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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Do Christians have the “freedom of conscience” to vote for Joe Biden on November 3rd?
Tim Keller, the founder of NYC’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church and author of numerous bestselling books, seems to think so.
In a series of tweets, Keller diagrammed the upcoming election as merely a matter of competing policies, with no significant moral contrasts in what the two presidential candidates propose to do while in office.
To the Christian observer who has read those competing policies, Keller’s position is alarming. His position is also an exercise in theological malpractice because it renders God as either disinterested or neutral on how His world ought to run.
More on Keller’s negligence in a moment.
But first consider the background in which this man of the cloth gives Christians permission to endorse the Democrat candidate. His personal antics aside, Donald Trump has been an indefatigable ally for religious liberty. From his executive orders to his judicial nominees to the amicus briefs filed by his Justice Department, the President respects and protects the ability of Christians to exercise their faith in the workplace, free from government harassment.
On the other hand, Joe Biden promises to rollback these protections. He openly admits this intention on his campaign website, which Keller can read for himself, in either English or Spanish.
“The Trump-Pence Administration has deliberately and systematically attempted to gut protections for the LGBTQ+ community by carving out broad religious exemptions to existing nondiscrimination laws and policies across federal agencies,” Biden asserts. If elected, he pledges to “end the misuse of broad exemptions to discriminate,” and will subsequently target “businesses,” “medical providers,” “social service agencies,” and “others” who apparently were under the wrong impression that they could extend their religious convictions outside the edifice of a church.
Biden’s plan, of course, is also a form of discrimination. He would empower the State to discriminate against Christians by defining how they can walk out their beliefs in civic life.
With this in mind, it is irresponsible for Tim Keller to pen a Twitter treatise on “Christians and the freedom of conscience in politics” and not underscore that one of the two major presidential candidates desires to dictate how Christians can exert their faith in public. In Biden’s America, you’ll be allowed to think about Christian teaching, but embodying that teaching as a marketplace ministry would be criminalized. This campaign promise alone should be a bright red line in the sand for Keller and other church leaders like him. Any politician openly vowing to purge outward displays of Christianity has elevated himself as the Great Decider as to what is allowed under the Great Commission.
And that type of authoritarian impulse should concern every pastor, especially when it involves core subjects like marriage and sexuality.
But let’s get back to Keller’s election stance for the Christian.
There is a loud minority of evangelicals – the “social gospel” types – who justify their voting for Joe Biden, despite his party’s hostility to religious freedom, because Democrats favor a sprawling welfare apparatus. To them, shoveling billions of taxpayer dollars into (wasteful) anti-poverty programs each year buttresses the biblical mandate to provide relief to the poor. Similar to Pope Francis, these progressive evangelicals burn incense at the altar of big government, notoriously taking verses out of context to support their lust for a command and control economy.
Right on cue, here’s Tim Keller’s giving his blessing to those who conflate super-sized taxation with Christian benevolence:
“The Bible binds my conscience to care for the poor, but it does not tell me the best practical way to do it. Any particular strategy (high taxes and government services vs low taxes and private charity) may be good and wise and may even be somewhat inferred from other things the Bible teaches, but they are not directly commanded and therefore we cannot insist that all Christians, as a matter of conscience, follow one or the other.”
He continued: “The current political parties offer a potpourri of different positions on these and many other topics, most of which, as just noted, the Bible does not speak to directly. This means when it comes to taking political positions, voting, determining alliances and political involvement, the Christian has liberty of conscience.”
Keller insists that “Christians cannot say to other Christians ‘no Christian can vote for’ or ‘every Christian must vote for’ unless you can find a Biblical command to that effect.” Thus, he concludes, Christians have the “freedom of conscience in politics” to vote for whomever they want, even for a guy like Joe Biden and his bigoted agenda.
This framework for the election, however, is a straw man.
Obviously, the Bible doesn’t give us detailed voting instructions for us to follow every four years, such as which presidential candidates to endorse or the political coalitions to form. But who is making that argument? Keller is having a conversation with himself.
The question is not, can someone call himself a Christian and still vote for Biden or Trump? Clearly, he can. Salvation isn’t by works. The question is, which candidate’s platform is more in line with a biblical worldview. Far from being just an insurance policy against eternal fire, the Bible offers a distinct perspective on man and his relationship to God and the created order. It covers all facets of life, from economics to history to law. These domains, and other disciplines like it, are spiritual in nature because they, too, fall under Christ’s lordship. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof,” exhorted the Psalmist. And while a Christian worldview doesn’t arrange neatly into a Republican vs. Democrat grid, we should still meditate on the statutes revealed in Scripture and consider how we apply them to the issues of our day, including elections.
It’s called “wisdom.”
