The Ten Commandments and the Role of Government, Part 3

Part 1 of this series

Part 2 of this series

Seventh-day Adventists are frequently told, usually by our own religious liberty establishment, that we must not seek to enact biblical and traditional morality and family values, and that Christian groups who do so are not to be trusted.  We have tended to view such groups with great suspicion.  This is a mistake. 

In this third part of the series, we will discuss why it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to vote to implement Christian morality in the larger society. 


Is There Something Wrong with Christian Values?

No.  Christian values are good.  Protestant Christians have been the majority in this country from its founding, and the values of its Christian citizens have shaped this nation.  Few seriously doubt that America is the greatest nation on earth, especially with regard to the justice and bounty available to its poorest and lowliest citizens.  You do not see huge caravans of economic migrants leaving the United States and trying to break into Honduras or El Salvador. Invariably, the traffic is in the other direction, because this has always been a land of opportunity and justice.  Christian values made it that way.

Christian values are not inimical to freedom of conscience.  To the contrary, the religious liberty and the non-establishment of religion that we enjoy in the United States are expressions of deeply held religious faith.  As we noted in part 2, these principles arose out of the Radical Reformation, out of an intensely Biblical worldview.  “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”  (2 Cor. 3:17) Christians who adhere the closest to Bible religion are the most insistent on freedom of conscience and the most vigilant in seeking to preserve it.

Christianity has been more free, unmolested, and unencumbered in the United States than anywhere else in the world.  Many denominations have been born in the United States, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and many denominations that were born elsewhere, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, have seen their freest and fullest expression in this country.

How could it be that, having created a great nation with widespread liberty and justice, Christian values are suddenly an enemy that must be purged from the public square?

Some fear that the same Christians who want to preserve traditional Christian morality will also vote to force the conscience on, e.g., Sunday worship.  But it is not a Christian or biblical value to force the conscience with regard to a religious belief or observance.  To the contrary, as we saw in Part 2 of this series, the belief that religious observances should be enforced by the state was a tenet of pagan Rome that was brought into the Roman Catholic Church during the Great Apostasy.

To sum up, Christian beliefs create freedom of conscience, as well a moral laws and customs, whereas pagan beliefs create persecution and the denial of freedom of conscience, as well as laws and customs that foster immorality.


Should Christians Vote Their Values?

Yes, of course! Where possible, Christians should seek to have divine principles of morality and justice enshrined in the laws of their nation. There is a greater than human wisdom behind Scripture; the Creator, when He issued guidelines for the conduct of His creatures, understood what best would secure their welfare and happiness.


A.   Christians Have Always “Voted” Their Values

When Christianity first began to expand in the Roman Empire, the pagan values of that empire still prevailed. To take up three examples: 1) unwanted babies could legally be exposed to die, 2) gladiatorial combat was considered a prime form of entertainment throughout the empire, and 3) slavery was so entrenched that the majority of the residents of Rome and many other cities were slaves. But gradually, as the Christians increased in numbers, these things were outlawed.

With regard to infanticide, an early Christian document known as the Didache or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” forbade both abortion and the exposure of infants. Christians expressed their opposition to infanticide by rescuing the abandoned children of Rome and raising them as their own.  Eventually Christian values prevailed in law, as Emperor Valentinian I in 374 AD outlawed abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment (See, the Code of Justinian 8.52.2).

With regard to gladiatorial combat, the Church condemned the Roman arena and forbade Christians from watching the terrible events played out within, such as the ritual slaughter of criminals, gladiatorial combat, and leaving condemned prisoners to be mauled and eaten by wild animals. Those who owned training schools for gladiators (ludi) as well as the trainers of gladiators were excluded from the Christian Church.

Athenagoras, a noted Greek convert to Christianity, wrote to Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we [Christians], deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles.”

It was Christianity that finally put an end to gladiatorial combat as mass entertainment. Writes John McKay:

“The butcheries of the arena were stopped by Christian emperors.  In 326 Constantine effectively dried up the main source of supply of gladiators when he issued a decree that forbad the condemnation of criminals to the beasts.  By the end of the century, gladiatorial games ceased to exist in the East; and in 404 Honorius issued an edict forbidding gladiatorial combat in the West.”

