Around each election, there is an increase of media aimed at encouraging young people to register and vote. The theme of the pictured ad is that voting constitutes one's political "voice." In other words, voting is the only means of expressing one's political wishes. "Only you can silence yourself," the argument goes. The thought brings poor Jessica Alba to tears. Judging by what I have heard and experienced these past months, the concept of voting-as-voice is rather popular in America. My reading of Nekeisha Alexis-Baker's essay "Freedom of Voice: Non-Voting and the Political Imagination," in Electing Not to Votehas lead me to question the proposition that one's vote constitutes one's political voice. Therefore what follows is heavily indebted to her writing.
If voting constitutes one's voice, then our political voices are very limited instruments indeed. Here following I will suggest a number of reasons why voting is not a citizen's only political voice. Indeed, it is probably the least effective (and certainly least expressive) means of expressing oneself politically.
Depending on what is placed on the ballot, the choices for voters are very limited. In the case of propositions, there is only "Yes" or "No." In the case of candidates, there can be anywhere from one to dozens of choices, but there is most often only a handful. So, to extend the metaphor of voting-as-voice: someone who votes has a voice which can only speak two words. Or, to use another analogy: voting is a musical instrument which can only play two notes. So what happens if I need to say something which cannot be expressed in only two words? What if I want to play Bolero instead of Hot Cross Buns? As Christians, I suspect this can come up quite frequently. One candidate might espouse certain Christian values while another might espouse others, and both might espouse some decidedly unchristian values. Voting by its very nature is limiting. Therefore it is problematic to limit our own political engagement by choosing voting as our only voice.
When we vote for a candidate, we are voting not just for a person, but for that person's platform. It is like the infamous omnibus spending bills in Congress. We lack a line-item veto. In the current political environment of the United States, it is highly unlikely that a candidate could make it to the national stage with a platform (and personal character) which could be wholly embraced by a Christian in good conscience. So if we choose to vote for somebody with whom we do not totally agree, there is no way to express that in the act of voting. The vote is counted for that individual and there is no indication that my vote is not an endorsement of that candidate's embrace of abortion or war. If we want to express that our vote is not an endorsement of the monolithic party line, we must exercise our voices outside of the ballot box.
When we vote, there is no space provided on the ballot to express why we voted for a particular candidate or proposition. This can be illustrated by an upcoming ballot measure in Oregon. It will create a state law to govern how long English language learners can in taught in their native languages in public schools. Some will vote "No" because they think this is a bad policy from the perspective of education. However, others will vote "No" because they think such determinations are best left to local school boards. And some (like myself) will vote "No" for both reasons, and a few others (including my dissatisfaction with the Oregon initiative process and with the sponsor of this particular measure). My political voice has a lot to say about Measure 58, but I cannot express it by voting. Only the "Yes" or the "No" comes through.
Because we use a secret ballot in the United States, voting is anonymous. I understand the merits of this practice. However, it compromises the function of voting as one's political voice. After I cast a ballot, what I expressed is no longer mine. It has joined the great cacophony of other voices, and cannot be traced back to me. Once it is gone, the candidates and pundits are free to interpret the anonymous results in any way they choose, since voting in unqualified and anonymous. My vote is no longer mine, so it cannot tell anyone anything about me or my opinions.
As far as political expression goes, voting is weak. In order to fully express myself politically, I must do something in addition to voting. Herein is the great irony of these ads. They themselves are a form of political speech outside of the ballot box. There are many ways to express oneself, including making documentary films, blogging, protesting, and the like. To think that voting is a sufficient means of expressing one's political opinions is to be guilty of not having a big enough imagination. Consequently, I do not regard non-voting as something to cry about. By electing not to vote, I can express my political ideas - my voice - just as clearly as someone who has voted, but without participating in the problematic institution of voting. As Electing Not to Vote has shown, there are many good reasons for not voting, ranging from problems of corruption to questions of allegiance.
I concur: "Only you can silence yourself." Voting is one of the best ways to do that.
This is the table of contents for my interactions with Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting.
his is the last in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Ted Lewis, the editor of the collection, provides an essay entitled “The 'Presidentialdom' of God: Our Conversation with Pilate.” Lewis focuses on the metaphysics of voting as it were, and does not want to focus on the process of voting. The center of his inquiry is similar to that of Sumantri: what does our heavenly citizenship mean in the context of earthly politics? So he opens the essay:
How do we demonstrate our political identity? What, in fact, determines our political identity? These are the seminal questions that drove the conversation between Jesus and Pilate, and my hope is that we can draw ourselves into this same conversation. (102)
I appreciate Lewis' use of Pilate in this discussion. Pilate represents the very opposite of good government (he was indeed a terror to He who did good). Lewis argues that "voting for political leaders . . . establishes a bond between people and government in similar ways that religion establishes bonds between people and deities." Therefore Christians should refrain from voting, because they can only give such allegiance to Christ. Lewis' thesis is intuitive for me insofar as I believe that is what practically happens in many cases. Partisanship can create strong loyalties which I agree are inappropriate for Christians. What I am not convinced by is the uniformity of this problem. Lewis makes an interesting comparison between Christians wielding political power and taking vengeance for ourselves. I am reminded of course of Romans 12:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.
