Adventists and Politics (Part II)
[Note: A compilation and analysis of Ellen G. White's statements concerning Adventist attitudes to public, political, and civic affairs.—Ed.]
Adventists should not be guided by prejudice in public affairs: "Those who teach the Bible in our churches and our schools are not at liberty to unite in making apparent their prejudices for or against political men or measures."—Gospel Workers, p. 391.
Adventists, if voting, must vote intelligently: "We cannot with safety vote for political parties; for we do not know whom we are voting for." "It is a mistake for you to link your interests with any political party, to cast your vote with them or for them." —Ibid., pp. 391, 393.
The Adventist, if voting, must remain free and independent. He should not vote the "party ticket" without analyzing the individual candidates and issues. The attitude "right or wrong, my party" is foreign to the intelligent Adventist.
Adventists, if voting, cannot participate in underhanded political practices: "We cannot with safety take part in any political scheme."—Ibid., p. 391.
Adventists, if voting, must not link their church with any political party: "God employs the strongest figures to show that there should be no union between worldly parties and those who are seeking the righteousness of Christ."—Ibid., p. 392.
Adventists, if voting, must not be emotionally or violently engaged in partisan strife: "Those who stand as educators, as ministers, as laborers together with God in any line, have no battles to fight in the political world."—Ibid., p. 393.
Strong warnings against becoming involved in "political issues" or activities: "Let political questions alone. . . . Every teacher, minister, or leader in our ranks who is stirred with a desire to ventilate his opinions on political questions, should be converted by a belief in the truth, or give up his work." —Ibid., pp. 392, 393. "God calls upon the teachers in our schools not to become interested in the study of political questions."—Fundamentals of Education, p. 484. (Written 1899.)
The correct application of these and similar statements hinges on the accurate meaning of the terms political and politics. Webster's New International Dictionary (Second ed.) defines politics and political in the following two ways: Politics: "The science and art of government." Political: "Of or pertaining to polity, or politics, or the conduct of government. . . . Of or pertaining to those who make a business . . . of politics, or politicians in their partisan activities; as, he is actuated by merely political motives." The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (vol. 6, p. 225) states concerning the import of "politics" and political goals, "Politics frequently has unpleasant connotations. . . . The use of the term in the bad sense . . . implies a milieu hospitable to scheming and manipulations."
In which of the two senses did Ellen G. White use the terms politics and political? Did she intend to condemn only partisan strife and scheming, dishonest manipulations? Did she intend to discourage orderly exercise of the vote and serious study of political science?
Historical Background: Since the expressions politics and political were penned by Ellen G. White during the latter half of the nineteenth century, an understanding of the character of political affairs in the United States at that time may aid the reader in ascertaining the accurate meaning of these terms as Ellen G. White intended them to be understood, and as they, no doubt, were understood by the readers at the time of publication. A leading authority in the field of American religious history observed:
"Lowering of the standards of conduct in both public and private life was one of the unfortunate consequences of the Civil War. The country's wealth was increasing with an alarming rapidity in the midst of political and social confusion while the war brought to prominence a class of rough, unscrupulous men, with low standards of personal conduct, who too frequently were permitted to gain leadership in both business and politics. Out of such a general background came an era of wholesale corruption in politics which affected every section of the nation and every department of government. The use of money in buying elections was but one of the many forms of political corruption. Votes were bought and sold in more than one state capital as commonly as meat in the market; governors' signatures to bills intended to create private fortunes were purchased with sums which reached into the tens of thousands. . . . Corruption in business was even more common, if possible, than in government."'
"There is no drearier chapter in American political history than that which records the period from the end of reconstruction to the Populist revolt of the early nineties. . . . During the whole of this period the electorate played a game of blind man's buff. Never before had American politics been so intellectually bankrupt. . . . The result was to make national politics unreal, and, except for electoral clowning and Congressional buncombe, very dull. . . . Candidates . . . fought political campaigns on the basis of personality or inherited prejudice.. . . Politics was largely a Punch and Judy show, but though the puppets and even the voices changed, the hands that held the strings were the same. Business ran politics, and politics was a branch of business. The country, said John Sherman after the election of 1888, had 'reached the last stages in the history of the Roman Empire when offices were sold at public auction to the highest bidder.' "2
"In the first half of the nineteenth century, politics had been an honored calling, and those in public life had been the objects of admiration. This changed after the 1850's, and many persons came to feel that politics was a field to be avoided at all cost. . . . Politics seemed to be increasingly corrupt; and run by sordid professionals."
"It began to look as though the national government had only one reason for existence, to promote the interests of the dominant party through proper distribution of the spoils." 4
A practicing politican said about the most popular political figure of the 1870's: " 'What I liked about him was his frank and persistent contention that the citizen who best loved his party and was loyal to it, was loyal to and best loved his country.'
Comments by early Adventists: During the formative years of the Advent Movement the United States was involved in turbulent political currents. The issues that resulted in the outbreak of the War Between the States were much agitated before the 1860 national election. James White wrote in the Review, August 21, 1860:
"The political excitement of 1860 will probably run as high as it has for many years, and we would warn our brethren not to be drawn into it. We are not prepared to prove from the Bible that it would be wrong for a believer in the third message to go in a manner becoming his profession, and cast his vote. We do not recommend this, neither do we oppose. If a brother chooses to vote, we cannot condemn him, and we want the same liberty if we do not."
Two years later (Review, August 12, 1862), James White indicated that some Adventists had voted:
"Those of our people who voted at all at the last Presidential election, to a man voted for Abraham Lincoln."