Thus was ended an evil that had prevailed in Roman society for six hundred years.

Regarding slavery, in the earliest days, the church could not have frontally attacked slavery without being extirpated.  But the church sometimes used its funds to purchase freedom for slaves.

When very wealthy Romans were converted to Christianity, they often freed their slaves en masse. For example, when the prefect Hermas was converted by Bishop Alexander during the reign of Trajan (r. 98-117), he was baptized at an Easter festival along with wife, children, and twelve hundred and fifty slaves; Hermas gave all of his slaves their freedom as well as money to start their lives as free people. In the time of Diocletian (r. 284-305) the prefect Chromatius was baptized with his fourteen hundred slaves whom he also emancipated at the same time, proclaiming that their sonship to God had put an end to their servitude to man.

By the early 4th Century it had become common for Christian masters to free their slaves. These religiously motivated manumissions were performed in a church ceremony in the presence of a bishop.  Later, this was done with the Emperor Constantine’s official approval. 

Eventually slavery faded away in Christian Europe as society adopted a feudal system of organization.

In addition to combating infanticide, gladiatorial combat, and slavery, the early church also “voted” against prostitution, gambling and chariot racing.  Here, however, they did not enjoy as much success.  Chariot racing became, if anything, more popular under the Christian emperors, peaking in the Constantinople of Justinian before it was finally outlawed.

In summary, the early Christian Church began working to reform the society around them—reining in the excesses of sex and violence produced by the pagan culture—as soon as it was politically possible to do so.  The idea that Christians would want to bronze the surrounding pagan culture and preserve it for all time is absurd. 


B.    Ellen White Counseled us to Vote for Prohibition

The odd notion that Adventists should not vote their own morality and their own biblically-informed conception of a rightly ordered society runs counter to the writing and example of Ellen White, who was not averse to improving the world through legislation.

Ellen White had a great burden for temperance, and urged Adventists to vote against alcohol:

“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 prohibition and total abstinence.” R&H, November 8, 1881; Daughters of God, 123.2 (emphasis added)

Her grandson, Arthur White, quoted her as saying:

Shall we vote for prohibition?” she asked. “Yes, to a man, everywhere,” she replied, “and perhaps I shall shock some of you if I say, if necessary, vote on the Sabbath day for prohibition if you cannot at any other time.” Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years, 1876-1891, vol. 3, p. 161.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1873 to agitate against alcohol and tobacco. Its efforts resulted in many cities and counties voting to be “dry.” Along with the Anti-Saloon League and the Prohibition Party, it lobbied for prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Ellen White urged Adventists to join the efforts of the WCTU because we shared a common goal—closing the saloons:

“The [WCTU] is an organization with whose efforts for the spread of temperance principles we can heartily unite. The light has been given me that we are not to stand aloof from them, but, while there is to be no sacrifice of principle on our part, as far as possible we are to unite with them in laboring for temperance reforms.... We are to work with them when we can, and we can assuredly do this on the question of utterly closing the saloon.” R&H, June 18, 1908; Daughters of God, 125.3 (emphasis added)

The counsel to unite with the WCTU on prohibition is striking, because the WCTU also promoted Sunday legislation, working to outlaw Sunday activities they considered wrong, including the playing of golf on Sunday.  Yet Ellen White urged Adventists to work with the WCTU on the shared goal of prohibition, notwithstanding that the WCTU was even then promoting Sunday legislation!

A clear implication of Ellen White’s writing and life example is that Adventists need not apologize for advocating that government implement biblical principles of reform.  Another clear implication is that it is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to work with Sunday-keeping Christians in seeking to implement biblical values in the political arena.

Some who do not believe that Adventists should vote traditional Christian values argue that alcohol could rightfully be banned only because it is a physically harmful substance.  Sure, alcohol kills brain cells, and causes liver disease and pancreatitis, but that was not what motivated Ellen White, the WCTU and the other prohibitionists.  They opposed alcohol because of its disinhibiting effect, which leads to licentiousness, immorality, adultery, fornication, and domestic violence and abuse. They opposed the immorality and violence that alcohol immediately facilitates, the addiction alcohol causes in some people, and finally the poverty, squalor, and ruined lives it creates over the long term.  Long term physical damage was not the primary consideration. 