which is followed by this in Romans 13:
[A political leader] is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
That is, it seems the state is a legitimate means of God's vengeance in the temporal realm. How this would bear on Lewis' assertion I am not sure, but it was a striking connection for me. The conversation between Jesus and Pilate is examined with great impact. Lewis notes that Pilate was a sound and moderate governor, who sought to quell the extreme fancies of the various people he governed, including those who arrested Jesus.
The power of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate is that Pilate put the decision to free Barabbas and to kill Jesus to the people. A popular vote, as it were. Lewis posits that Jesus and the Twelve would not have been voters in their day because of how Jesus reoriented politics. Here Lewis is arguing for non-voting as a normative Christian practice. This reoriented politics was ironic because Jesus was not acquiring political power through force - quite the opposite. It is also contrary to the democratic process, because a Christian politics is based on all members being in one in fellowship (κοινωνια) and having the same mind that was in Christ (Philippians 2), not on one group lording it over the other. Consequently voting (and the Pledge, among other political expressions) are not compatible with God's politics.
One of Lewis' strongest points is that Christians place their hope in God and not in the political processes. Therefore we can rest assured when our personal political preferences do not pan out. We trust God with the outcome of the election. In the meantime, we are free to practice the ultimate form of political engagement - love. Concerning the initial question about political identity, Lewis suggests that it can be best demonstrated by not voting.
Overall, his essay strikes a powerful chord in me. The question of the expression of political identity is not often addressed. While I am not convinced that merely voting creates bonds of allegiance between the voter and the state, I am convinced that such bonds are to be avoided. This essay is an effective capstone to the collection, one which I am sure to reread every two to four years.
This is the eighth in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Tato Sumantri provides an essay entitled “The Folly of Not Voting: Reflections on the Incoherence of the Church.”
Sumantri opens with a note that the following essay will probably make no sense to someone who is not a disciple of Jesus. Following is an account of his youth in Indonesia and the political turmoil that nation experienced in the 1960s. Following that, he notes that he first became disillusioned with politics during the Carter administration, when all the hope of having a born-again President was washed down the drain by the political realities of Washington, DC. Sumantri concluded that what he was looking for - peace and justice - had no chance of being established by any form of human government. Godly politics (non-coercive love) cannot be compatible with worldly politics (coercive violence).
Here Sumantri posits that a declaration of "Jesus Christ is Lord" is fundamentally incompatible with the secular politics, where Caesar is lord. This essay has the distinction in this collection of making the most frequent use of scripture, with Ephesians and Philippians being cited in support of Jesus' lordship over all earthly political powers and Christians' heavenly citizenship. Sumantri understands earthly politics as a form of the "grasping" for power which Jesus eschewed. In this he is arguing that non-voting should be a Christian norm.
I appreciate that Sumantri seeks to argue against voting in totality (given that most of the essays in this collection understand voting subjectively), based on the nature of being a follower of Christ. I am also sympathetic to the notion of Christian sojourning in a political context. Pilgrims do not vote. I myself am not sure that voting is a violation of allegiance, however. Nor am I sure what Sumantri does with the state (as described in Romans 13) in light of his position. At the very least, Sumantri's argument can be understood as an argument against democracy, but it brushes close to anarchism, which I cannot accept. Still, I personally do not often contemplate what being a citizen of heaven means for my earthly citizenship. It could be that non-voting might be a proper expression of that truth.
This is the seventh in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Paul Alexander provides an essay entitled “Voting With Our Lives: Ongoing Conversations Along the Path Pentecostal Faithfulness.” Alexander opens his essay with the following questions:
So, is voting a legitimate strategy for faithful Christians to use to witness to the kingship of God? Is voting a legitimate strategy to help redeem the world right here and now where people are really suffering . . . ? Is voting a legitimate strategy to reduce sin and violence, to increase the peace, and to glorify God - to be the church we're called to be? (81)
My initial reaction is to answer that voting may not be a good means of achieving those ends. However, I do not think that voting's utility is limited to witnessing to the lordship of Jesus and redeeming the world. Voting might achieve the end of being better neighbors εν πολει ανθρωπου (in the City of Man), for example. Alexander concludes that it is a subjective judgment, resting ultimately on how one understands voting.
