I’ve never enjoyed reading articles about how Seventh-day Adventists should relate to voting. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the excellent, biblically sound principles that these articles always highlight. The problem is translating principle into practice.
Consider this resolution from the third-ever General Conference Session, held in 1865. “Resolved, That 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 that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.”1
It was the church’s first official statement on voting, and this, along with counsel from Ellen White, has largely shaped how Adventists have thought and spoken about voting ever since. In the election cycle of 2022, though, what exactly does it mean to exercise my vote “in behalf of justice, humanity and right”?
Or consider Ellen White’s passionate endorsement of the temperance movement of the late nineteenth century. Her comments leave us in no doubt that she did want church members to vote—specifically in favor of laws banning the sale of alcohol. Late one evening, at an 1881 camp meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, she got out of bed and returned to a meeting where she spoke energetically in support of a resolution that read: “Resolved, That we express our deep interest in the temperance movement now going forward in this state; and that we instruct all our ministers to use their influence among our churches and with the people at large to induce them to put forth every consistent effort, by personal labor, and at the ballot box, in favor of the prohibitory amendment of the Constitution, which the friends of temperance are seeking to secure.” 2
The point of contention among the brethren were the words “at the ballot box,” and Mrs. White came down unequivocally on the side of retaining that phrase. Yet far from providing helpful guidance for today, this episode seems to muddy the waters even more. Does this suggest, if the issue is important enough, that Adventists should try to leverage our voting power to impose our convictions on society at large? And if so, who gets to decide what issues reach this threshold of importance?
Or consider these two pieces of seemingly contradictory counsel. In an 1883 talk to young people at Battle Creek College, Ellen White said, “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.”3
But then just six years later Mrs. White wrote an oft-quoted letter addressed to “the teachers and managers of our schools” in which she said, “We cannot with safety vote for political parties; for we do not know whom we are voting for. We cannot with safety take part in any political schemes. . . . It is a mistake for you to link your interests with any political party, to cast your vote with them or for them.”4
How can a young person reasonably aspire to “sit in legislative councils” while eschewing the thumbtacks of the political process, such as voting and political parties?
A Closer Look
Clearly, as with everything, context counts. The Adventist Church’s 1865 statement on voting is probably best understood in light of the American Civil War. For Adventists of 1865, who had just endured four years of horrific trauma and bloodshed, this resolution implicitly reaffirmed the church’s long-standing abhorrence of slavery. For a church member of that era, the appeal to “justice, humanity and right” would have been more than clear.
Similarly, Adventist support of the temperance movement needs to be seen not as an attempt to foist our beliefs on society through legislation, but as our contribution to a major social and political movement of the time. It’s difficult for us today to comprehend this international, decades-long temperance effort. It brought together a disparate range of religious groups, social reformers, and political leaders. What fueled this mass movement wasn’t simply a belief that alcohol consumption was morally wrong, but also a conviction that the alcohol industry was corrupting almost every aspect of society—driving crime, gambling, prostitution, domestic violence, the breakdown of the family unit, and political corruption. Many of those who campaigned for temperance were also supporters of abolition and the right of women to vote. There are good arguments to be made that Adventist support for the broad social goals of the temperance movement was a natural follow-on from our long-held opposition to slavery—a moral evil that had also infected and corrupted every facet of American society.
What about Ellen White’s apparently contradictory statements about how far Adventists should involve themselves in political practices? In a nuanced and balanced way, she calibrated her counsel to her audience and their circumstances. In the first quote she is addressing students, many of whom would soon go out into the world to make their mark. In the second she is specifically addressing those who were already employed by the church for the specific purpose of building in Adventist young people a strong spiritual foundation. These were individuals in positions of trust, whose detours into politicking could profoundly damage the young people in their care.
Absent an ability to travel back in time and experience, firsthand, the political and social world of the late 1800s and early 1900s, we need to look at Ellen White’s writings in their totality, rather than picking and choosing short snippets out of context. What we find is that the overarching thrust of her counsel through the years was to warn of the dangers of politics, while holding open a space for careful, selective involvement in social transformation through political means.
The same need for careful contextual study also applies, of course, to various biblical examples such as Nehemiah and Daniel, or the often-debated words of the apostle Paul about civil versus spiritual authority, as found, for example, in Romans 13:1-7 and elsewhere.
