Have you ever wondered why people in free societies tend to hate politics so much? Is it because political leaders in free countries are more corrupt and evil than the leaders of unfree countries? (Few sensible people would likely arrive at that conclusion!) When I hear fellow Americans speak contemptuously of politicians and the political process, I am often tempted to ask if they would rather live in a place like North Korea or Saudi Arabia, where the doings of government and statecraft lie solely in the hands of a distant and unaccountable ruling class.
In a few days, Americans will go to the polls in what will likely be the most important midterm election in decades. Those familiar with our policies and practices here at ADvindicate will recall that we try to refrain on this site—perhaps not always with success—from showing bias in favor of one or another secular political viewpoint. But it is also our position here that participation by free Christian citizens in the political process of voting is not only permissible for faithful Seventh-day Adventists, but—at least in most cases—imperative.
Just prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we republished an editorial written just prior to the presidential election of 1972 by the late Elder Kenneth H. Wood, then-editor of the Review and Herald (1)—now the Adventist Review. Though penned many years ago, we still believe this editorial offers counsel both faithful to the inspired writings and timeless in its balance and wisdom.
Exploding An Urban Legend
Certain devout Seventh-day Adventists have for years cherished and propagated an urban legend regarding the counsel of Ellen White on the subject of secular political involvement. The assumption among these folks is that Ellen White instructed Adventists to “avoid politics like the plague,” and to vote only on issues, never for candidates. Those of this mindset will concede that Ellen White counseled our people to be involved in the campaign for alcohol Prohibition (2), but will quickly insist that Ellen White wanted Adventists to eschew involvement with any other issues of a political nature.
This assumption is quite false. Ellen White was also a strong proponent of the abolition of slavery, and even instructed Adventists to defy the infamous Fugitive Slave Act, which required American citizens to return runaway slaves to their masters (3). In the following statement, Ellen White was clear that sympathy on the part of Adventists for oppressed racial minorities is a condition for our enjoying the favor of God:
Many Sabbath-keepers are not right before God in their political views. They are not in harmony with God’s word, or in union with the body of Sabbath-keeping believers. . . . These brethren cannot receive the approval of God while they lack sympathy for the oppressed colored race, and are at variance with the pure, republican principles of our Government (4).
From this statement it would appear that certain political issues are in fact important to our religious faith, and that the inspired counsel God gave His church does not constrain us to stay totally away from political causes or convictions.
In a statement written to Adventist young people, Ellen White offers the following encouragement regarding the impact they might make on the world around them:
Dear youth, what is the aim and purpose of your life? Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and position in the world? Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day stand upon the summit of intellectual greatness; that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. You may every one of you make your mark. You should be content with no mean attainments. Aim high, and spare no pains to reach the standard (5).
It is hard to imagine how “[sitting] in deliberative and legislative councils,” helping “to enact laws for the nation,” could harmonize with the notion that Adventists should stay totally away from secular politics. The Bible, of course, contains examples of godly men such as Joseph and Daniel—two men, I might add, of whom no sin is recorded—who ascended to the summit of political power in their day. What is most remarkable about the political careers of these two is that they took place, not among God’s covenant people, but among the most powerful heathen nations in their respective times. The notion of some that all politics is corrupt and that all politicians are dishonest—a mindset we will address later—is difficult to accept when you consider that Joseph and Daniel held power at the pinnacle of their respective worlds, and yet maintained their purity and integrity before God. However corrupt the modern political process may be, one truly wonders if a credible case could be made that politics in those vice-ridden, oppressive centers of power was somehow less soul-endangering than the politics of today.
Many are familiar with two chapters in the writings of Ellen White which speak quite negatively of political involvement on the part of Adventists, particularly ministers (6). What is significant about these testimonies is that they were written during the 1890s, when many Adventists—according to another Ellen White testimony at the same time (7)—were tempted to become involved in the gold-versus-silver controversy relative to U.S. currency that was then dividing America. Unlike the issues of slavery and alcohol prohibition, the currency issue was one over which God didn’t desire His people to experience discord, or to impair their witness for the gospel by parading their opinions before the public.
In this same context Ellen White forbade our ministers from “acting as politicians” (8), and made the following statement which, unfortunately, some have misunderstood because they haven’t considered all of it:
We cannot labor to please men who will use their influence to repress religious liberty, and to set in operation oppressive measures to lead or compel their fellow-men to keep Sunday as the Sabbath. . . . The people of God are not to vote to place such men in office; for when they do this, they are partakers with them of the sins which they commit while in office (8).
