The Bible instructs Christians to obey, honor, and give tribute to those whom God has placed in positions of authority (Rom. 13: 1-7, Matt. 22:21). Believers are further exhorted to pray for “kings” and all those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-3).
In a system of republican self-government, in which political authority is derived from the people, Christian citizens should also pray for themselves. The Bible, in other words, not only directs Christians to obey, honor, and pray for civil magistrates but also counsels a self-governing people – who are both the governed and the source of political authority – to pray that they will exercise their civic responsibilities and conduct public business in a righteous manner. Christians should also be a prophetic voice for righteous government, advocating policies consistent with biblical standards and selecting virtuous and effective rulers.
The Demands of Biblical Citizenship
Christians, at times, find the demands of biblical citizenship challenging. It is difficult to pray for political leaders who have a dissolute character, mock righteousness and the fear of God, lack the skills and temperament essential for public service, have a casual relationship with the truth, are tainted by public corruption, and advocate principles and policies incompatible with biblical standards.
The presidential contests of 1800 and 1804, more than most elections in American history, provoked consternation and controversy among Christians regarding how best to model biblical citizenship in the electoral process. The leading candidate and eventual victor in the campaigns, Thomas Jefferson, was regarded by many as an infidel or even an atheist who repudiated the essential doctrines of Christianity (including the divine origins and authority of Scripture) and allied himself with avowed enemies of Christianity (that is, French revolutionaries).
Some pious citizens were so concerned about Jefferson that, according to eyewitness reports, when they heard he had been elected president in early 1801, they buried their family Bibles or hid them in wells because they expected the new administration in Washington to confiscate and burn the Scriptures.
Many in the church saw around them a society in moral decline. Some perceived evidence of this declension when, in the days before the 1804 election, the sitting vice president of the United States shot and killed a former Secretary of the Treasury.
An Election Day Prayer
Every election is a momentous event in the life of a political community. A few days before the election of 1804, a columnist wrote a brief meditation, entitled “A Solemn Thought,” which was published in a New York newspaper and republished in other influential periodicals. Drawing attention to the awesome responsibilities of biblical citizenship, the anonymous writer implored his compatriots to pray earnestly when exercising their right to vote.
He urged his fellow citizens to pray the following before entering the voting booth on election day:
Almighty God and heavenly Father. I am called, in thy providence, to transact this day a business with which thy glory, and the welfare of mankind, are intimately connected. Be pleased, most graciously, to counsel and direct me. Remove far from me all passion, prejudice, and selfish views. May he for whom I vote be approved of thee, and be made instrumental in advancing the kingdom of him who hath loved me and given himself for me. Enable me by thy holy spirit so to act as to have the testimony of a good conscience, and find acceptance with thee through the merits of my blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The writer then recommended that voters offer up the following supplication after casting their ballots:
Most merciful God. Accept my sincere endeavor to serve thee. Follow with thy blessing what I have done in thy name. Keep my country under thy holy protection. May those whom thou settest over it, be such as fear thee and hate covetousness [Ex. 18:21]. Pour out thy holy spirit upon all conditions of men. And hasten the time when the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.
In a closing benediction, an editor added: “Happy is that people, whose God is the Lord [Ps. 144:15].”
These prayers from two centuries past remind Americans, as they head to the polls this Tuesday, of the solemn responsibilities of citizenship and invite Christians to seek divine guidance in casting their ballots.
This post was adapted from Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.