Adventists and Politics, Part 2: Partisan Politics and Public Service

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Adventists and Politics, Part 2: Partisan Politics and Public Service

In Part 1 I drew three conclusions from inspired counsel on the subject of voting. These were:

  1. we are to cast our vote “on the side of temperance and virtue”;
  2. if we vote, “keep your voting to yourself. Do not feel it your duty to urge everyone to do as you do”; and
  3. we are to stand free from political strife and corruption.

Having considered these points, some questions still persist. Can Seventh-day Adventists participate in certain aspects of politics with good conscience? Are we ever to help in the making of laws, and if so, how? Is it ever proper to hold public office, either elective or appointive?

Let us consider politics first. Uriah Smith, looking at the political situation in our country in 1884, wrote with insight and pessimism:

“Fraud, dishonesty, usurpation, lying, cheating, and stealing, will largely determine the count; and the party which can do most of this work will probably win.” Review and Herald, July 15, 1884.

Some years later, George C. Tenney, coeditor of the Review with Uriah Smith, defined “pure politics” much as the dictionary does, as something that “embraces the sciences and principles of good government. Political economy, political science, philanthropy, civil government—in fact, every branch of statecraft and statesmanship—are included in pure politics.”

If politics as generally practiced were this “pure,” we would have no argument with it. But we will have to agree with Elder Tenney that politics, as generally known, has “become a name for demagogism, a system of personal wire-pulling, a cover for chicanery [and] trickery,” with politicians generally having a “burning desire for office and its spoils” and legislators moved “by one consideration only–the prospect of re-election.” Ibid., Aug. 11, 1896.

L. A. Smith, another coeditor, compared political organization to an army, saying:

“Everybody can understand why it is that an army can easily overcome a mob, and the same reason will explain why the political machine so readily overcomes the people’s reform movements. The machine is an organized and thoroughly disciplined army; the people are an unorganized body.” Ibid., April 6, 1905.

He continued:

“The only way for the reform element to cope successfully with the machine would be to organize and put in the field its own machine, and follow machine methods of work; but it is in machine politics that the whole evil lies.” Ibid.

Partisan Politics

Have the passing decades outdated the foregoing statements? Not if we are to believe today’s concerned commentators on the political scene. In the setting of these facts of political life Ellen White’s terse comments come through clearly:

“The Lord would have His people bury political questions.” “We cannot with safety vote for political parties.” “Let political questions alone.” “It is a mistake for you to link your interests with any political party, to cast your vote with them or for them.” Gospel Workers, pp. 391-393.

Note that the preceding statements do not exclude voting. If we vote, it should be on the basis of the personal qualifications of a candidate, not because he bears a certain party label. What we might call a vote for a “straight party ticket” is clearly warned against. If we vote, we should vote intelligently. But it is clear that political questions are not to be brought into our churches, nor must the political infatuation, strife, and excitement of politics absorb our time and attention.

In a statement first published as a tract in 1899, Ellen White said that we are not to vote for men that “use their influence to repress religious liberty,” for if we do, we “are partakers with them of the sins which they commit while in office.” “We cannot with safety take part in any political schemes,” she said. Christians “will not wear political badges.”

She counseled that teachers “who distinguish themselves by their zeal in politics, should be relieved of their work,” and ministers “who desire to stand as politicians shall have their credentials taken from them.” (See Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 475-484.)

Christians in Government

But what about personal participation in lawmaking? Can we hold office and not violate our Christian responsibilities? Two statements by Ellen White bear careful study. In Education, page 262, we read:

“Many a lad of today, growing up as did Daniel in his Judean home, studying God’s Word and His works, and learning the lessons of faithful service, will yet stand in legislative assemblies, in halls of justice, or in royal courts, as a witness for the King of kings.”

That this witness is not limited to occasional appearances on behalf of specific issues, and in fact includes participation in legislative decisions, is evident from another statement Ellen White made in an address to the teachers and students of Battle Creek College, November 15, 1883. She said:

“Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day . . . sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations.” Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 82.

Ellen White went on to explain the circumstances under which it is proper to accept such responsibilities. She said that we are not to be content with low goals, but we are to remember that “the fear of the Lord lies at the foundation of all true greatness.” We are to hold “all temporal claims and interests in subjection to the higher claims of the gospel of Christ.”

She also indicated that “as disciples of Christ, you are not debarred from engaging in temporal pursuits; but you should carry your religion with you.” And, “balanced by religious principle, you may climb to any height you please.” Notice that the climbing is to be “balanced by religious principle.”

Further, our God-given powers and talents are not to be perverted “to do evil and destroy others” or to be used to “spread moral ruin and corruption.” Rather, our responsibilities are to be “faithfully and conscientiously discharged.” (See Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 82, 83; Messages to Young People, pp. 36, 37.)

It appears quite clear, then, that the counsel of the Spirit of Prophecy writings does not rule out the holding of public office and, in fact, states that some Adventists will hold office. Selfish motives are to be ruled out, and the officeholder is to remember always that “temporal claims and interests” are to be held “in subjection to the higher claims of the gospel of Christ.” How practical and plain these guiding principles are! They need not be misunderstood by anyone.