Some have read the latter part of the above statement without reading the earlier part, and have thus concluded that Seventh-day Adventists should never vote for people, lest they partake of the sins those people commit while holding political office. But the above statement is not a general prohibition against voting for political candidates; rather, it is a prohibition against voting for individuals who will oppose religious liberty, particularly with regard to the Sabbath/Sunday issue. The best way, of course, to know how candidates are likely to vote on any issue is to consider their record as well as their public commitments. The message of the above statement is not that we shouldn’t vote for any person seeking public office, but rather, that we shouldn’t support individuals with a track record of opposing and suppressing freedom of conscience.
In another statement Ellen White is very clear that when it comes to issues like the temperance question, we should in fact vote for candidates who will support the position we hold as a people:
Attended a meeting in the eve. Had quite a free, interesting meeting. After it was time to close, the subject of voting was considered and dwelt upon. James first talked, then Brother (J.N.) Andrews talked, and it was thought by their best to give their influence in favor of right and against wrong. They think it right to vote in favor of temperance men being in office in our city instead of by their silence running the risk of having intemperance men put in office. Brother [David] Hewitt tells his experience of a few days [since] and is settled that [it] is right to cast his vote. Brother [Josiah] Hart talks well. Brother [Henry] Lyon opposes. No others object to voting, but Brother [J.P.] Kellogg begins to feel that it is right. Pleasant feelings exist among all the brethren. O that they might all act in the fear of God.
Men of intemperance have been in the office today, in a flattering manner expressing their approbation of the course of the Sabbath-keepers not voting and expressed their hope that they will stick to their course and, like the Quakers, not cast their vote. Satan and his evil angels are busy at this time, and he has workers upon the earth. May Satan be disappointed, is my prayer (9).
Quite clearly, the above statement is not merely about voting on issues. It is about voting for candidates.
Far from instructing our people to eschew politics without qualification, Ellen White’s instruction regarding political involvement was—at the bottom line—very balanced, and is perhaps best summarized in the following statement:
Whatever the opinions you may entertain in regard to casting your vote in political questions, you are not to proclaim it by pen or voice. Our people need to be silent upon questions which have no relation to the third angel’s message (10).
In other words, we are to be silent in our public pronouncements on issues unrelated to the three angels’ messages, a category Ellen White obviously didn’t see as including such issues as the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of alcohol. Religious liberty is still another, even more important issue concerning with which our involvement with civil government as Seventh-day Adventists is identified by the inspired pen as imperative (11).
Ellen White’s counsel restricting public Adventist involvement with secular political issues has proved a great blessing to the church. Unlike other religious communities, public division among Adventists over such questions has been kept to a minimum, largely because of these counsels from the Spirit of Prophecy.
Sadly, in recent times there have been those who seem to believe that the spiritual agenda of Seventh-day Adventist Christianity is directly related to, if not synonymous with, a particular secular political ideology. Such persons not only publicize their views (mostly online) regarding political issues that touch religious liberty and personal morality (a practice with which most of us would agree), but regarding other issues also—such as environmentalism, immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, Obamacare, and the alleged virtues of one economic system as opposed to another. These persons have also used online venues to openly praise political candidates of their choice, and to vilify and condemn those candidates with whom they differ.
Such a course runs decidedly contrary to the counsel of Ellen White, in particular such statements as the following, speaking of the behavior of certain Adventists in her day:
By parading their political belief before the world, just as worldings do, they have created division, strife, and jealousy among themselves. The influence of this course of action is a great offense to God, and He cannot and will not prosper those who follow it (12).
It is important to bear in mind that no political ideology in our world today bears either the divine seal of approval or the divine stamp of condemnation. It is not appropriate for Christians to give an unqualified public embrace to either the liberal or the conservative political philosophies, nor to any other. The recent tendency of many theologically conservative Christians in the United States to give such an embrace to the conservative political ideology has inflicted untold harm on the spiritual witness of these Christians in American society. God is no more a political conservative than He is a political liberal. Both ideological systems, along with others in the universe of human government, represent flawed human solutions to the human condition. We may differ among ourselves as Christians, or with others in society, regarding these solutions. But we should be careful to keep such differences both from dividing the fellowship of faith and from being associated with our public witness for God’s Word.
Once Christians decide that secular politics is to be a vehicle whereby their moral agenda for society is to be advanced, it becomes natural for them to attach themselves to whatever political party or movement pledges itself to assist in the pursuit of these objectives. Christians thus become a constituent group within such a movement, and are thus forced to make the same compromises other constituencies have to make as a means of achieving their shared political goals.
And here is where Christians get into trouble.
If in fact a leader or set of ideas whose words, concepts, or practices run counter to the Christian message happens to hijack the political movement, ideology, or party to which Christians have attached themselves, these Christians will likely be forced—like any other political constituency—to compromise some of their principles in other to achieve their political purposes. It wasn’t so long ago that the great majority of conservative Christians in America made a great deal of the need for moral character on the part of political leaders—even urging that a president be driven from office because of flaws in this respect. But if in fact a political leader with conspicuous moral blemishes happens to hijack the movement Christians have become part of, the demand for moral integrity on the part of these Christians has a way of falling silent.
