By Graeme Preston — Attorney and Elder at The Storehouse, New Covenant Church
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As May 7, 2014 approaches many South African’s are gearing up to cast their vote, some have spent hours agonising over this decision, others may simply decide based on how they feel on the day.
So how should Christians vote, if indeed they should? Is there any biblical and or moral obligation on Christians to vote in a certain way? As Christians we all desire a better Country and feel a Godly obligation to make it so. As an attorney and a Christian I wish to give some insight into our responsibilities as Christians and hopefully “clear the air” in some respects.
As I have discussed matters with fellow Christians I have observed a fundamental lack of understanding in respect of how our country is governed, resulting in decisions based on incorrect assumptions. It is impossible to make an informed decision unless you understand the following concepts on a basic level:
South Africa is governed by the Constitution, a document that we can indeed be proud of and whose primary aim is to prevent an Apartheid type situation from ever happening again. This document has protected the interests of all South Africans for the last 20 years. It sets a broad outline of how our Country is to be governed and how all laws are to be judged. Anything in contradiction to this document can be invalidated through the Courts. Amongst other things this document contains a Bill of Rights that guarantees certain freedoms that we enjoy such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Whilst you may be aware that a 2/3rds majority is required to pass certain amendment bills you may not be aware that 75% majority is required to amend the basic values of the Constitution.
Limitation of rights
On a daily basis we see a collision of rights and freedoms. It is impossible for rights or freedoms to exist without limits. The Bill of Rights has a limitation Clause that allows for rights to be limited in certain circumstances. For example when a person commits a crime such as murder, is convicted and sentenced to jail; this person loses a number of freedoms. This limitation of freedoms is justifiable because it is in the best interests of the Country as a whole. Another classic example is the abolishment of the death penalty which was found to be in contravention of the right to life. Even in the circumstances of a convicted murderer, it is not justifiable to limit their right to life to an extent that it is completely abolished. At times the conflict of these rights results in the creation of laws that we as Christians disagree with. One must always remember that the Constitution sets strict guidelines on how rights/freedoms are to be limited, for instance rights must be limited in the least restrictive means possible. Any fear that Religious rights will be completely abolished is unwarranted in terms of the limitation provisions of the Constitution.
Judiciary, Legislature, Executive
South Africa is governed by three branches; the Judiciary (Courts), the Legislature (Parliament) and the Executive (Government). Broadly speaking, parliament makes the laws (in accordance with the Constitution), The Courts interpret the laws and the Executive enforces these laws. Parliament is no longer sovereign, this means that Parliament cannot simply enact any laws that it wishes. All laws must be Constitutionally valid as the Constitution is legally supreme.
Our courts therefore have the power to indirectly make law as they create precedents when they make rulings. These rulings are binding on lower courts. The highest court for non-constitutional matters is the Supreme Court of Appeal and the highest court for constitutional matters is the Constitutional Court. If any law is in Conflict with the Constitution, we have a remedy in the Constitutional Court which has the power to invalidate that law.
An incorrect understanding of the above principles has lead to confusion in the following areas:
Freedom of religion
In Christian circles there has been much debate and emphasis placed on the issue of freedom of religion. There seems to be a misunderstanding that this freedom is limited to the Christian faith. The very worst thing for any country would be to have an unlimited, unfettered right to religious freedom. One can only imagine the consequences. We have already seen a number of satanic murders in our Country. An unlimited freedom of religion would mean that one could justify murder simply if it was justifiable based on religious beliefs. Those that fight for religious freedom will admit that this right must be limited; the debate revolves around the extent of this limitation. We must however bear in mind that promoting religious freedom promotes the freedom of all religions including religions directly opposed to Christianity. Another misunderstanding revolves around the notion that we can lose this freedom. The fact is that this right is already enshrined in the Constitution. This right can only be limited in accordance with the strict requirements as set out in the Constitution.
The whole picture
There have been a number of real life examples that Christians have been confronted with in recent months. These examples include instances where Christians have been accused of discrimination, of breaking certain by-laws and acting in a manner that is contrary to the Constitution. For example; discriminating against homosexual couples and or harassing abortion clinics etc. One must remember that our Constitution was birthed out of a place of great discrimination in our Country and it specifically guards against any further discrimination. This is not a bad thing, imagine being unable to make certain purchases or visit certain areas simply because you are a Christian, or to have our Church’s boycotted and harassed? Jesus set the example in the manner in which he dealt with unbelievers. He did not compromise his beliefs but he engaged non-believers in a manner that upset the religious people of the day. Christians who discriminate, break the law or harass non-believers fall foul of the Constitution. What if a “white supremacist” stated that it was his religious right to uphold apartheid based laws. Religious rights must, for this reason, be limited. It is not possible to differentiate between religions or their limitation as all limitations must be applied in terms of the law of general application (s36 of the Constitution).