The essay continues with some deconstruction of the concept of voting. "We vote every day." Namely, he looks for what it is about political elections which is any different than the many other types of choices we make day in and day out. One significant difference he notes is that one's selection of Pepsi over Coke is unlikely to be enforced by violence, whereas national-political very well may be. Depending on one's views on non-violence, this could certainly make voting a questionable activity.
However, Alexander concludes that a proper understanding of voting is only a partial solution. It must be accompanied by a proper ecclesiology. Here Alexander turns to the early roots of Pentecostalism, which were largely nonviolent. As someone who grew up in a branch of the Pentecostal movement (Foursquare), this was news to me. This included condemnations of "immoderate patriotism" and "national sectarianism." The historical sketches alone make this essay worth reading. The major thrust is that Pentecostals understood that undue allegiance to state made prophetic witness impossible. Alexander notes that voting for someone who would lead in a manner contrary to Christ's teaching would be "less than total allegiance to the king of kings."
He ultimately recommends "voting with our lives" as a more constructive form of political engagement than visiting the ballot box. I am not sure I agree with Alexander's understanding of allegiance being compromised by voting, but I can understand where he is coming from. I also agree that voting is a poor (the worst?) form of political engagement, but I am not sure if that justifies the exclusion of voting on Christian grounds.
My overall impression of the essay is positive. It was good to hear about Pentecostals who, as a result of their preaching against nationalism, had files opened at the FBI and War Department. As a tangential issue, I find it interesting how many historical Christian movements in the US have tended away from non-voting, nonviolence, and pacifism in order to embrace the status quo of nationalism in the last century. It is a recurring theme in this collection. For some reason, these positions seem to be very difficult to maintain faithfully. Given the great surge of nationalism in this nation in that time frame, I am not surprised.
This is the sixth in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Todd David Whitmore provides an essay entitled “When the Lesser Evil is Not Good Enough: The Catholic Case for Not Voting.” Whitmore opens by describing the general Catholic teaching on the subject. Voting is a duty (not only a right) which grows out of our responsibility as Christians to work for the common good in our societies. Therefore Vatican II and the meeting of the American Catholic bishops in 2003 affirm that Catholics, as a rule, should vote as a part of their responsible citizenship. Whitmore finds this duty problematic, however, and he wonders:
What is a "faithful citizen" to do if all the viable candidates in a particular election are not simply wrong on this or that policy but are so egregiously in error from a moral as well as political standpoint that one cannot in good conscience vote for any of them? (64)
I am intrigued by his inclusion of the term "viable" here. There is nothing about a candidate which intrinsically makes him or her viable (except perhaps ballot access). I believe that a good showing by "third party" candidates would have a positive effect on the electoral process in the US. The lack of consideration of third-party candidates is a weakness both in this essay and in the collection altogether. Whitmore's basic thesis is that sometimes the common good (i.e. the Christian's civic duty) is better served by choosing not to vote for principled reasons.
From here he goes on the describe why he could not conscionably vote in 2004 because of problems with both President Bush and Senator Kerry. Whitmore indicts Bush both for the war against Iraq and for domestic economic policies. His basic criticism on Iraq is that the war violates virtually every tenet of classic Catholic "just war" tradition regarding entering a war. I whole-heartedly agree. Dressing up a preventative war (or plain old invasion) as a "just war" strains credulity to the breaking point.
On the economic front, Whitmore argues that Bush's tax policies are unjust, because an increase of worker productivity during his presidency has not been met with an increase in wealth for the middle class, but instead an increase of wealth for corporations and the very rich. I personally less concerned with economic policies, but Whitmore makes an interesting point. Against Kerry, Whitmore brings charges of being just as bad on the war, supporting abortion, and changing his positions for political advantage (the "flip-flop"). Kerry did, in fact, vote to authorize military action in Iraq, but later recounted on the basis of having been deceived by bad evidence. Just war, however, does not allow for the Iraq war even in the case of Weapons of Mass Destruction (or whatever the justification of the day may be). On abortion, Kerry held the incredibly problematic position that he thought abortion was morally wrong personally, but he did not think it should be illegal. This is especially disconcerting since he believes life begins at conception! At any rate, these two issues and Kerry's waffling on them were enough to disqualify him in Whitmore's estimation (and I agree).
Acknowledging that no candidate is likely to pass Catholic muster, Whitmore proposes a rubric for deciding when not to vote: "is the distance between Catholic teaching and the candidate nearest to it greater than the distance between the candidates?" If yes, then it may be appropriate to not vote. Understanding "distance" is complicated in my estimation, but I am sympathetic to his point. Sometimes the candidates differ slightly from each other (e.g. on war) but differ greatly from Christian tradition. Whitmore also complains about the Electoral College. Once again, I must note that most people have a misplaced disdain for the EC. If one does not like how a state apportions its electors, one should take it up with the state legislature. If one does not like the idea of electors, one should push for a change in electoral law.
