Reprinted from the Ethics & Religious LIberty Commission
The Christian’s concern for citizenship is not a matter merely of understanding, but also of acting. The final test of our citizenship is not what we think and say, but what we do. Knowledge about our concerns should lead us to action.
Perhaps you are asking the questions, “How do I get involved in politics? What should I do?” The answers vary greatly from community to community and from state to state. It also varies from person to person. Some Christians should give consideration to running for some public office. That office could be that of state representative or governor or even for a national office. For most who decide to run for office, however, it is much more likely to mean running for the school board or the city council or a county commissioner’s position.
There are some things that all concerned Christian citizens can do. We won’t be experts at them, of course, the day we begin. But we can get better the more frequently we do them. Here are some suggestions to guide concerned Christians who are serious about getting involved in politics.
Register and Vote
Politics in the American system revolves around elections. Elections determine who will be in office, who will make the laws, who will set tax structures, and who will appoint persons to the administrative and judicial positions which affect the direction of our communities, our states, and our nation.
These decisions cannot be affected by Christians unless we vote. All of the talk about what is right and wrong in the political arena is useless unless citizens vote.
Your vote is important. Most Americans don’t think their votes really are important, although it is common for elections to be decided by 10 to 20 percent of the eligible voters. Even national elections, such as for the presidency, may be decided by as few as 30 percent of eligible voters. The 2000 presidential election was decided in Florida by just a few hundred votes. For these reasons, the actual vote of a single citizen is magnified out of proportion to what it would be if everybody voted.
One of the tragedies of American politics is the fact that so few voters turn out for local elections. Local elections often affect the quality of life in a community more extensively than do national elections.
You can’t vote unless you are registered. Registration may seem like a nuisance or a headache, but it is necessary and valid. Registration of voters is necessary to assure compliance with election laws and voting requirements, and to prevent voter fraud. It is the manner in which we are sure that only residents vote in an election and that voting in a particular race is not done by individuals from another county or state. Registration protects the integrity of the election and helps assure that the decision of the voters will be properly and fairly determined and implemented.
Do Your Homework
The Christian citizen must diligently do his or her homework. The issues must be identified and at least reasonably well understood. Frequently the statement is made that “knowledge is power.” The person who understands the issue is capable of making a stronger, better, and more persuasive argument in support of his or her position.
The person who communicates with and transmits erroneous information to a politician will have little credibility with that leader. If you register an opinion that is accurate and substantiated, however, you will build credibility for your views.
Our Baptist forebears have been described as people with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That is a good description of how we need to study issues today.
Political homework falls into three basic categories.
First, homework must be done concerning the politician as a person. What is the person’s political party? Who are supporters of this politician? What are his interests? What is his voting record? What are his profession and training?
Second, homework must be done on the issues. What groups are involved for and against the particular position in which you are interested? What alternatives are being offered, and by whom? Which alternative, if any, appears to be the best? Of the alternatives which seem likely to be selected? Which one comes closest to being the best?
Third, homework must be done on procedures. Which level of government is dealing with the issue? Who are the main decision makers? What are the procedural rules by which the decision will be made? How can the procedural process be affected?
The arena of politics is so big that no one person or group can do everything. Groups and individuals who attempt to do too much wind up doing nothing effectively. Many persons “burn out” on political involvement because they get involved in either too many issues or in issues about which they do not have enduring convictions.
There are several considerations which will help select political priorities.
First, choose something that is important. There are many matters of government, as with any other human institution, which are routine and almost trivial. With the many issues our communities, states, and nation face, it is important to be involved with something which is going to make a difference.
Second, choose something in which you are interested. Since you cannot do everything, why not concentrate on those issues which are of special concern and interest to you? This does not mean that issues should be chosen on the basis of self-interest. The goal of political involvement is personal and social ministry, not the pursuit of selfish interests. But there are different areas of personal and social ministry through political involvement, just as in the local church.
Third, deal with an issue with which you can make an impact. Some goals are impossible to attain in a sinful society. Some are unattainable because of the political climate or the timing. Others, however, are attainable through effective political action. Pick an issue where your involvement can make a difference.
Communicate with Decision Makers
Politicians are affected by the opinions of voters, especially those who are elected. Some politicians regard themselves as representatives of the views of the majority of their constituents. Others regard themselves as representatives of the voters with the responsibility of making judgments based upon the information at their disposal, even if it disagrees with what the majority of the voters want. In fact, most politicians do reflect the views of the majority at times and make independent judgments of their own at other times.
Regardless of how the politician views his or her job, public opinion has an influence. If Christians don’t communicate with these important figures, they will be making up their minds solely on the advice and opinion of others.
