This summer while visiting various sites in the ancient Roman Empire, I tried to brush up on my knowledge of the history of Western Civilization. Just to make a full disclosure, the only “D” I made in college was in the “HY101: A History of Western Civilization.” And I’ve been trying to improve my understanding of that part of the world ever since.
Our tour started in Istanbul, Turkey, continued through the Greek isles, and culminated in Athens, Greece. We visited three of the sites of Wonders of the Ancient World: The Temple of Diana, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Mausoleum.
All along our tour we saw monuments and statues with tributes to the provincial governors and to one of the many Caesars. After dinner each evening, when I returned to our room, I would try to catch up on the news of the day by watching BBC or reading an online paper from the U.S. As I read about Caesar by day, and read about the upcoming U.S. election by night, the simple but daunting reality dawned upon me that citizens in the ancient Roman world had no voice in choosing their governmental leaders, but we in the U.S. do, and that is still a rare and treasured privilege, even in today’s world.
Across the history of eastern and western civilizations, only a small percentage of the world’s population has ever had a voice in choosing government officials. Even today when more nations than ever enjoy some form of democracy, only a fraction of the world’s citizens have any say in choosing their elected leaders.
How would life have been different if citizens in the ancient Roman Empire had been given the opportunity to vote on their government leaders? In a crucial election year, characterized by inflammatory rhetoric and partisan polarities, it’s important to remember that choosing leaders by “voting your conscience and conviction” is a privilege and responsibility afforded to only a few individuals.
I returned home from my summer travels with a greater awareness of my national and spiritual heritage, and a greater appreciation for our many freedoms. However, as a pastor and as a citizen of these United States, this year I am weary of partisan propaganda-driven politics by both major parties. I am disturbed by the rumor-mongering, name-calling, and urban myths that are “shared” on social network pages, blogs, and circulating emails. And I am bothered that many in the name of faith are attacking the personal character and the religion of candidates they have never met, all the while avoiding serious dialogue about the most pressing issues of our day. Maybe more of our time and conversation should be aimed at developing constructive and rational strategies for addressing our national and global challenges.
As the election approaches, here are my perspectives on how we exercise responsible citizenship in times like these, regardless of our party affiliation or religious conviction:
- Do your homework. Research the candidates and amendments. Do the hard work of wading through the propaganda. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to vote…not your mother, not your father, not your favorite superstar, and certainly not your preacher.
- Practice civil discourse.
Elections are a time to speak your conscience, vote your conviction, and engage in civil discourse. Evaluating and critiquing the issues is much harder work than assailing and attacking a candidate. Dialogue with trusted friends about the pros and cons of a candidate’s track record, leadership style, and long-term vision is constructive. Spouting verbal graffiti about the opposing team is immature and childish, and it diminishes the electoral process.
- Vote for your preferred candidate. Discern and determine which candidate best represents your values and your vision, and then cast your ballot. Do not be deterred or dissuaded by polls that talk about which candidate is leading on a given day. The election is not complete until your vote is cast. Realize that neither candidate is the devil or the messiah, and that each candidate’s position has strengths and weaknesses. Running for public office is demanding and exhausting. Be grateful for those who are willing to run, even those with whom you disagree. It is difficult for those of us who have never campaigned to identify with the personal toll that is exacted on a candidate and his or her family
- Pray for whoever is elected. On the morning after the election, someone will win and someone will lose. As a person who is learning to walk by faith, I am convinced that we need to pray for whoever is elected, whether they are my candidate of choice or not. In a partisan culture, I find it disdaining that often the losing party declares that their mission is to defeat the elected candidate by subverting all attempts at his or her successful leadership. The person who is elected will soon discover that the job requires more than a campaign slogan. I find the words from the Bible to be relevant to the way we respond to our elected leadership: I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior. (I Timothy 2:1-3)
Yes, we do live in uniquely perilous times. However, the dilemma and the debt our country faces were not created by leaders of one party but by both. The resolution and resolve to correct our course will not be provided by one party or one leader, but by courageous and visionary leaders and responsible citizens from across all party lines.
The upcoming election is important but the election itself will not repair the state of the union, no matter which candidate is chosen. My Bible does not say, “If my people who are called by my name shall elect the right president, I will heal their land.” The Bible does say rather emphatically that, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)
If as followers of Jesus we began heeding these powerful words, we could ignite in our country a movement toward real recovery.
(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida.)