Should individual Seventh-day Adventists involve themselves in the processes of government? It’s a question that often comes to me as I visit with church members in different places. And it’s a question that is most often posed by the young people of our church—students or young professionals—as they consider different career options or look for ways to contribute to their communities. How do we advise those who want to be involved in the administration of their city, or province, or country? When is it proper for the church, corporately, to speak on public issues?
I often sense among our members a reluctance to enter the world of public policy; a fear, perhaps, of being tainted by what they will find there. Corruption—in some places raw, in others covered by a veneer of civil process—is rampant throughout government and public service everywhere. Should this keep us away? Or is this precisely why individuals with strong ethics and values are needed to step into the public realm to govern with integrity and transparency?
When I hear some of today’s political leaders say: “We do not negotiate with our enemies,” I’m reminded of the words of United States President John F. Kennedy. He took a different approach, saying: “Never negotiate without fear; but never fear to negotiate.” We live in a world that is occupied by both good and bad, integrity and corruption, truth and deceit. And it is the role of the good to be a moderating influence on the bad. We sometimes look with apprehension at the secular world, with its preoccupation with self and with material things, and we forget that these are God’s children, deeply loved by Him. They too have rights that must be protected, needs that must be met. This alone provides a significant reason for us to become involved in the public sphere.
Here are some of the arguments I often hear in favor of isolating ourselves from the civic realm:
Adventists should not be “political.” As a church we should never air our ideas or agenda in the public sphere.
There is a vast difference between seeking a voice in the public discourse, and seeking to wield political power. As a church—and individuals—we have not only the right, but the obligation, to be a moral voice in society; to speak clearly and eloquently on that which touches our core values. Human rights, religious freedom, public health, poverty, and injustice—these are some of the areas in which we have a God-given responsibility to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves.
The passion of early Adventist pioneers for causes such as the abolition of slavery, temperance, and religious liberty is well-documented. They, too, struggled to know how they should relate to the civic realm but, with the guidance of Ellen White and other church leaders, concluded that inaction was not an option. “Many deplore the wrongs which they know exist, but consider themselves free from all responsibility in the matter,” wrote Mrs. White in 1914. “This cannot be. Every individual exerts an influence in society.”1
Let us be careful, though, to never confuse speaking out on a particular issue with attempting, as a church, to elect particular candidates or political parties, or to become powerbrokers in the political sphere. This is where the division between church and state must always remain strong.
Compromise is the “oil that lubricates the machinery of government,” making it an unsuitable environment for Christians.
We are first and foremost children of God, and He has implanted in our hearts values and beliefs that we will live by and, if necessary, die for. There is a difference, though, between compromising one’s core principles—violating one’s sense of right and wrong—and much of the practical give-and-take that moves civic leaders toward a consensus on a particular issue. The ability to make this distinction, and the moral courage to honor the dictates of conscience no matter what the political cost, are essential characteristics of any Adventist who seeks public office.
To anyone considering such a career I would ask: “Why do you want to do this? Are you driven by a desire to improve your society; a sense of responsibility to your community, and a feeling that, ‘Yes, I have something to contribute’?” Vanity, personal ambition, or a desire for attention are dangerous motivations for anyone entering public life.
The political process itself is so deeply flawed that we should keep our distance.
Yes, some systems of governance are so broken down, so shot through with dishonesty or violence, that our participation could be seen as support for a fundamentally destructive process. Yet in the majority of countries where Seventh-day Adventists live, this is not the case. And in these places there is much that a dedicated church member, with a well-calibrated moral compass and a commitment to making society better, can offer through public office. Elected office often provides the best platform to watch out for and protect the rights of freedom, which is God’s gift to every person, not just our church.
Addressing Adventist teachers and students in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883, Mrs. White said: “Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day . . . sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations.”2
If Adventists do enter the public arena it should be for the purpose of introducing Christian values to the ungodly.
When you enter the world of politics, you should do so as a private individual, not as someone who carries the agenda of the church. The wall of separation between church and state protects the church from interference by government, and protects individuals from coercion in matters of religion and conscience. There is no shortage of tragic examples, both current and past, of what happens when political or military power is used to impose religious values and beliefs on society at large.
Sometimes there is an expectation that Adventists in public office will “look out for their own”; that they will take special care of matters that touch on the interests of the church in that region. This is something we should never expect or pursue. Every political leader will bring his or her own background—education, experiences, and morality—to the task of legislating. And religion will be an important factor in who they are and how they approach issues before them. But those in elected positions are entrusted with the protection of all, not just those who share their values or faith.
Christ’s kingdom is not of this earth; our eyes should be fixed on the heavenly kingdom.
There are few more powerful expressions of God’s deep concern for society and His compassion for its most vulnerable members than the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1, 2).
It speaks strongly to me that Christ repeated these words as He stood in the synagogue at Nazareth at the very outset of His ministry on earth. Before His neighbors and friends, those who had known Him since childhood, Christ said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Through His words and actions, Christ continually reached out His hand to improve the quality of life—both spiritually and physically—of the people around Him.
Yes, our “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Introducing others to Christ and telling them of His soon return is our most important task as individuals and a church. But let us not set up a false dichotomy between our first allegiance to God’s kingdom and our responsibility for compassionate service to humanity, whether through health care, education, or public policy. It is not a matter of “one or the other.” In serving our neighbors with love and integrity, we also serve our Lord.
There are inevitable challenges for Seventh-day Adventists who embark on a life of public service. It is not easy. But have we at times made an absence from the civic realm a virtue for its own sake? Rather than grapple with uncertainties or difficult choices, have we sometimes simply “opted out” of public concerns altogether? I pray that in the decisions we make we will listen for God’s voice through His Word, through prayer, and through the counsel of fellow believers. And let us support those among us who, like the prophet Daniel, are called to be ambassadors for God in the challenging arena of public office.
1Review and Herald, Oct. 15, 1914.
2Review and Herald, August 19, 1884.
Jan Paulsen is president of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.