There are many forms of communication, and their effectiveness varies with the nature of the office or politician with whom the person is communicating. A United States senator will have less time for a personal conversation than will a state representative. A state representative has less time for a personal visit than your local councilman. The process of communicating involves some trial and error, but here are a few suggestions:
•Letters are generally appropriate. Keep them short (usually a maximum of one page), direct, and informative. Anthrax scares in recent years have significantly slowed down postal delivery to federal officials. For time-sensitive communication, letters should be faxed rather than mailed. Don’t use threats. Register your opinion and share information. The politician will get the message. He will hear it especially clearly if he knows you helped him get elected or that you are informed and politically active.
•If a telephone call is appropriate, don’t hesitate to talk to an aide as though he or she were the politician. Aides have tremendous influence on the shaping of the politician’s opinion. Get to know them and communicate with them directly. They will give you more time than the politicians can give you. When dealing with senators and representatives at the national level, the aides are the only realistic point of personal contact for most people.
•When a particular piece of legislation is being voted on or a decision is being made, call the appropriate office and express your opinion about the time the decision is to be made or the vote taken. The practice of swamping an office with calls is one of the most effective means of affecting a particular decision.
•Be aware of those times when a politician is in his or her home state or district. Most of them have offices within close driving distances to their constituents. Frequently it is possible to meet a politician when he is home for a visit or to meet with the voters of his district.
•Always tell the politician what decision you want him or her to make. It is entirely appropriate not only to tell the politician you want a “Yes” or “No” vote, but also to ask the person what decision he or she plans to make or what vote is expected to be cast.
Get Involved in a Political Party
The United States is a nation with a multiparty heritage. Unlike many Communist countries, we do have choices on Election Day. But these choices are not ideal choices dropped from heaven. They are choices determined by weeks and months and even years of work within organizations known as political parties.
The Christian who gets involved only by voting on Election Day will find usually that he or she has two choices. Occasionally there are more. By the time Election Day arrives, many candidates have already been screened out. Only by involvement in the political party will the Christian have the opportunity to influence the party platforms or position statements, urge support for one party candidate among the host of others vying for the office, and participate in a precinct meeting where important political decisions begin to be made.
The decrease in grassroots party activity has allowed small groups to take over the party machinery in a district, a state, and even the nation. When our participation is meager and ineffective, we are giving room for other groups to have an influence which is far out of proportion to their numbers.
Those who are active in party politics shape the options from which the vast majority of voters can only pick and choose.
Work in an Election
The elections which we as Americans prize so highly are the result of thousands of hours of work on the part of multitudes of other citizens. Running for office is expensive and requires supporters and volunteers who will contribute money, make telephone calls, pass out handbills, and put up posters. If Christian people don’t help do this for a candidate, some good candidates won’t run for office or will be defeated.
Some of the involvement in an election isn’t fun. It is work. It isn’t in the spotlight. But there are many things we as Christians need to do because they are necessary to help a candidate get a message across to the public. If we believe in the ideas and the person, then we will want to work to help get those ideas discussed and that person considered for office.
Elections are expensive, especially on the national level. One of the major failures of American politics today is the manner in which wealthy groups and political action committees (PACs) influence the views of candidates through political campaign contributions. The more dependent a politician becomes on money from specialty interest groups, the more captive that politician becomes to those particular viewpoints.
Some Christians need to consider running for office. Stewardship of our political freedom will impose upon some the decision to invest the time, energy, money, sacrifice, and labor of entering political life. This is a decision not to be made lightly. Evangelicals are increasingly engaging the political arena by running for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Subsequently, the number of evangelicals in Congress has jumped significantly in recent years.
Influence Public Policy
We are charged by Scripture and privileged as U.S. citizens to inform our public officials of our beliefs and convictions on the issues of our time. This means engaging in the political arena by encouraging politicians to vote or to decide in a way consistent with our values. If we have viewpoints about which we care, we will want to make these positions known to those who hold elected offices.
In addition to the normal methods of communicating, several suggestions can be offered.
•Join a group which is concerned about the special issue in which you are interested. There is strength in numbers.
•Generate petitions, telephone calls, and letter-writing campaigns. These should be done carefully in order to have an impact. If they look too manufactured, they will be of little value.
•Form a group to sit in on committee hearings and express your opinions. Be present on the day that a legislative body is scheduled to make a final decision on a matter. When you attend such a meeting, it is helpful to go by the offices of the politicians who are making the decision to let them know of your presence, to express your opinion, and to let them know that you will be in the hearing.
•Contact some persons who are either constituents or acquaintances of politicians and encourage them to express their opinions to the politicians.
•In anything you do, be aware of the influence of the media. Think carefully about how media reporting of your involvement and deliberation of the issues will affect debate on the legislation or the making of a decision.