whom God assigns power He first deprives of his mind.” Kaestner tried to wake people up. Next month, America’s sovereigns cannot afford to act mindlessly; they cannot afford to elect leaders without good sense. They must ask candidates: “How serious are you about leading us out of our suicidal enslavement to depleting sources of energy that are almost entirely in the hands of actual or potential adversaries of the United States?”

The situation requires statesmen willing to acknowledge this and join forces with responsible people from all walks of life—especially industry, finance, and science—in order to end the oil addiction that has brought the world to the brink. “The best solution is to pray,” Bryan Appleyard quoted energy financier Matthew Simmons, an advisor to President George W. Bush, as saying.

If he were Lutheran he might have added, “And let’s pray that American voters do see themselves as priests in the world and elect leaders who know themselves as ministers of God in the secular realm.”

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