C.   Left-leaning Christians Consistently Support Christian-influenced Voting

Christians recognize that Christ called us to see to the needs of our neighbors, including their material needs.  (See, e.g., Mat. 25:35-40; Luke 10:25-37)  As the Christian Church was organized, the office of deacon was established in order to oversee the Church’s social welfare function (Acts 6).

Extreme economic inequality was taken for granted in pagan Rome, so the Christians’ solicitude for the poor was new and shocking.  Emperor Julian (Emp. 361 – 363 AD), who, because he had been a Christian for many years but reverted to the pagan worship of Helios, is known as “Julian the Apostate,” bemoaned the fact that Christians practiced generous charity, thus growing Christianity:

“These impious Galileans [Christians] not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes.  . . . Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods. (Epistle to Pagan High Priests).”

Note that the early Christians not only fed their own, but the pagans also. 

Doing good works has always been a large part of Christianity, and Christianity has so strongly influenced modern America that it is taken for granted, by Christians and non-Christians alike, that the state should have a role in looking after the poor.  Liberals tend to favor the continual expansion of what has become known as the “welfare state” or the “social safety net,” i.e., social programs benefiting the poor and those at least temporarily down on their luck. 

Conservative Christians, by contrast, tend to be more mindful of the moral hazards of welfare, and the degradation of dependency, especially multi-generational dependency on government payments.  Conservative Christians tend to view the family as the bulwark against poverty—people who get married and stay married, and who have a least a high school diploma are almost never poor, nor are their minor children. Viewing the family as the bulwark against poverty, conservative Christians tend to vote for basic principles of sexual morality and for pro-family policies. Secondarily, they favor church-run charity. They tend to see state-run charity only as a last resort, and the least desirable solution to the needs of the poor.

But although there might be different approaches to the ways and means, all Christians agree that Christians have a duty to the poor and less fortunate, and most Christians believe that government has a legitimate role in ameliorating poverty.

Christians have taken the lead in building hospitals and nursing homes, and have also played a major role in founding and reforming orphanages, prisons, insane asylums, shelters for abused women, homes for abused and neglected children and other similar institutions.  Often these institutions either did not exist or were far harsher and more inhumane than they became after Christian-motivated reforms were implemented. 

Here again, no one doubts that Christians have a duty to those who have need of these institutions, and many, probably a large majority of Christians, believe that Christians, out of their biblical values, may properly vote for governmental measures that create, fund, monitor, and regulate them. 

Caring for the poor, the hungry, the orphaned, the homeless, the sick, the young, the aged, etc., is a Christian value, and Left-leaning Christians vote and advocate for having government at all levels carry out this Christian value system

Left-leaning Christians sometimes object to Christians voting their values on sexual morality and the family, but have no objection to Christians voting their values as they pertain to the government’s vast social welfare apparatus.  This is obviously inconsistent.  If it is wrong for conservative or Right-leaning Christians to vote for their Christian values, then it is wrong for Left-leaning Christians to vote for their Christian values.  But of course, I believe it is right for all Christians, Left-leaning and Right-leaning, to vote their values.

Going beyond the narrow issue of social welfare, we find that the values of Left-leaning Christians encompass an extensive ideology. For an example of the religiously-inspired values of Left-leaning Christians we need look no farther than ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which recently published a fawning endorsement, on the 70th anniversary of its promulgation in 1948, of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The UN Universal Declaration includes civil and political rights like the right to life, liberty, free speech, and privacy, and also economic, social, and cultural “rights,” like the right to social security, health and education.  These rights are inherently political; indeed, ADRA states that the Universal Declaration “confirms that the State has a core duty to promote standards of life that enable us to exercise our dignity and equality, in larger freedom.”  Obviously, the Adventists at ADRA strongly believe that Christians should “vote their values” by voting to have government spend tax-payer funds on social security, health, education, and other social items.