Is it permissible for a political leader to be morally flawed if he or she agrees to do the political bidding of conservative Christians? Or do such moral flaws only disqualify those politicians who disagree with what some are pleased to call the “Christian” political agenda?
A Christian’s political loyalties, tragically, can mean the muzzling of the voice of needful rebuke when a political leader supported by Christians publicly violates Christian principles. When such a leader stokes hatred, ridicules the weak and vulnerable, and tells flagrant and repeated falsehoods, Christians who may well feel repulsed and outraged by such conduct are constrained by political priorities to mute their criticism, or even to excuse and belittle the leader’s faults. Not all moral failures by a public servant are created equal, to be sure, at least in the setting of a non-theocratic society. But despite differences among Christians and others as to the needful aspects of a political leader’s moral example, one is saddened to see Christians come to a point where moral rebuke is reserved only for those politicians who reject so-called “Christian” political goals. If that isn’t a case of spiritual compromise, one wonders what is.
Many Christians, including many fellow Adventists of my acquaintance, saw the last presidential election in the United States as a binary choice between two very flawed, very corrupt individuals. Whether or not that is a fair portrayal of the choice in that election is beside the point for the purposes of this article. The problem was that many of these same Christians felt constrained to “hold their nose” and vote for the candidate who, despite his evident corruption, promised to do what the “Christians” wanted.
But whatever happened to simply trusting God to take care of the country, and thus refusing to cast a ballot for one you know to be corrupt merely because he promises to do the things you want done? Is God so powerless and the Christian message so impotent that it must place its trust in moral perversity merely because it belongs to someone who has temporarily chosen to ally himself with “Christian” causes?
While being an informed voter can truly be called one of the Christian’s civic duties in a free country—part of rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21)—this doesn’t mean one is forced to make an obviously bad choice. In the face of what one might consider to be two very bad options, there remains the option of simply trusting God.
A Popular Lie
One reason many Christians—and others—seem prepared to accept even appalling moral shortcomings in their political leaders is because of the widespread and totally false assumption that “all politicians are crooks.” Those who approach politics with this assumption often find themselves incapable of outrage when they encounter an especially perverse and toxic variety of corruption in one candidate or another. Instead of reacting with indignation to such corruption, they shrug their shoulders and ask, “What else is new?”
Few popular perceptions are as wrong and unfair as this notion that all politicians are dishonest. Any Christian who utters these words or assumes them to be true is breaking the ninth commandment wide open.
All politicians are not crooks. This is as foolish as saying that because corruption is found in business, medicine, and numerous other professions (including clergy), that therefore everyone in these fields must inevitably be corrupt as well. It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of men and women who enter public service, regardless of partisan or ideological affiliation, are honest people trying—according to their philosophical lights—to better the lot of those they represent.
If all politicians are to be viewed as dishonest, Ellen White couldn’t have written the following statement about political leaders during the crisis of the last days—without question the time when human corruption at every level will be greatest:
While many of our rulers are active agents of Satan, God also has His agents among the leading men of the nation. The enemy moves upon His servants to promote measures that would greatly impede the work of God; but statesmen who fear the Lord are influenced by holy angels to oppose such propositions with unanswerable arguments. . . . When the final warning shall be given, it will arrest the attention of these leading men through whom the Lord is now working, and some of them will accept it, and will stand with the people of God through the time of trouble (13).
The popular lie that all politicians are corrupt makes citizens with a particular agenda more willing to tolerate even glaring flaws in the political champions they choose, provided the champion in question does their bidding. When evidence of corruption, demagoguery, and the telling of outright lies becomes evident in a politician’s behavior, those trusting that politician to carry out their political will are prepared to excuse his or her conduct on the grounds that “everybody does it.” But everybody doesn’t do it. All politicians are not liars. And those who do lie should be held strictly accountable for their lies by the voters, especially Christians.
Many American Christians seem of late to have forgotten that Revelation 21, verse 8, is still in the Bible—the verse which declares that “all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Patriotism, Yes. Nationalism, No
Patriotism is completely appropriate for one who bears the name of Christ. It is healthy and normal to be proud of one’s country and its heritage. Americans in particular can rejoice at the way God has used their land since its origin as a refuge for those seeking freedom and a fresh start. The following Ellen White statement helps us understand why even today, multitudes seek a refuge from tyranny and privation within the borders of the United States:
The oppressed and downtrodden throughout Christendom have turned to this land with interest and hope. Millions have sought its shores, and the United States has risen to a place among the most powerful nations of the earth (14)
New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, twice a candidate for the U.S. presidency, used similar language in his final address before he died, declaring that God had made America “a haven of repose and a harbor of refuge for the downtrodden and poor and the oppressed of every land” (15).
