This editorial was written by the late Kenneth H. Wood, who served as editor of the Review and Herald (later the Adventist Review) from 1966 to 1982. It was published in the Review and Herald of October 19, 1972, as the U.S. presidential election of that year approached. Though written many years ago, its insights regarding Seventh-day Adventist participation in the secular political process remain cogent, balanced, and timeless. Its thoughts would be helpful to ponder on the eve of the pending U.S. presidential election.
November 7 draws near. On that day citizens of the United States will go to the polls to select not only a President and Vice-President, but scores of Senators, Representatives, and minor officials.
How should Christians relate to the political process of voting?
The answer seems clear. Christians are good citizens. They should do their part to assure good government. One way to do this is to vote.
But Seventh-day Adventists have not always agreed on this rationale. In the years that immediately followed the Great Disappointment of 1844, a large number felt that Christians should stand apart from all aspects of politics. Some argued that since Christ was soon to return, Christians had no time to debate various issues, seek office, or cast their ballot. Whatever time the Christian might have should be spent in witnessing and preparing to meet Christ.
Others objected to participation on the grounds that their efforts would be unproductive. Prophecy indicated that world conditions would steadily deteriorate, growing worse and worse, so why put forth the effort to improve matters?
Still others maintained a hands-off policy because of the prophetic picture of the United States. They felt that an affirmative vote for a bad candidate would hasten formation of the image to the beast; a vote for a good candidate would retard the fulfillment of prophecy. The only safe course was to refrain entirely from voting.
But in 1859 a local election in Battle Creek forced early Adventists to look at all sides of the Christian’s responsibility to society and government. Some were jolted awake by hearing that anti-temperance forces were pleased that Sabbath-keepers were opposed to voting and hoped they would “stick to their course, and . . . not cast their vote.” In her diary Ellen White commented: “Satan and his evil angels are busy at this time, and he has workers upon the earth. May Satan be disappointed, is my prayer (Temperance, pp. 256-257; also in Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 337).
After this experience, Adventists generally agreed that it was appropriate for Christians to vote when temperance issues or related questions were involved. But James White, editor of the Review, made it clear in 1860 that he felt the decision was a personal one. “If a brother chooses to vote, we cannot condemn him, and we want the same liberty if we do not.”
Five years later, in 1865, the General Conference in session took a step beyond this. It passed a recommendation that stated: “In our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper. . . . But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife” (Review and Herald, May 23, 1865). A clear line was drawn between voting and participating in “party strife.”
This position was reaffirmed in 1866, and has been the basic position of the church ever since. It was supported by Ellen White in 1881 (see Temperance, p. 255), and reaffirmed in 1914. She wrote: “Every individual exerts an influence in society. In our favored land, every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation. Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue?” (Review and Herald, October 15, 1914).
But though Christians may vote, they will be extremely selective in their voting. They will not be highly partisan. They will not unthinkingly, blindly, and out of a sense of party loyalty vote “the straight ticket.” They will vote on issues and for “the best men,” not for political parties.
The biggest problem that faces Christians in voting is that they lack omniscience. Even if they vote intelligently and conscientiously, they may make a mistake. But this is true in all areas of life. Should Christians never act unless they are absolutely certain they are right? If so, even the church would be paralyzed, for no man is infallible. Timid leaders would hold back, doing nothing lest they do the wrong thing. In the meantime the devil and his forces would occupy the field.
In voting, as in every other activity, the Christian will seek divine wisdom, then do his best. The right to a free ballot has been purchased by the blood of patriots. The Christian will not regard it lightly, nor permit it to be lost through apathy or disuse.
God’s Men in Public Office
Christians may not only vote in good conscience; they also may seek and hold public office. Sacred history reveals that some of God’s most noble men participated in secular government. Joseph was one. Serving a top post in Egypt’s government, he considered his appointment the direct result of God’s leading. Speaking to his brothers, he said, “God hath made me lord of all Egypt” (Gen. 45:9). “God did send me before you to preserve life” (verse 5).
Then there was Daniel. So well did he fill his post under the Babylonians that when the succeeding empire took over he was continued in office. Darius the Median recognized the leadership qualities in Daniel, and made him first of three presidents of the whole kingdom (Dan. 6:2).
Thus it seems clear that God-fearing people may, without sacrificing principle or compromising conscience, fulfill their obligation to government. They may, without becoming involved in political strife, cast their ballot. At the same time they will long for a better world, and pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).