Having said this it is becoming increasingly unpopular to stand as a Christian on certain topics such as homosexuality etc. This is, in part, as a result of the manner in which “Christians” have treated non-believers in the past. Non-believers have been shamed, harassed, beaten, ostracised and hated by people professing to uphold Christian standards. Now that society is changing this hatred is being re-directed from where it came. Fighting to enforce a right as Christians to continue to discriminate against these people groups does little to change the underlying issue. This cultural/societal turning against Christians will not be solved by legislation that further alienates us from these groups but by learning to interact with these groups of people as Jesus would have done. Unfortunately the Church is known more for what it stands against than that which it stands for. Social “persecution” would be far less if people saw a united Church rising up to bring about real change. The Church needs to lead by example and show the Nation how powerful and effective the love of Christ can be at ground level. If people saw a Church that heals the sick, feeds the hungry, binds up the broken hearted and loves fiercely, they may wish to join us instead of persecuting us. It is unclear what “rights” Christians are trying to protect when they refuse to embrace sinners, if the Church embraced this philosophy our Churches would be empty. Jesus embraced sinners and addressed their sin, we cannot only embrace and not address the sin nor can we only address the sin and not embrace the sinner. An attitude that, “no sin shall not cross my door” sounds very Christian but ultimately means that you will be sleeping outside as we all fall short of the Glory of God. In some of the examples stated above I would argue that discriminating against non-believers is not a Christian religious right at all as I cannot find precedent for it in the Bible. The Bible is very clear on issues such as homosexuality and abortion, it is also very clear on how we should deal with “sinners”. As Christians our primary focus should be introducing the world to Jesus, let’s leave our rights and social comforts in His hands and get on with it.
For some reason Christians find it particularly difficult to understand the separation between the secular laws that govern secular Countries and the Christian laws that are written on our hearts. I have witnessed a burden being placed on Christians that a vote for a non-Christian party is basically tantamount to murder or at the very least a failure of your responsibility as a Christian.
I think that this is an extremely unfair and incorrect burden to place on Christians. It seems to stem from a misunderstanding that a Christian party will abolish all ungodly laws (i.e. abortion) and replace them with Godly ones. This argument fails on many levels. Firstly one cannot legislate Christian morality; if so we can expect laws that regulate gossip, coveting, adultery, speaking in tongues without an interpretation etc. It would in itself be pointless and would simply be a regression to the “Law” and negate Christ having died on the cross. Secondly there is no Christian party that has the power to enact any law that is in conflict with the Constitution unless it gathers enough votes to change the Constitution. Further to this we have seen Christian parties form coalitions with the very parties whose policies they oppose, meaning that a vote for this party results in an adoption of the same values that you opposed in the first place.
An application to invalidate abortion on Constitutional grounds has already failed. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that an elected Christian party will be able to abolish abortion. This is why the manifesto of some Christian parties states that they aim to limit abortion as much as possible but not to abolish it. I hate abortion, as should every Christian, the issue however is whether it is right to say that a vote for a non-Christian party equals approval of abortion. I also hate adultery and all other sin but I do not see any Christian parties proposing to enact laws to outlaw these activities. Does that mean that if you vote for a Christian party that you condone adultery and all other sin? Of course not! The same can be said for abortion and voting for a non-Christian party. How many Christians claim to oppose abortion but have never reached out to help a pregnant mother in crisis? It is so easy to vote and think that you have “fought” against abortion. Given the legal and social realities it is absurd to think that the fight against abortion will be won by a mark on a piece of paper. Perhaps we like to think this because it’s easier than having to give up our time, comforts, finances and love to reach the people who need it. If this sounds like a challenge, that’s because it is. First prize is a capable government that opposes abortion working with committed Christians to eradicate the problem, I will however settle for a capable government and committed Christians. Factors such as education, poverty, violence all play a role in overcoming abortion.