Thankfully, many Adventist scholars have undertaken this task through the years. When it comes to the subject of voting, their conclusions tend to broadly agree. If you search the archives for articles on this subject published in the Adventist Review, Liberty, or Ministry, you’ll see a number of key points that consistently emerge. These can be roughly expressed as five general ideas:
1. The act of voting isn’t inherently bad and, in fact, can be an important part of our responsibility as Christians.
2. If you do choose to vote, you should keep your opinions private, because your choice is a personal matter between you, God, and no one else.
3. Voting comes with immense responsibility—how we vote and why we vote the way we do matters spiritually.
4. Voting isn’t a team sport. The baggage that often comes with the act of voting, namely “a spirit of partisan strife,” can be destructive and must be avoided at all costs.
5. And above all, don’t let the political noise around us distract us from our core mission to turn people’s hearts toward their Creator.
There are no radically new ideas here. We’ve heard versions of these principles again and again through the years, and through various election cycles.
But as I contemplate the immediate political choices before me, these excellent guidelines still don’t really address the nub of my dilemma.
A Choice to Make
So back to this simple question: In 2022, what is a thinking, caring Seventh-day Adventist to do when it comes to the choice of voting or not? Or to paraphrase Shakespeare’s renowned equivocator, Hamlet: “To vote, or not to vote: that is the question.” Is it better to vote, and therefore implicitly be a part of a system that is currently toxic beyond measure? a system shot through with venality, powered by self-interest, and marked by extreme rhetoric from all sides?
Or is it better to step back and disengage, keeping our hearts and hands clean? So that we can wait for the time when all things will be made new and there’s no longer any need for political strategists or dealmakers, ballot boxes or campaign ads? To borrow a rather poetic turn of phrase from Adventist historian Douglas Morgan, should we be content with simply uttering “an apocalyptic lament about the Republic and its future”?5
Let’s acknowledge reality. The choices before us are unpalatable on so many different levels. When I worked on Capitol Hill and visited congressional offices, I met and talked with people who were clearly motivated by laudable goals. From the intern at the front desk to the elected representative they served, these individuals were working to shape public policy in ways they believed would benefit society at large. Yet, as a practical matter, it’s almost impossible to separate the high-minded aspects of politics from the viciousness, power hunger, and mindless zealotry that are also fixtures in our current political landscape.
To vote or not to vote? There are fine arguments to be made either way.6 And therein lies perhaps the most important point.
In the choice between voting or abstaining, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, if I dared to identify one overarching principle that should guide Adventist Church members in their choices about voting, it would be that “voting is personal.” Your choice may be different from mine, and that’s OK. As editor of Liberty magazine—our church’s 116-year-old publication focused on church-state issues—I often talk with caring, committed church members who hold diametrically opposed ideas about politics and voting.
The responsibility for grappling with my voting choices falls to no one else but me. It doesn’t belong to the General Conference or any other level of church administration. It doesn’t belong to my local church pastor or the people sitting next to me in the pew. Whether or how I, personally, choose to vote is an issue that belongs neither in the pulpit, nor the Sabbath School class, nor the small group Bible study.
There’s a catch, though, and it’s a big one. For my decision to be truly personal I also need to unharness my thinking from the almost irresistible pull of partisan identity politics. And that’s a task that requires a herculean effort. For most of us, our political sympathies have, over time, become hard-baked into our identity. One recent study showed that most Americans have a reflexive, knee-jerk identification with a particular political party. It often runs so deep that it overrides all other important social identifiers such as gender, race, religion, language, and ethnicity.7 In other words, most of us have chosen a political team and we’ll vote for it, come what may.
Who Am I First?
I can be a good Seventh-day Adventist and believe we should avoid voting and the distractions of political activism. I can also be a good Seventh-day Adventist who reads the imperatives of Micah 6:8 and other passages of Scripture and decides that I must do more than utter an “apocalyptic lament” for my country and try to reflect the values of God’s kingdom as best I can within today’s political realities.
I can be a good Adventist who votes Republican. I can be a good Adventist who votes Democrat or Green or Libertarian or Independent.
But unless I’ve prayerfully struggled with my choices, and unless I’m willing to make my political decisions subservient to my foremost identity as a child of God, then perhaps I still have work to do.
To vote or not to vote? It’s our choice to make. May we deal with each other—and ourselves—with grace, humility, and patience. And may we never forget that we serve the One who is above all politics, whose kingdom will come, regardless of the choices we make at the ballot box.
Bettina Krause is editor of Liberty magazine and an associate director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.