And it’s on this point that Keller fails miserably.
Is the Bible really silent on the preferred mode for financial aid to the poor, as Keller suggests?
Not even remotely.
It’s important to take a step back and recognize that the Bible opposes the centralization of power. This is evident in the different social institutions established by God to cultivate His creation. The two main institutions are the Family and the Church, both of which were designed as the primary vehicles to instill godly values to individuals and nations. The State is another social institution established by God, but its scope is limited. Whereas the Family and the Church are charged with nurturing mankind both spiritually and physically, the State’s role is largely consigned to the defense of citizens.
So, when the disciples inquired of Jesus how they were going to feed 5,000 hungry and stranded people, did Jesus instruct them to petition a Roman ruler or to find the nearest magistrate to beg for government rations? No. He told the disciples “you give them something to eat.” This response left the disciples perplexed. They had no means to undertake such a large-scale feeding, that is until after Jesus performed a miracle. Yet it was that personalized directive of “you” which served as the normative model for Christ-like generosity in the early church.
We read in Acts, for instance, that the believers sold their possessions in order to help ensure that the 3,000 new converts who had traveled to Jerusalem during Pentecost were adequately nourished. Later we learn that Peter and the other disciples selected seven men “full of the Holy Spirit” to take care of the Hellenist widows. We then discover that “relief” was sent from Antioch to the “brothers” after it was prophesized that a famine would hit Judea. And it was the Apostle Paul who encouraged the well-off Corinthian church to meet the needs of their brethren generously: “your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness” (2 Corinthians 8:14).
In other words, the form of how the poor were assisted varied depending on the situation, but the function of who was overseeing this operation – the Church and her people – remained constant. The Apostle Paul even tied spiritual regeneration to charitable giving: “Let the thief no longer steal,” he proclaimed in Ephesians 4:28, “but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
Tim Keller minimizes these biblical examples on combatting poverty as inferences only, and by doing so, he enables his followers to shirk their altruistic responsibility as Christians and offload them to the State instead.
In the name of Jesus, tax me!
But to condone “high taxes and government services” as viable mechanisms to address poverty, as Keller does, is to overstep God’s intention for the State. Far from being a dispenser of welfare, the State was devised by God to be an administrator of justice. St. Paul makes this jurisdiction clear by outlining the basic duty of civil government:
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4).
Herein lies the danger of viewing the Bible, not as a worldview that governs creation, but as a smorgasbord of principles that can be implemented apart from biblical reflection. The anti-poverty slush funds created through “high taxes and government services” are only made possible by enacting a level of taxation that the Bible considers oppressive.
When the Israelites demanded that a king rule over them instead of God, the prophet Samuel warned of the tyranny to come: “He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants…He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8:15-17).
Ten percent is what God requires in the form of a tithe, and for the State to seize that percentage or more is to elevate itself above God.
It’s also theft.
Taxes are not voluntary. The State collects them through compulsion and the threat of force. And when the State exacts excessive taxation in order to bankroll initiatives that are outside of its biblical domain – such as lavish welfare programs – it has engaged in legal plunder.
Private property is central to God’s creation. He literally inscribed safeguards for it into stone: Don’t take what’s not yours – 8th Commandment – and Don’t covet what’s not yours – 10th Commandment. If Keller’s aim is to have us approach political conversations through the lens of biblical commandments, then he’s managed to overlook two big ones. For when there’s no limiting principle on civil government’s size and scope, private property becomes an afterthought.
The State usurps God as lawgiver.
And the consequences are real and tragic.
By replacing the Church as the agent to alleviate poverty, the State has actually multiplied the number of people dependent on the federal government, despite spending trillions of dollars since the 1960s to fight a “war on poverty.” And rather than protect the innocent by being a terror to evildoers, as is its raison d’etre, the State has sanctioned the slaughter of millions of unborn babies through the barbaric act of abortion.
There are costs to being outside of God’s covenant.
It is on the subject of abortion, surprisingly, that Tim Keller let the mask slip, revealing that his commentary was more about giving cover for Biden than it was about legitimizing Trump.
How else do you explain this awful take? “The Bible tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.”
Another guessing game for the Christian!
Well, not really.
Joe Biden’s Democrat Party advocates unrestricted access to abortion, even in the third trimester, and also seeks to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which would allow taxpayer money to fund abortions. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s Republican Party opposes abortion on demand and supports a “human life” amendment to the Constitution. The President himself emphasized these fundamental differences during the Republican National Convention: “Tonight, we proudly declare that all children, born and unborn, have a God-given right to life.”
Tim Keller needs to make a decision: does he want to offer up common sense discernment or does he want to be the go-to theologian for the New York Times?
He can’t do both.