a 19th century painting by Jean Paul Laurens,
of a very cranky St. John Chrysostom "voting," or confronting
a very haughty Empress Aelia Eudoxia
I'm on a discussion list called "Theology." This name is comical, most of the time, because the discussion is usually anything but.
A recent topic has formed under the rubrical question, "Who should we Christians vote for?" And the subsequent commentary is, as you might expect, replete with vocabulary like "nut job," "socialist," lame stream media," "wing nut," "muslim," "morman," "bloviator," "liberal," "conservative," etc., etc.
A certain preacher (prefacing himself with "Dr Archbishop," zeroing in from some very interesting sector of modern church history), advised that one needn't worry about how to vote, because "the Spirit of Discernment will surely tell you to vote the idiot out of the Whitehouse." Sic. Rather sic.
In all of these comments, there seemed to be held, as axiomatic, the belief that the Bible and Christian Tradition know all about voting in American elections.
This belief, it turns out, is unsubstantiated. It has no legs.
The idea of "voting" is a more difficult subject than one might expect. In the long history of the church, the vote given to every adult (i.e., universal suffrage) to choose an executive is a very recent thing.
The Church is certainly more used to dealing with Emperors, Kings, oligarchies and plutocracies (like the one we might be in, actually). No matter what form of government, or how intensely anti-Christian (or even "antichrist") the government was, the Church has been willing to articulate its prophetic voice about certain prevailing concerns.
I suggest that in the use of this new thing -- this "vote" -- that we follow the Church's longstanding prevailing concerns (or "values") when we make our political decisions.
These concerns can actually be tallied up in Scripture (from the pronouncements of our Lord Himself, and also from the Apostles) and in Church History from 90 AD on. What did the Church constantly "complain" about, in the face of the State?
The Church's "governmental" concern was firstly to be left alone to worship God through the celebration of the Eucharist, in accordance with the Apostles' teachings. This you can find in the writings of the Apologists, especially Justin Martyr. You might want to call this concern "religious liberty," but myself, I don't know -- that term, "religious liberty" is tied up inextricably with the concept of modern terms like "establishment" and "separation of church and state." I rather like some elements of establishment (like certain tax-free amenities) -- but this is not at all what the Apostolic Fathers were writing about. And I'm not at all sure whether the Church has evern been sanguine about "pluralism," either. If we ever get to a state of affairs where we lose our tax privileges, it is not difficult for me to imagine Justin or Clement or Ignatius saying something like "Well, at least now you don't have to accept the equal validity of other religions, n'est-ce pas?" (I mean, doesn't it make sense that if you accept at least a rudimentary form of establishmentism, then you must also accept a sort of neo-Roman syncretism, like what modern pluralism really is?)
Another concern was for the treatment of slaves, and the treatment of other disenfranchised people (like women, children -- born and unborn, and non-citizens). The Church worked to raise money for the manumission, or freeing, of slaves.
Another concern, especially before Constantine, was about the prosecution of war. For the first three centuries, the Church was largely pacifistic, actively doubting whether anything was worth the horrors of military conflict. Bishop Ambrose of Milan actually locked the door of the church to Emperor Theodosius for his having commanded his troops to massacre 7000 civilians in Thessalonika.
Another concern was about the appetite for violent entertainment. It was the Church's complaints, over a few generations, that led the Roman Empire to put a stop to gladiatorial combat. And the Church continued to protest against entertainments that played on violent and sexual themes. The Church has always been more "puritanical" than we'd care to admit.
What became prominent as prevailing concern, stretching over the centuries, was the State's relationship with the poor. Many, many Church Fathers -- starting with James in his Epistle and including figures like the heroic St. John Chrysostom -- continually reproached the rich and powerful for their lack of concern about the economic and physical miseries of their fellow man. Chrysostom himself was sent to his certain death in exile because he dared to criticize the Empress for her luxurious aristocratic largesse (Aelia Eudoxia, in haute couture, was lucky to have, willing to join her, a lot of other people whose feelings were hurt by the Patriarch of Constantinople -- including the Patriarch of Alexandria and his imperial minions).
Later on, in the exceptional period of time known as the Byzantine Empire, the Church actually invented the idea of the hospital, as we know it today. St. Basil the Great constructed, in his town from his own funds, a vast complex that offered food and assistance to the poor, and healthcare for the sick and infirm. Healthcare and welfare have always been essentially Christian notions -- at least, "Christian" in the sense of Holy Tradition.
What is interesting here is to consider what is absent from these prevailing concerns of the Church over the centuries, and under various forms of governments.
Never once did the Church stand for the de-regulation of economic activity, especially usury. The Church has never been "on the side" of free market or business/corporate interests. You may counter that there Christian voices, starting with the Reformation, waxed lyrical about capital and complex interest, industrialism, and the protestant work ethic: if you were to say so, I would gently remind you that laissez-faire theories used to be called "liberal" in the olden days, and were produced by Reformation economic theory that severed the marketplace from the judgment of the Saints (cf. Revelation 20.4-6).
Never once has the Church opposed "Statism" per se, or "federalism" or the centralization of the State. This is hard for me to admit, because I harbor not a few libertarian notions. But the fact remains that the Church has always perceived a single, strong State as an aid to the promulgation of the Gospel. Witness, as an example, the early Church's very positive view of the pax Romana established by Caesar Augustus -- this despite the sporadic (but harsh) persecutions of the Church by Roman officials. The Church has never profited from the breakdown of civilization.
Never once did the Church oppose immigration. Americans, over the course of their short history, have repeatedly opposed immigration. But the Church, in her longer history, has not.
Never once did the Church protest against what we have grown to call today, inaccurately, "socialism." The Church, historically speaking over the centuries, has never discouraged any "dole" or "welfare" or governmental relief given to the poor. This sort of "Christian protest against relief" is a rather modern anomaly that is troubling, to say the least, and has nothing to do with real Christian values.
Real Christian values -- which one expects should constitute the benchmark for Christian voting -- has always been "conservative" when it comes to doctrine and belief.
But it has always been quite "liberal," as it were, when it comes to economic legislation and political enfranchisement.
So if you are interested in voting, then plan your vote under the historic guidance of the Church. Listen to the Holy Spirit, Who not only speaks to you directly, but through Holy Tradition. No one can tell you, from Holy Tradition, that you "must" vote -- that is not at all an obvious Biblical or ecclesial command.
But voting is certainly a privilege -- and if you use that privilege, you are enrolling yourself in the franchise of this government, and you must answer to the hard criteria that the Church has laid down for government throughout the ages.
Because if you really take the theory of modern democracy seriously, in a strictly Christian sense, the Ruler of this nation will be neither Barak Obama nor Mitt Romney -- it is you.
And you will have to answer.