Voting in a Democracy
Stepping up to the mark
As we approach another Westminster election we do so in, what is in my lifetime, the lowest ever point of politics. The recent misbehaviour of some politicians has brought the noble art of politics into disrepute.
‘Misbehaviour’ is of course a misnomer for lying, cheating, and fraudulent behaviour, and of course failing to distinguish between what is legally right and what is morally right. This malaise has touched all political parties but thankfully not all politicians. Yet the sins of some are inflicted on the many.
Lest we might think that this is all something which is happening “over there” in Westminster, we should not overlook the fact that it has a major impact locally. The credibility of politics north and south is at an all time low, and the behaviour of some politicians has not only challenged the integrity of politics but challenges the democratic process itself.
It is little wonder that young people are turned off by politics and are unwilling to exercise their right to vote.
The low depth in which politics are held is revealed the school-children’s joke, popular throughout Ireland (North and South) – “How do you know when politicians are telling lies? When they open their mouths!”
A recent headline in the Belfast Telegraph which read: “No spin, No blame, No passing the buck . . . just vision”, articulated the frustration which many people feel over the inability of locally elected politicians to give leadership in local matters. Solomon wisely declared “Where there is no vision, the people perish:” Proverbs 29:18 (King James Version)
Our church has long held the position that all citizens should participate in the political process. While there is no Biblical imperative to vote, there is a social responsibility to engage in the political process. Some have recently emphasised that it is a Christian ‘duty’.
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has made an appeal to engage in the political process. He said exercising the right to vote was “our duty and responsibility”.
“Many people”, he said, “have given their lives to protect the democracy of this country, and many actually have fought hard so that all those eligible to vote can vote. So it is our duty and responsibility to engage ourselves in the democratic process of making sure we elect a Government for the people, by the people. . . Christians have a duty to God, a duty to their nation, a duty to their neighbour, and voting is one of those duties.”
The Archbishop went on to emphasise “And if you do not vote, it means somebody else actually may get in who ought not to do so.” Though this sounds like the old Ulster maxim – ‘vote to keep the others out’, I am sure it was unintended.
We have a responsibility to be obedient to the instruction of Paul to Timothy “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, . . ” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). If the instruction of the Apostle Paul is to be taken seriously – “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1), there is a clear responsibility laid upon the citizen to participate in the democratic process.
The Christian voice in the public place is today more important than ever.
WHO SHOULD WE VOTE FOR?
No choice is perfect. Presbyterians should not need to be reminded of the Biblical summary of the Shorter Catechism “Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God? Answer – No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed”. Yet there is also a responsibility laid upon us to seek out from among ourselves fit persons to hold public office.
We therefore ought to be involved in politics at least to the level of engagement, with parties, personalities and policies, in order to make an informed choice. That of course does not require you to join a political party. But only by engagement can you assess the worth of the policies, the personalities and hence the party.
What Biblical criteria should we be applying as we search out who should get our vote?
TRUTH IN THEIR WORDS
We can use modern language – and ought to use modern language to communicate old unchangeable truths. Language is a means of communicating truth. We must therefore be careful to use such language which communicates the fullness of that truth – and certainly not use language which in any way dilutes the truth.
I was brought up in a tradition in which I was taught that ‘half the truth is worse than a lie’. It was an era when ‘Gay’ was either a girl’s name or an emotional state of being happy, when sin was sin and not anti-social behaviour, and adultery was just that and not ‘inappropriate behaviour’.
The term ‘political answer’ has come into vogue over the years, which is code for, ‘unwilling or unable to answer’. Often in interviews on television or radio it appears to be a waste of time for the interviewer to ask a question, as the answer bears no resemblance to the question asked! We have a right to expect from our politicians at least truthful answers – answers which communicate the fullness of the truth – if not Christian answers.
INTEGRITY IN THEIR ACTIONS
The public can be very forgiving of any individual who makes a genuine mistake, but most unforgiving when the mistake is deliberate.
The quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards should be a fundamental criterion of all those seeking office in public life. The same “Seven Principles Underpinning Public Life” defined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995, which should underpin the actions of all who serve the public in any way, ought to be upheld by all those seeking elected public office. These seven principles are defined as, Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership. People of ‘good authority’ are needed more than ever in politics, both local and national.
The ruthless and often blatant sectarian approach to politics in Northern Ireland has over the years led to the demise of political maturity. Some of those who could best serve the entire community have been put off by the bitter and at times violent opposition to their policies and persons. The Belfast born award-winning writer and broadcaster Glenn Patterson, put it well when he writes – “A real culture of political maturity exists where people, believing themselves to be right, have the courage and confidence to allow others to think they are.”
RESPECT FOR THOSE WE SELECT
When it is all over and the dust has settled the implication of Romans 13: 7 is that we should respect the office to which they have been elected, whether they were our choice or not. “Fulfil your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.” (The Message)
May we all in the exercise of our vote add to the credibility of politics in the confidence that they all may be worthy of such respect.
Brian Kennaway is a member of the Church and Society Committee
This article appeared in the May 2010 edition of The Presbyterian Herald