By Shawn P. Nowlan

Politics—it’s okay to be involved—in fact, God calls us to involvement sometimes.

Right now, the American political scene is in the middle of an intense intra-family argument where emotions run very high. Sometimes these sorts of moments make us question our long-held assumptions.

One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in 1933 found himself in a changed land where his prior view of how he (as a Lutheran pastor) should interact with the powers of his homeland had to undergo a radical change.  While I am not suggesting we are in an equally perilous moment, still I see this moment when we as Seventh-day Adventist Christians may find ourselves called to protect our faith by being involved in politics.

And that means addressing head-on one of those semi- unstated truisms that we have in our Seventh-day Adventist family. Somewhere in my Adventist education—from first grade through college—I absorbed the idea that a good Seventh-day Adventist would not get involved in the political process. Yet, I believe on the contrary that both our Christian and our Seventh-day Adventist heritages sometimes call us into the political arena. I think of Jesus confronting the political leaders of His day —driving money changers (who were operating legally and within the law) out of the Temple. And in consequence, the Jewish political leaders of His day deciding that He was becoming such a threat to the political establishment in Jerusalem that they needed to have Him executed by the Romans.

Take as another example Daniel, who was “ten times better” in terms of wisdom and understanding than all his colleagues at the center of politics in his day (Daniel 1:20) and who stayed at the center of political power at the royal court. Even Nehemiah would not have been able to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem if he hadn’t been involved with the Persian royal court.

Or I think of the prophet Nathan confronting David, a king, over his behavior towards Bathsheba and her husband. In fact, many of the history books in the Old Testament —from First Samuel through to Second Kings—are saturated with tales of the political struggle of the nations of Judah and Israel. The books of the prophets—particularly Isaiah, Amos and Micah—are infused with the need for justice and fairness in the political societies of their days. This call from the prophets to work for a fair and just society is one that has not faded.

In our own tradition, the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church were firm abolitionists (a political issue that caused the Civil War). James White even encouraged Adventists to vote for Abraham Lincoln, interpreting that vote as a decision against slavery (James White, “The Nation,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, 12 August 1862, p. 84).

In his recent (2018) book, Protest & Progress, Calvin B. Rock presents a long list of issues which occupied our early Adventist pioneers, which would be considered as taking a stand against political and social issues of their day. Ellen G. White “wrote forcefully against slavery and for equality both within and outside the church” (p. 2). John Byington, the first president of the General Conference was an active abolitionist. A.T. Jones, editor in chief of Review & Herald (1897-1901), was a frequent visitor to the “corridors of power” in Washington, D.C., forcefully defending religious liberty and opposing the bill intended to establish a Sunday law in the District of Columbia (Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, p. 832).

In a 2005 article available on the Adventist Review website,* we read:

“Confident in the moral and civil rightness of their position, Adventists in the early twentieth century worked wholeheartedly to eliminate alcohol from society by force of law. They used every possible means—voting, lobbying legislators, holding public meetings, and distributing temperance literature—to advance the prohibition cause. . . . The most direct action Adventists could take on behalf of prohibition was to vote, both for state and local prohibition laws and for ‘dry’ (anti-alcohol) elected officials. Adventist leaders strongly urged members to vote for prohibition. ‘It is the duty of every one to vote for the prohibition of the liquor evil whenever and wherever he has the opportunity,’ wrote North American Division president Irwin H. Evans” (“The Liquor Traffic and the Attitude of the Christian,” Signs of the Times, September 1914, p. 4).

In writings by both James White and Irwin Evens, we see Seventh-day Adventists who felt called to engage in political struggle over issues they saw as vital moral issues for society. Both the Bible and our own Seventh-day Adventist tradition call for political engagement—where we keep our faith in mind as we decide what needs to be accomplished in the political realm.

My own experience of the political process led me to the same conclusion. I went to law school. In my post-law school career, I worked (like Daniel, perhaps) in the political system. I have served as committee counsel to a couple of committees at a state legislature where I spent my work days interacting with a broad range of politicians.

The senators I observed up close really did care about doing the right thing, and they wrestled with how new laws would affect the lives of everyone in the state. I saw how a good law change can make life easier for ordinary people. And how what legislators do ends up affecting how all of us live our lives. Particularly when working for the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee, I saw senators wrestling with deciding what laws were needed to make sure ordinary workers would have as worry-free a retirement as possible.

Through the experience from the Adventist tradition and from the Bible, along with my own experience working in political settings, I have learned to rethink the question of involvement with politics. I think the issue is not so much avoiding politics as it is making sure that what we are advocating is consistent with our Seventh-day Adventist Christian view of the world. When I see the examples of Daniel or Nehemiah or of James White, I see people who kept their eye on what was really important, while remaining engaged with the political process of their day.

When deciding whether to get involved, I ask myself: Is this going to improve the lives of my fellow citizens and is this involvement consistent with my faith? If I can answer “yes” to both of these questions, then being involved with politics can be 100 percent consistent with my faith. And I encourage all Seventh-day Adventists to have that same engagement.

In the words of the prophet Micah: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Let’s do this in politics as in the rest of our lives.

–Shawn P. Nowlan is an attorney currently working for the federal government in Denver. He is a member of the Boulder Adventist Church. Email him at: [email protected] *