Feminism and sexual egalitarianism is an important part of the Left-leaning Christian’s ideology:  ADRA complains that women compose only 24% of members of national parliaments, and that 700 million women alive today were married before age 18. The ordination controversy currently roiling the Adventist Church is a specific instance of a larger clash between the Left-leaning Christian-inspired values of sexual egalitarianism and a desire to elevate women versus the Right-leaning Christian-inspired values of esteem for divinely created sex role distinctions, and strict adherence to biblical and apostolic instructions.  That is why there are Adventists on both sides of the issue, all claiming, correctly, to be guided by Christian values

But no one connected with Liberty Magazine or the SDA religious liberty establishment ever acknowledges that there are many types of Christian values.  They can imagine only one villain—the American Religious Right—and to oppose it they adopt the demonstrably false principle that it is wrong for Christians to vote their values.  They are blind to the fact that Christianity was the initial impetus for, and a continuing motivation of, many governmental measures and programs they enthusiastically agree with.

Not only are they blind to this glaring inconsistency, some who are of the Liberty Magazine persuasion are so opposed to Christians voting their values that they believe no one should oppose cultural degradation for any reason—even non-religious reasons—and that everyone is obligated to adopt a libertarian position on issues of sexual morality. 

But even if it were wrong to vote for biblical morality (it isn’t) there are many non-religious reasons to oppose a libertine policy agenda.  For example, an atheist could choose to vote to criminalize, or maintain the criminalization of, sodomy purely for reasons of public health, a traditional concern of the state’s general police power. 

According to the CDC, of the almost 39,000 Americans who contracted the HIV virus in 2017, the overwhelming majority (62.5%) were men who have sex with other men.  Despite 35 years of education directed largely at the gay community, homosexual men continue to engage in risky behavior.  The risk of transmission of the HIV virus is at least five times greater with anal intercourse than with vaginal (one study puts the risk at up to 500 times greater).  Other risks include the transmission of Human Papilloma Virus (which can cause anal warts, which double the risk of anal cancer), hepatitis A, hepatitis C, E. Coli infections, and urinary tract infections ranging from cystitis to pyelonephritis.  One need not be at all religious to recognize that the unclean practice of sodomy is a threat to public health and safety, and hence a proper subject for state proscription or regulation.

Likewise, one need not be religious in order to seek to retain opposite sex only marriage.  A primary function of marriage is the rearing of the next generation of citizens.  Because men and women are very different, both the male influence of a father and the female influence of a mother are, if not absolutely necessary, at least optimal for raising healthy, well-adjusted children.  Accordingly, society should prioritize heterosexual marriage and married heterosexual adoption in order to achieve the best, most well-adjusted next generation of citizens.  This concern is purely civic and prudential, having nothing to do with religious faith or bias, so it is easy to imagine even an atheist voting to retain traditional marriage.

It is clear that opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage can be based solely on pragmatic social reasons, not on a desire to impose an arbitrary religious restriction on those who do not share the faith.

Summary and Conclusion

There has simply been a failure to think comprehensively and systemically about this subject.  Christians have always voted their values, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and everything right with it.

I do not seriously believe that the editors of Liberty Magazine really want to live in world where William Wilberforce’s decades-long parliamentary effort to end the Atlantic slave trade could be shouted down because Wilberforce was motivated by his evangelical Christianity and Christians must not vote their values. 

No one in the SDA Church really wants to live in a world where our religious values cannot be expressed in calling attention to, and agitating for political action against, sex trafficking in contemporary America and throughout the globe.

And obviously the Adventists who run ADRA do not want to live in a world where their religious values must not lead them to laud the advance in governmental philosophy represented by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So, yes, it is perfectly fine for you to vote your Christian values, as long as you stay within the guidelines of part I and part II of this series. The religious liberty experts may say that Christians shouldn’t vote their values, but they vote their own religious values—the values of Left-leaning Christianity—without fail and of course see no problem with doing so. The religious liberty types really just mean that Right-leaning Christians shouldn’t vote their values on issues like sexual morality, issues that compose only a tiny slice of the very large pie of Christian values.

Do not be intimidated by anyone who says he’s an expert on religious liberty, but does not understand the basic facts and principles, such as the history of religious liberty, the civic/political values of Left-leaning vs. Right-leaning Christians and how they are both motivated by a Christian worldview, and other facts that are crucial to the debate.