Maria Thomas, a senior at Bethany Christian High School in Goshen, Ind., has earned grand prize for her essay on faith and politics in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office annual essay contest. Her essay is reproduced in full below.
Faith, Values, and Voting
By Maria Thomas
The topic of faith and politics has been long and controversial in the Anabaptist community. Some believe that we should completely separate the two, while others see no problem with mixing them. While historical practice may contribute to these different views, I believe it is primarily two varying understandings of the biblical concept of two kingdoms that account for this divide. As Anabaptists, I believe we not only may, but should be involved in politics in order to bring about social change and extend God’s peace and love to this world.
In Scripture there is clearly the concept of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world (Holy Bible: NRSV Jn. 8.23, 17.14; Matt. 6.33; Lk. 4.43). At the time of the Reformation, these two kingdoms were treated as one when the church and state were inseparable. Believer’s baptism was a crime not only against the church, but also against the government. Given this context, it was unthinkable for an Anabaptist to be involved in government – the very source of their persecution. They understood the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world as two separate kingdoms that should not overlap.
A contemporary Anabaptist group that continues to hold to this understanding of keeping the two kingdoms separate is the Amish. Amish strongly believe in separating themselves from the world. They differ from society in their mode of transportation, the way they dress, their education, and source of energy. Given that they separate themselves from the rest of the world in these ways, it only makes sense for them to be separate from the government as well.
Anabaptists then and Amish today share this idea that the two kingdoms should not overlap and have demonstrated this in their lifestyles. However, the majority of contemporary Anabaptists are not Amish, and we no longer live in the context of Christendom. Of the roughly one million Mennonites worldwide, the group from which the Amish broke off, only 249,000 are Amish (Scolforo). So why do so many non-Amish Anabaptists who choose to live lifestyles that look the same as the world’s, continue to separate themselves from politics? As Anabaptists, we must rethink the two-kingdom theology, recognize that they do and will overlap, and use this overlap to bring about positive change.
Unlike the early Anabaptists, we live in a country where there is a separation between church and state, along with religious freedom. According to the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” (“First Amendment”). Our Constitution acknowledges that one purpose of the government is to protect each person’s religious freedom.
Menno Simons understood the government’s purpose to be “to punish the evil, to protect the good, to administer a righteous justice, to care for the widows, the orphans, and the poor….” The Schleitheim Confession, in its sixth article, similarly recognizes this function saying, “The sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good” (Bender). Both Menno Simons’ and the Schleitheim Confession’s view of the government’s role is based on Romans 13 in which Paul says to obey governing authorities, for they are established by God, and to also “pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13.7). The Bible, Menno Simons, Schleiheim Confession, and our Constitution all recognize that the church and government have their own purposes and should not be united. This does not mean, however, that we are unable to participate in our government as Anabaptists. It simply means that, as Christians, we must recognize the difference between religion and state and remember to which one we owe our ultimate allegiance.
I believe that contemporary Anabaptists, mainstreamed into society, can and should vote. Unlike Amish, we participate in almost every aspect of society. While we do refrain from participation in some areas, like the military, we are very engaged in our communities and nation. We, like all other citizens, are subject to taxes and laws, and are directly affected by the government. As responsible participants in our society, we should vote and have a say in public policies, especially given the democratic nature of our government. We have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to act both as responsible participants in our nation and as faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom. Through actions, like voting, we do our part to bring God’s “Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven,” putting a familiar prayer verse into practice. While Anabaptists greatly value service and bringing about positive change through personal relationships, we must also recognize the large-scale, social improvements that can be created by having good leaders who listen to those in their community, state, and nation.
Over the years, I have seen many positive changes in my community. Downtown Goshen has been restored, an underpass for the main bike path has been built, and many trees have been planted throughout the city. Our Anabaptist mayor, Allan Kauffman, has not only brought about these physical changes, he has also provided strong leadership in creating positive social change in our increasingly diverse community. This past month candidates campaigned and competed for positions on city council. In October, Allan Kauffman and Don Reigsecker, the candidate running against Kauffman, participated in a debate at Goshen College. At this debate the candidates discussed their priorities as city leaders. Kauffman emphasized the importance of quality of life for community members, while Reigsecker focused on bringing business to Goshen, following his campaign slogan of “Goshen: open for business” (Core). This debate highlighted the different values and visions of the candidates for the community. While Reigsecker’s priority was business, Mayor Kauffman’s vision for the community seems much more aligned with the Anabaptist vision of promoting inclusion, respect and peace.