An Adventist Mayor

Election of Seventh-day Adventists to public office carries back at least to the 1880s. A rather unusual editorial by Uriah Smith stated: “Elder William C. Gage has been elected mayor of the city of Battle Creek.” The editorial went on to explain that the advocates of temperance in the city had felt betrayed by current officeholders, and when no other man could be persuaded to run against them, Elder Gage had been approached. The editorial continued: “When it appeared that to decline absolutely would be to jeopardize the interests of the temperance cause, he accepted, and the people ratified the nomination, giving him a plurality.” Review and Herald, April 11, 1882.

Both Uriah Smith and G. I. Butler, president of the General Conference, appeared apologetic for the election of Gage. In the same issue of the Review, Elder Butler urged support of the temperance issues of the day, but cautioned: “We have not time or ability to waste in the arena of politics while the cause of God is languishing.” Both men stated their conviction that Adventists normally should not become involved in politics. Elder Butler stated further that even though we favor temperance, we are to be cautious “about being absorbed and carried away in excitements over it or any other question” (ibid). Surely, this advice is appropriate in the light of pressing social and political issues of our day.

It may be of interest to note that halfway through his one-year term as mayor, Gage was strongly rebuked by Ellen White. She said: “He has ever been a curse to the church in Battle Creek.” She added: “I warn the people of God not to take this man as their pattern.” Special Testimony to the Battle Creek Church, Nov. 30, 1882, p. 6.

Biblical Examples

The Bible has some valuable counsel on the question of serving a civil government. There were fair and just rulers in Bible times, and there were those who were cruel and unjust. The true statesman is a long way from the corrupt politician, and there are many noble men filling positions in the government of the world. Yet both might serve in similar and even identical positions. What makes the difference? Obviously, the man makes the office, not the office the man.

Joseph considered his position in Egypt’s government to be a direct result of God’s leading. As he tried to calm his brothers’ fears after their father’s death, he said to them, “God hath made me lord of all Egypt” (Gen. 45:9). He “[sent] me before you to preserve life” (verse 5).

Daniel and his three Hebrew companions were selected from among captives in Babylon for training in civil leadership. They did not refuse this training. After Daniel was promoted to “ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon,” he asked that his three friends might be “set . . . over the affairs of the province of Babylon,” and the request was granted (Dan. 2:48, 49). The three companions were promoted again after going through the fiery furnace (chap. 3:30). They did not refuse to serve.

The next ruler of Babylon, Belshazzar, made Daniel third ruler after he interpreted the handwriting on the banquet wall, and just hours before Belshazzar was defeated by Darius (chap. 5:29). Darius, the Mede, recognized leadership in Daniel and made him first of three presidents of the whole kingdom (chap. 6:2).

Later, Daniel became the object of jealousy of the other presidents and princes when Darius was considering putting him over the whole realm. This is what led to his ordeal in the lions’ den. When he met this test successfully, he “prospered in the reign of Darius” (verse 28). It is obvious that Daniel did not refuse civil responsibility when he was called upon to serve.

And, of course, there is Mordecai the Jew, who “sat in the king’s gate” and was one of King Ahasuerus’ “servants” (Esther 2:19; 3:3). The king’s gate was a place where business of the realm was carried on, and offices were there. When he was given a chance to replace Haman, who had been hanged, he did not refuse. Eventually he was placed next to the king in power (chap. 10:3). Esther, of course, was queen of the realm during this time. A few generations later, Ezra and Nehemiah served as civil servants in their respective governments.

In the New Testament appears what might be called the charter of Christian civic responsibility (Romans 13). It notes that “the powers that be are ordained of God” and in light of this, “whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (verses 1, 2).

It goes on to say: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (verses 3-5, R.S.V.).

Tribute and taxes are definitely approved as being properly required by the civil government (verses 6, 7).

Responsible Until Christ Returns

Some day soon the prophecy of Daniel 2 will meet its fulfillment in the return of Jesus, and “the God of heaven” will “set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed,” a kingdom that “shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms.” It will be a kingdom that “shall stand for ever” (verse 44). But until that time, Christ’s followers continue to have a responsibility to “Caesar.”

In summary we quote a portion of an editorial appearing in the Review and Herald of September 13, 1928. Elder F. M. Wilcox, longtime church leader and editor, wrote:

“The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not seek to dictate to its members as to how they shall vote or whether or not they should vote at all. It is left for each one to act on his own judgment in the fear of God. We have been told by the servant of the Lord that we should not link up with political parties, that we should not agitate political questions in our schools or institutions. On the other hand, we have been instructed by the same authority that when certain moral issues, such as prohibition, are involved, the ‘advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example–by voice and pen and vote—in favor of . . . total abstinence.’ This instruction is not mandatory, it is still left for each one to determine for himself what he shall do.

“While an individual member of the church has a right, if he so likes, to cast his vote, the church as such should hold itself entirely aloof from politics. It is one thing for the individual members of the church to vote, and another thing for these same individuals in their church capacities to endeavor to influence political measures.”

______

This article was originally published in Adventist Review, September 18 and 25, 1980, with the title “The Right to Vote—Shall I Exercise It?” Reprinted with permission of the Ellen G. White Estate.

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Paul A. Gordon served as undersecretary of the Ellen G. White Estate in the 1990s.