Four Principles of Seventh-Day Adventist Compassion and Public Policy
This article is part of a series on the Five Circles of Christian Compassion and continues the conversation of how Christian compassion includes involvement in public policy. In the last blog article, we introduced the concept of dual citizenship, the idea that we are responsible for living both as citizens of the earthly kingdom and maintaining our allegiance to God’s kingdom. We are called to demonstrate the kingdom values of justice and equity in the context of our participatory democracy. As Christian citizens, we are required to support and advocate for public policies that align with principles of justice, equity, and lifting up those who are oppressed. Equally, we are called to oppose those public policies that run counter to these biblical principles.
In this article, we explore the early history of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church to understand the Church’s institutional thinking about political involvement. Note: While this blog is designed to appeal to all faith-based community service ministries, this article is a decidedly SDA perspective. If you are reading from another faith discipline, this article may give you a tiny glimpse into the history of the SDA movement.
One cannot consider the history of the SDA church without acknowledging the visionary role played by Ellen White. As a leader, she saw herself as a messenger guided by the Holy Spirit (see here) and her shaping influence touched every facet of the SDA church – the area of political involvement included. Her leadership of the Church spanned from the before the Civil War and ended with the approaching World War I. Over the course of those 60-70 years, Ellen White wrote about and engaged in politics and public policy.
The conventional view of Ellen White’s writings is that she urged the church to be cautious of becoming involved in politics and therefore the SDA church should remain muted in issues of politics (see here for a detailed treatment of this perspective). In 2016, Ted Wilson, the president of the General Conference of the SDA church underscored this viewpoint, writing,
“Regarding involvement in political parties and processes, the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes these decisions should be left to the individual and so does not give a specific recommendation on this. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is apolitical and avoids aligning itself with any political party,” ~ Ted Wilson (Source).
In my opinion, this statement ignores a significant portion of the SDA Church history and the writings of Ellen White. Ellen White clearly warned against Church affiliation with political parties and endorsements of specific political candidates. However, extending those warnings to a blanket “apolitical” view of the church stands in sharp contrast with three compelling examples of civic engagement by the church at the time of Ellen White.
The founding of the SDA movement was concurrent with the rising tensions over slavery. Leaders of the SDA movement were opposed to slavery, declared themselves as abolitionists and, in some cases, were active participants in the Underground Railroad (see here). Ellen White was among those opposed to slavery, and her strongest condemnation of slavery stated pointedly that pro-slavery views were incompatible with church membership (see here). Further, in commenting on the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, she went as far as to encourage civil disobedience regarding this law (see here).
The second example of SDA political advocacy was when state and federal Sunday laws were proposed. The Sunday laws were designed to restrict or ban some (or all) of Sunday commerce activities for religious reasons (see here). The SDA church was vocal in its opposition to this legislation, pressing the case that the existing and proposed laws violated the separation of the church and state. The SDA belief in the significance of the seventh-day Sabbath coupled with an eschatology centered around sabbath worship drove the SDA opposition to Sunday laws. The SDA engagement in opposition to Sunday laws defined the Church’s commitment to religious liberty that has continued to this day.
The third defining issue where the SDA Church engaged in political advocacy was the Church’s alignment with the temperance movement and legislative efforts leading to the Prohibition. Ellen White had long argued for legislated prohibition as a public policy that would strengthen our civil society. While Prohibition was a failed social experiment, many in the SDA Church were vocal in their support of this legislation. Writing about advocacy related to the temperance movement Ellen White wrote that “In our favored land, every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation” and that voters must use “their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote—in favor of prohibition and total abstinence” (see here).
As I write this, I am aware that this overview is superficial. To understand the SDA historical perspective on the topic of politics and public policy one might read texts such as Adventism and the American Republic (PDF here), Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement (here), and this AT Jones biography (see here –as well as other biographies in this series). My point in this article is to identify four principles that define the early SDA Church’s approach to politics and public policy involvement.
1. We must avoid the cult of identity politics: The first principle of SDA involvement in public policy and politics is that we must be careful to avoid the cult of identity politics. Politicians and political parties will ultimately disappoint us because they are a mix of multiple interests –some aligned with Christian values and others are not. No single political party perfectly reflects the gospel of Christ. The context of the 1800’s was similar to today with splintering political parties and the cult of political personalities. The warnings against becoming entangled in political labels are as appropriate today as they were back when democracy was much younger. The Johnson Amendment, signed into law in 1954, further restricts the ability of churches and other nonprofit organizations to engage in political candidate endorsements. May we ever respect the boundaries that prevent us from being a tool of political parties and politicians.
2. We must support public policies that lighten the burden of oppression: While counseled to avoid political candidate endorsements, as Christians (and as a Church), we have the moral obligation to support policies that lighten the burden of oppression for those in need. As noted in the last article, ministering to the oppressed was the work that Christ engaged in and entrusted to us (see Luke 4:18-21). The early SDA work against slavery establishes strong precedence for political action and engagement. Political opposition to unjust policies and laws is biblical and for the SDA Church, historical as well. The challenge for all churches and individuals is to develop an understanding of how public policy works and how citizens can influence the outcomes of legislation and public policy initiatives.
3. We must be vigilant advocates for personal freedom in the practice of religion: The SDA religious liberty department is where the SDA church as developed both capacity and infrastructure to work in support of religious freedom. Publishing a Religious Liberty magazine and working through the judicial system, SDA’s are comfortable with this aspect of public policy engagement. As individual Christians, we also must consider how we might be actively involved in preserving religious freedom.
4. We should carefully consider how to promote public policies that improve the social welfare of society: While the unintended consequences of Prohibition outweighed the benefits of banning the sale of alcohol, the principle of aligning ourselves with public policies that strength society is an essential dimension of our Christian responsibility. For example, the SDA church’s advocacy for policies that restrict tobacco use is an example of a public policy that improves the health and social welfare of society (see here). Tobacco regulations are but one example of social policies that can be used to solve endemic problems. As a Church, we should be equally engaged in public policy solutions for issues like poverty, education, environmental protection, economic fairness, and public health.
In the face of the early SDA Church’s active involvement in political issues, it is difficult to argue for political ambivalence by SDA Christians. Pastors and Church leaders often present civic engagement as a forced choice between present-day citizenship and kingdom citizenship. Ellen White’s view was not a direct choice between the temporal kingdom or the heavenly kingdom instead she saw that the two aspects are constants that operate simultaneously (see here). Ellen White espoused Christ’s concept of dual citizenship that required active involvement in the political process based on the four principles above. In the next article in this series, we will explore the application of the principles of dual citizenship. Until then, I welcome your thoughts.