Why Single-Issue Voting Doesn’t Reflect the Gospel

This article was originally published in the Asian American Christian Collaborative’s Reclaim Magazine on October 16, 2020 and is reproduced here by kind permission.

“I’m a single-issue voter.” It used to be a statement, a testimony, to the strength of Christian conviction. It was meant to signal a seriousness of Christian faith as applied to the ballot box.

This approach to voting, reduced to a single issue, worked for political operatives trying to grab the Christian vote. But it is an unfaithful representation of the fullness of the heart of God. Single-issue voting reflects political pragmatism but not Christian faithfulness.

Jesus didn’t come into the world to redeem one area or one issue in our lives. Following Jesus means following with our full life, in all areas of our lives. As I look into the New Testament and see Jesus’ encounters with people, he doesn’t just restrict himself to religious issues in the temples and among religious people. We see Jesus coming into religious places but upsetting the economics, social order, and political structures.

The impact of following Jesus is expansive; it spreads to all areas of our lives and our societies.

Without our realizing it, political myopia has overtaken a thoughtful, Christian engagement in politics. Single-issue voting forces a false simplicity. It implies that a principle applied to one issue doesn’t touch upon other issues.

Others argue there’s a hierarchy of issues that Christians should care about. This, too, I reject.

The Limitlessness of God’s Love

Our God is a God who is able to care about nations and peoples on a grand scale and, at the same time, to notice one sparrow falling to the ground. Jesus talked to religious leaders, yet also paused to restore a marginalized, nameless, bleeding woman. To create a hierarchy of who is most important to God—where God does not—is to impose our agenda and priorities onto God. Every life, every person is equally valuable.

And so, as with all areas of our lives, we should be led by our faith when discerning how to respond. And in this time and season, Christians are trying to figure out how to respond and participate in the political system.

Writer and podcaster Brandi Miller challenges listeners by asking if our Christian faith is upstream (meaning first), and how other areas of life are downstream from that. How do we make sure our Christian faith is upstream from our political ideologies? If it isn’t, we let political operatives manipulate our faith.

But making sure our faith leads before our ideologies can be hard. How do we create a framework to understand how to apply all policies or candidates to a Christian faithfulness?

Voting as Christian Witness

Christian engagement with politics is about bearing witness to the character of God in the public square. It’s about saying to God: Even this area of my life, I want to be led by you and for your purposes.

In Acts 1, Jesus sent out his people, telling them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And in many ways, this is the same directive Jesus gives us as we approach the ballot box.

Bearing witness is about making choices that testify to the character of God. It is about making choices that reflect the reality that God is a good, kind, compassionate, and powerful God who cares for the poor and the vulnerable.

I realize that not all policies, political candidates, or choices line up nicely with this charge to “bear witness.” the Acts 1:8 directive can continue to guide us.

Jesus tells his people to bear witness to who he is in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Funnily enough, from the vantage point of those first disciples, America would probably be considered the ends of the earth.)

How to Practice Solidarity Voting

Here are a few principles for voting that we can glean from this passage. As you approach this election season:

  1. Think through the issues that affect you and your family. (What is your Jerusalem/Judea?)

  2. Think through the issues that affect a community adjacent to yours. (What is your Samaria?)

  3. Think through the issues, and how they would affect a vulnerable community, perhaps one that might be far from your social or economic experience. (What is your end of the earth?)

Consider Your Own Community

To the listeners of Jesus’ call to be his witness, Jerusalem in Judea was where they were. What communities or peoples are you a part of? This is your Judea.

What are the core issues or challenges facing your community? How can you hold these stories as you discern how to vote? Perhaps your family immigrated; maybe the welfare of immigrants and refugees will be your issue. Perhaps you’re in college; the cost of a college education or the availability of entry-level jobs will be the issue that is your Judea.

For me, as a woman and an Asian American, these are the two communities that I hold in my heart as I think about my Judea.

Consider Communities Near You

Then ask: What is your Samaria?  For the Jewish folks listening to this passage, Samaria would have been a place that was adjacent to them. The Samaritans were part Jewish and part of another ethnic background. In that case, there was a lot of animosity between the communities, but ultimately what this refers to is a community you might be connected to yet not a part of.

Who are the people there or the issues that you can hold in your heart as you think about how to vote? For example, this might be the welfare of the vulnerable children in your community.  Or perhaps it’s the homeless population that lives in the same city as you.

I would encourage you, as a Christian, to choose a community that is vulnerable rather than one that is in power. In the book of Luke, Jesus always centered the margins in his encounters.  How do the concerns of this community, as communicated by this community, inform how you vote?

Consider Communities Distant from You but Close to God’s Heart

And finally, what is your “ends of the earth”? What is the community of people that you don’t have to care about but perhaps is very close to God’s heart?

I would encourage Americans to consider communities outside the US, though it could also be a community whose economic reality is far from yours, or whose social power is very different from yours.

How can you use your vote, your voice to stand in solidarity with others? Who is in your “ends of the earth”?

A Framework for Evaluating Candidates and Issues

With these categories in mind, look at the various candidates’ websites to learn what they have to say about these communities, or how their policies will affect these groups. Having multiple (sometimes competing) priorities, instead of just one issue, is a way to really wrestle with the invitation that God might have for us–in this time and this moment.

If you are not able to vote, think of other ways to get involved. Perhaps it’s in the outreach effort for the 2020 census. Do you or someone you know speak a language that would allow you to connect with communities that might be undercounted?  Another option is to work as witnesses to the election. Perhaps your church community could serve as election protection volunteers to fight against voter intimidation, or in the case of a contested election.

For me, seeing God’s faithfulness my community informs how I respond politically. I’ve seen how restorative reparations to my Japanese American community were when trying to heal from the trauma of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As I consider Jesus’ teachings on true repentance and my family’s experience, I am convicted to fight for restitution and reparations for descendants of enslaved peoples.

As I see God’s heart for the poorest of the poor and how disproportionately they are impacted by American foreign policy, I am compelled to look into the complexity of global debt. I ask questions about whether God would want people to be enslaved to debt by international banks, or living in freedom. I apply God’s instructions on Jubilee and limits on debt, and that informs how I think about loan forgiveness for economies in the Global South.

Or I think about the many communities vulnerable to changes in our climate and increasingly intense weather systems—people who depend on the land for their living. Then I try to look at various policies and candidates through their eyes and priorities.

Ultimately, Jesus calls us to follow him with our whole lives. We are invited to bear witness to God’s character, wherever we find ourselves. And this invitation is extended to us, even in the privacy of a ballot box.

Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the Executive Director of CSA.

You may also want to read

We Marched Because

By Sue Gilmore

It is January 21st, 2017, the day after the election of Donald J. Trump as our 45th president; it is the day of the Women’s March on Washington. I wanted to go, and was all set to get up before dawn to make my way to the capital, when I heard there would also be a March in Philadelphia.