At the General Conference in 1865 the following resolution was adopted under the heading "Voting":
"Resolved, That in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity, and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would depreciate any participation in the spirit of party strife." (Reported in the Review, May 23, 1865.)
Comments by leading Adventists: While neither our pioneers nor our recent or current leading preachers or writers profess to be infallible or even pontifical, their statements may be taken as sound expressions of current Adventist thinking. In 1936 Pastor Francis McLellan Wilcox, for 33 years editor of our major denominational journal, wrote in the Review, March 26, 1936, an article on "Seventh-day Adventists and Politics" and another article "The Preacher and Politics," in the April 2, 1936 issue. We recommend these articles:
"What relation should Seventh-day Adventists sustain to the question of politics? Is it proper for them to exercise the right of franchise, to go to the polls and cast their votes . . . ? We believe that this is their God-given and undeniable right. And this right they have chosen to exercise through all the years. . . . Is it right for a Seventh-day Adventist to hold political office? . . Based upon the history of the children of God through the centuries, . . . I must believe that this is consistent with Christian faith and practice. . . It is not for the church to advise any man to accept political position, nor . . has the church the right to deny any of its members this privilege and right."—March 26, 1936.
"It is natural that every man, whether preacher or lay member, should have an interest in national and international questions. . . . There can be no question as to the wisdom and propriety of workers' considering these great world problems in the light of divine prediction. Indeed, this is necessary to prophetic exposition. . . . Is it proper for the minister of the gospel to exercise the right of franchise? I believe that he may properly do this. The apostle Paul, in seeking protection from his enemies, appealed to the fact that he was a Roman citizen and was entitled to the protection which this citizenship guaranteed. . . . This is quite different . . . from acting as a partisan in a political field, electioneering, arguing, and contending for political measures, and decrying the policies and the candidates of opposing political parties. . .. Very definite instruction has been given that our ministers and the teachers and managers in our schools should keep entirely out of the general field of politics, so far as carrying forward any agitation is concerned."—April 2, 1936.
Dealing specifically with the warning statements by Ellen G. White concerning Adventist attitudes to "political" affairs, Wilcox expressed this opinion (in the Review, October 10, 1940):
"Is it possible to heed this counsel and at the same time exercise our right of franchise in national and State elections? We believe it is. One can vote for certain men and measures, he can give his support by ballot to ways and means which make for the good of the state and society, and at the same time keep free from the control or domination or spirit of some political party which advocates the measures which he approves. We know of many brethren who have done this for years. They engage in no political agitation or discussion, privately or in public. They do not pose as the abettors or supporters of any particular political party. They seek always to recognize principles apart from and above men. If they vote, they do not link their interests with such parties. They cast their votes for the candidates who in their judgment are best qualified for particular offices, without reference to party affiliation. We cannot believe that in so doing they violate the spirit of the instruction which we have received. . . . When one becomes partisan, when he dabbles in politics, seeks to unduly influence votes, links himself with some political party, to work for its measures and its candidates regardless of the principles involved, it is this spirit against which we are warned."
Pastor J. Lamar McElhany, for 16 years president of the General Conference, expressed himself (in the Review, October 23, 1952) in this way:
"The church has never attempted to instruct its members as to how they should vote, or for whom they should vote. These are matters that must be left to the members' individual conscience. Nor has the church placed any ban or censure on its members if they as qualified citizens choose to exercise their right to vote, or on any who may choose not to vote."
In a previous article (Review, August 14, 1952), McElhany made this comment:
"We believe every member ... is entitled to exercise his or her right of franchise. The stability and foundation of good government rests upon the people. If those who are stable and law abiding and have a high regard for the principles of good government hold themselves aloof from the task of choosing good and fit men for governmental leadership, they thereby make themselves responsible for failures in government. This is a responsibility good citizens should seek to avoid insofar as their votes make this possible. ... It is important that all issues that are to be placed on the ballot should be carefully studied by every conscientious voter."
The Adventist attitude toward civic and public affairs seems to be that the genuine Adventist is primarily a citizen of the heavenly kingdom, established upon principles outlined in the Bible. The true Christian is a converted man, an ambassador from God to men.
The Christian's chief program for national and international betterment is the spiritual gospel, which links man to Christ and liberates man from his dependence upon social and civic measures. The true Adventist is not of this world; he is swiftly on his way out. Yet, while passing through he seeks to attract other men to the heavenly kingdom by translating its divine principles into human action. As a part of this, the true Christian will aid in the proper promotion of sensible plans for the extension of health, for the realization of religious and other proper freedoms, for the relief of want and fear, and for the pacific stability of the social and political order. Peace among men and peace among nations are among his personal concerns. Justice is one of his aims.
Under appropriate conditions the Adventist may cast his vote, or refrain from voting, as his deliberate judgment suggests. He will condemn no one who, under full consciousness of the spirit and doctrines of Christ, may decide to devote parts of his talents and time to the giving of sensible leadership to his local or national or world community. On the other hand, the true Christian will weigh matters calmly, conduct himself with the strictest rectitude and dignity, ever seeking to be fully and impartially informed, and in all aspects of his functions always seek to discharge first, and at all costs, his ambassadorial obligations as a personal representative of Christ among his fellow men.
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1 William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (New York: Harper, 1939), pp. 476, 477.
2 Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, vol. 2, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), pp. 214 ff. (read also pp. 365. 366).
3 Merle Curti and others, An American History, vol. 2, (New York: Harper, 1950), (read also pp. 271, 272).
4 Ralph Volney Harlow, The Growth of the United States, (New York: Henry Holt, 1933), p. 611.
5 Ibid., pp. 611, 612.