The election day sermon was an important institution in colonial New England. It was one delivered by Samuel Danforth in 1670 that furnished the venerable Puritan concept of America as an “errand into the wilderness.” (For more, see Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity.)
One need not share the Massachusetts colony’s view of church-state relations (one of the chief tasks of government was the suppression of heresy) to recognize that the election day sermon served a useful purpose. The sermon was not usually, it must be stressed, an attempt to influence the outcome of elections. Instead, it was a reflection on the relationship between government and God, between the polity and Divine Authority. In New England, it was a reminder that the colonial governments were supposed to be expressions of the covenant between God and His people.
There has been much discussion again this election cycle about the relationship between faith and politics; more specifically, about whether Christian principles imply an obligation to vote for one or another candidate. Whatever else can be said about the controversy, it seems to signify that Christianity remains vibrant enough in the United States to have an impact on public life—and therefore that impact remains worthy of debate. Without dismissing the significance of those questions, it might be worth returning to the approach of the election day sermon as well: reflecting on the role of God in public life; urging repentance for the failings of citizens and leaders; calling down His blessing on the nation; and reflecting on the place of the Christian in the contemporary state.
Andover Newton theologian Mark Burrows, thinking along the same lines, offers some thoughtful guidelines for a revival of the election sermon. I would add that any attempt to address the role of religion or the Church or the Christian in the state today must emphasize the limitations of government, for the aggrandizing state is the great danger of our age. In the present context, the more Christians conceive of politics as the main or even primary expression of their faith, the more dangerous our predicament becomes. (Which is not to say that our religious commitments should have no bearing on our political choices.)
For an example of the content that a genuinely helpful, revived election sermon might contain, one could do worse than Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on charity:
This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.
The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.
Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.