Patriotism in every society can rightly be seen as a healthy, positive feature of our Christian experience. But patriotism is not the same as nationalism. Patriotism says, “I’m proud of my country.” Nationalism, by contrast, says, “We’re better than everyone else,” often nurturing arrogance, notions of superiority and contempt for others, and even racism. No true Christian, especially a Seventh-day Adventist, can self-identify as a nationalist. In truth, Seventh-day Adventists are the ultimate globalists, as the message with which God has entrusted us is directed “to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6).
The political worldview of the American Seventh-day Adventist cannot be “America first,” nor can similar illusions of national superiority exist in the thinking of Seventh-day Adventists in any land on earth. What is best for the gospel, for its worldwide proclamation, and for the uplift and betterment of all humanity—temporal as well as spiritual—must be central to the civic decisions rendered by those seeking to be part of God’s commandment-keeping remnant at the end of time (Zeph. 3:13; Rev. 12:17; 14:5,12).
Conclusion: Why It’s Foolish—Even Dangerous—To Despise Politics
I frankly become indignant when I hear people, especially fellow Adventists, talking of how they “steer clear” of politics, often manifesting their ignorance of political history and current events by their ill-informed observations. Considering how close we are to the end of all things, it is especially necessary for Seventh-day Adventists to be aware of the world around them, and to form opinions about issues based on verified evidence.
One way to do this is to not get your news from merely one source or outlet. Watch more than one network. Read articles from more than one website. Learn to read between the lines when reading or watching political commentary. Bias is unavoidable in the study of history or the perusal of current events, but prejudice—pre-judging—can in fact be avoided.
Anyone who follows elections or recent electoral history, especially in the United States, knows how political races can often be decided by a very few votes. Despite cynical assumptions to the contrary, your vote does count. The decisions you make at the ballot box could make the difference between support or opposition to freedom of conscience (religious or otherwise), between restraint on the winds of strife or the loosening of the same. And don’t take the attitude of “bring it on” when it comes to the final events. Ellen White tells us plainly that we are to do all in our power to prevent the onset of the final crisis, and to educate the public regarding issues of civil and religious freedom. The following statements make this clear:
We are not doing the will of God if we sit in quietude, doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience. Fervent, effectual prayers should be ascending to heaven that this calamity may be deferred until we can accomplish the work which has so long been neglected. Let there be most earnest prayer; and then let us work in harmony with our prayers (16).
We see that those who are now keeping the commandments of God need to bestir themselves, that they may obtain the special help which God alone can give them. They should work more earnestly to delay as long as possible the threatened calamity (17).
There are many who are at ease, who are, as it were, asleep. They say, “If prophecy has foretold the enforcement of Sunday observance, the law will surely be enacted;” and having come to this conclusion, they sit down in calm expectation of the event, comforting themselves with the thought that God will protect His people in the day of trouble. But God will not save us if we make no effort to do the work He has committed to our charge (18).
In the present climate of demagoguery, hatred, intense polarization, even violence, Seventh-day Adventists should not sit on the sidelines. They should cast their votes with wisdom and a view to reconciliation, putting a check on nationalism, racial bigotry, contempt for the weak and vulnerable, and the telling of outright lies as a means of manipulating the public. These profoundly unchristian traits should be vigorously shunned by every Seventh-day Adventist seeking to follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth (Rev. 14:4). Such traits will have no place in the future kingdom of glory, and those seeking to be citizens of that kingdom cannot cultivate or encourage such traits on earth.
It is thus very foolish, even dangerous, to despise politics. The right to influence and participate in this process is sacred, a privilege all Christian citizens in free societies should cherish. The following admonition from the Review and Herald editorial cited at the beginning should be borne in every American Adventist mind as the 2018 midterm elections approach:
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 (19).
1. Kenneth H. Wood, “The Christian and the Ballot,” Review and Herald, Oct. 19, 1972, p. 2. http://advindicate.com/articles/2016/11/7/the-christian-and-the-ballot
2. Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing, pp. 337-346.
3. ----Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 202.
4. Ibid, pp. 533-534.
5. ----Messages to Young People, p. 36.
6. ----Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 475-486; Gospel Workers, pp. 391-396.
7. ----Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 330-333.
8. ----Gospel Workers, pp. 391-392.
9. ----Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 337.
10. Ibid, p. 336.
11. ----Gospel Workers, pp. 389-390.
12. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, p. 130.
13. ----The Great Controversy, pp. 610-611.
14. Ibid, p. 441.
15. Christopher M. Finan, Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), p. 344.
16. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 714.
17. ----Review and Herald, Dec. 18, 1888.
18. Ibid, Dec. 24, 1889.
19. Wood, “The Christian and the Ballot,” Review and Herald, Oct. 19, 1972, p. 2. http://advindicate.com/articles/2016/11/7/the-christian-and-the-ballot
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.