Many Christians would agree that in 1994 the best thing for South Africa was electing Nelson Mandela as president. A vote for the ANC in 1994 was a vote for the best interests of all South Africans. Using the logic and misconceptions I have mentioned above, no Christian should have voted for the ANC in 1994 and Mandela should not have been, according to Christians, voted in as President. As you can see the logic is flawed.
As a Christian I have continuously heard the call to “wake up” in a political sense. To stop being apathetic and fight for my religious freedom. This call has created an “us” versus “them” mentality which finds its basis in a fear that we are on the verge of losing our freedom. I find terms such as “Gay Mafia” to be unhelpful, I do not doubt that there is a form of social persecution levelled at Christians who oppose homosexuality but I cannot imagine Jesus saying, “Oh no here comes the Gay Mafia – every body run and hide!” These are not nameless faceless enemies; they are people that God loves in desperate need of his redemptive power. In my humble opinion the definition of Christian apathy is taking a few hours out of your day on 7 May 2014 to vote and then to consider that you have fulfilled your Christian obligation. God has one plan for this world and that is the Church, there is no plan B. This world will change on the basis of a priesthood of all believers partnering with God to change one individual at a time. This will happen in times of freedom or persecution. Try as I may I cannot find an emphasis on politics in the Bible. If you have devoted more time to Christian politics in the last month than Christ then I would argue that your perspective needs adjustment. A look through history quickly reveals that Christianity as a movement suffered most when the State and the Church were one.
Danger of the red herring
It may seem that I am anti-Christian political parties. This is not necessarily true; I believe that it is important to have a Christian voice in parliament. My greatest concern is that the Church spends countless man hours, finances, resources etc. chasing after a cause that does not further the mandate that we have been given in the Bible. My concern is that the Church becomes distracted by furthering a political cause and not living in the great commandment and the great commission. I am convinced that politics will not change the hearts of the men and women we are called to meet, perhaps it may make our lives more comfortable but the Kingdom of God will advance by forceful men who take hold of it regardless of politics. The God that I serve will not allow politics to stand in the way of reaching those that he loves. I simply cannot see and reconcile the end goal of Christian politics with the Bible. Christianity and politics are founded on fundamentality opposing principles. When you get into the ring with a dirty fighter it is not long before you have to adjust your tactics to survive. It is indeed sad to see that Christian parties more often than not resort to the same tactics that all political parties are required to resort to, to survive. My other concern is that political burdens are being placed on Christians that are unfair and incorrect. This is being accomplished through instilling a fear of losing our freedom and a misrepresentation of basic legal principles. A popular slogan at the moment is, “vote your values”. This is in itself slightly misleading as the values have already been established and set out in the Constitution. Certain of these values conflict with Christian values and it is therefore impossible to truly “vote your values” as all parties are bound to the same broad values.
How then should we vote?
1. Through wisdom, not fear or frenzy
As Christians we need to vote out of a place of Wisdom taking into consideration all of the relevant facts and not out of a place of fear or frenzy. God is still in control, He still has a plan, He will not leave us nor forsake us. When you vote I would encourage you to ask the following questions; What is in the best interests of South Africa? Which leaders possess the experience, capacity and ability to lead a nation? Who will govern us well? How will poverty, education, crime, economics etc. influenced by my vote.
2. Faith not presumption
We need to hear the voice of God clearly. As a Christian I have felt opposition for doubting that a Christian political party will win a majority vote in this election. It has been implied that I lack faith, in truth I have simply not felt God tell me that this is his priority or His plan and I refuse to act out of a place of presumption and not faith. You may indeed feel that God’s plan for South Africa is to rally the Church politically, I however do not. I am not saying that I am correct. I am simply saying that we need to act on faith not presumption and be certain on where God is placing an emphasis. In my opinion this emphasis is and always will be the Church.
So should Christians vote? Yes, I think they should. They should take an interest in their country and pray for their leaders. They should outwork social justice in their places of influence, they should be involved in educating the uneducated, feeding the homeless, healing the sick, caring for the needy, financing redevelopment and being at the forefront of social change. The Church should rise up as one with power and authority and start solving the problems that our nation faces. When we do this politicians will look to us for help, not the other way around. There is much need for Godly advice and counsel on a political level and Christians should have a voice that is heard. We will however “get on with the job” and lead by example whether this voice is heard or not.
Is there a Biblical obligation to vote for a Christian party? No, vote out of a place of wisdom and faith and vote as you feel led, free from any sense of undue obligation.
More importantly we as Christians need to unify our efforts in accomplishing the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. There is no plan B!