One reason that some Anabaptists choose not to vote or take office is because they believe that “government rule means might and lordship; to be Christian means to serve and suffer” (Bender). While this may apply to certain people and situations, based on what I have observed, holding office in government does not always cause an individual to take advantage of this power or take “lordship” over others. The role of a political leader is to listen to and serve his or her community or nation. During the Goshen College mayoral debate, Allan Kauffman said that he intends to “lead with servant-hearted policies.” He also stated that his “job is to empower others to make a change” (Core). While some political leaders become corrupted by power and make decisions for the wrong reasons, I believe that there are many leaders, like Kauffman, who are moral people with good visions, looking to serve their community. As Anabaptists, we should support those who seek to serve and positively influence those in their communities and nation, and voting is the simplest way to do this. This is a way in which the two kingdoms overlap in a healthy way that can bring about positive change.
While some Anabaptists choose to vote, they believe that holding office personally is crossing the line. This is largely due to the involvement that some offices have with military force and capital punishment. Throughout history, Anabaptists have been careful about holding office. For the Dutch Mennonites, who were the first Anabaptists to participate in government, holding any office with capital punishment was against their beliefs, leading them to only hold local offices. In the 1800’s, Peter Jansen, who was one of the most famous Mennonite politicians, decided not to run for governor due to the conflict of the position’s relationship with the militia and his belief in pacifism (Bender).
We also must recognize that if a person were to take office and be faced with a decision that conflicts with their beliefs, there’s always the option to step down. John F. Kennedy, being our nation’s first and only Catholic President, was often questioned about his beliefs and their impact on his decision and policy making. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy met with the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and delivered a speech about his personal beliefs. In this speech, Kennedy assured the people that he valued the separation of church and state, and that his beliefs were his personal affair. He then said, “But if the time should ever come, when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office” (Gibbs). As Christians in public office, we have the freedom to resign. We must recognize that participation in politics isn’t the only area where we need to consider the relationship between the kingdom of God and kingdom of this world. Everyday we are faced with decisions and situations in which we must discern how the two kingdoms overlap, and how to use that overlap to bring about positive change. For some, like the early Anabaptists and the Amish, it means keeping them completely separate. For contemporary, mainstream Anabaptists, the two are more blended, and instead of fighting this blend, whether with politics or simple day-to-day occurrences, we might think about how we can use it for creative good. As Anabaptists, we are called to spread healing, equality, and love throughout our communities and world. Involvement in government and politics is one way that we can create policies that help those in need.
Instead of viewing the kingdoms of God and this world as two separate entities that cannot be crossed, we must recognize and take advantage of the overlap. As Anabaptists, we should not only be “in the world but not of the world,” we should also be for the world. We should apply our faith to our lives here on Earth and strive to create a new vision for the world. We should provide company for the lonely, hope for the hopeless, support for the weak, and freedom for the oppressed. Many people in our world are hurting and in need. Through voting and taking part in government we can provide the leadership needed to bring God’s peace and love to our communities and nation. Anabaptists should take action in any way possible to apply our faith to our lives, and involvement in politics is simply one more way to do this.
Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Theodore J. Koontz. “Church-State Relations.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 27 October 2011.
Core, Liz. “Mayoral candidates speak to students Monday.” The Goshen College Record 5 Oct. 2011: A1. Web. 27 Oct. 2011.
“First Amendment | LII / Legal Information Institute.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, 19 Aug. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.
Gibbs, Nancy. “The Religion Test.” Time 21 May 2007: 40-42. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Oct. 2011.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.
Scolforo, Mark. “Amish Population Growth: Numbers Increasing, Heading West.” Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 28 July 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.