At any rate, I do not think the electoral college is a sufficient reason to not vote, at least from a Christian perspective. One could perhaps abstain from voting out of a desire that one's state would abolish the popular vote in favor of some alternative form of apportionment (that is another story, though). Whitmore concludes that the decision to not vote based on Christian principles must be evaluated each election. Voting, as he noted at the outset, is ideally a Christian duty. This is also his justification for not considering write-ins or third-parties, who have little viability at the moment, though that may change in the future. Here I have the question the underlying assumption that one must vote only for a candiate who can win. I think a principled, public vote for someone who has a very small chance of winning (and perhaps is only on the ballot in a few states) can have just as much or more meaning as a non-vote.
Ultimately I agree with Whitmore's primary point: sometimes there will be no acceptable candidates from the standpoint of Christian teaching. That has no doubt been true many times (this of course depends on one's stream within Christian teaching - many evangelicals had no problem with Bush). This however leads to another question (which I hope to explore later): what is the ethical meaning of voting? By voting for someone, am I necessarily endorsing that person's positions? Or can I vote for whatever reasons I choose (for instance, to show my anger over how someone voted on the war or the bailout)? That is an important consideration.
This is the fifth in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Michael Degan provides an essay entitled “Electing Not to Vote: Whether Choosing Red or Blue, Politics Is Love of Mammon.” Degan's approaches the issue of voting subjectively. That is, he examines the issue mostly in terms of how the political process affects individuals. He opens with the following question:
Was the vision of God's kingdom for which I was ostensibly working, hoping, and praying - and voting - honored by participating in a political culture that seemed to bring out the worst in me; that lead me to demonize those on the other side of my views; that caused me to think, feel, an sometimes act, in a word, unchristianly? (50)
Therefore it seems Degan's critique is particular to certain political climates, as exemplified by the 2004 presidential election in the US. The essay first examines the Mennonite principle of nonparticipation in government. This has been largely abandoned within Mennonite communities, however, and too many Christians have subscribed to the "red/blue divide." Also, Degan fears that Christians might see the state as the means establishing God's kingdom, that the great commission has been "reduced to merely putting like-minded Christians in charge of everything." (52)
Degan proposes a twofold justification for not voting within the Anabaptist tradition: two-kingdom theology and nonresistance. As I have noted before, I find the concept of Christian nonparticipation in government incredibly problematic. If the governments are ordained, and if we are called to pray for our leaders, how could government service be unacceptable? With regard to nonresistance, it echoes an argument John D. Roth made in the first chapter of this collection: if you think violence is unacceptable, you can hardly commission someone (namely the US President - the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces) to do that on your behalf.
Degan moves on from here to once again discuss how voting had an adverse effect on him. He also laments the problems with gerrymandering and other flaws in the American electoral process. In this the essay becomes a bit muddled. On the one hand, he makes a theological point that Christians should not vote. On the other, he talks about his subjective experience, some particular problems with voting in the US, and the fact that political participation can consume too much of a Christian's energy, none of which have anything to do with whether or not Christians should be voting in principle.
Indeed, he closes the essay by admiting there is nothing intrinsically wrong with voting, which makes me wonder why he spent so many words explaining the Mennonite traditions. I think there is another approach to voting which Degan has not considered. In his description, voting forces people to not love their enemies. The way I see it, enemy-hating is something that each person brings to the vote. That unruly passions are brought to bear on the vote, and that these passions lead to sin, is not a necessary part of the voting process. I believe that Christians can vote dispassionately. That is, they can make an informed decision based on the issues while still loving their opponents. One can vote for A or B, or abstain, and do it with a clear conscience. However, the same clear conscience tells us that voting may be more a matter of personal preference than right and wrong. Dispassionate voting is becoming the basis for my understanding of Christian participation in democratic politics.
This is the fourth in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. G. Scott Becker provides an essay entitled “Serving by Abstaining: Karl Barth on Political Engagement and Disengagement.” Ironically, this essay did more to convince me that Christian participation in the state is positive (and consequently that voting might be a good idea) than any other. Becker did so by explaining Karl Barth's "christological concept of the state." In particular, this formulation played out in Barth's support for resistance to the Nazi movement.
Barth argued in Church and State that the state, functioning properly, would not only act as a check against evil, but would also act as a means for preserving the freedom necessary for the proclamation of the Gospel. Therefore the church is "not to resent or endure the political order as a necessary evil" (40), but to pray for its righteous fulfillment of its divine role.
Here Barth and I agree in my basic problem with the concept of Christian non-participation in government. If God has ordained the government as his avenger (Romans 13), and if we are commanded to pray for our leaders, how could Christians possibly justify non-participation? Arguments against Christian participation in the state strain credulity in my opinion because of the clear biblical witness.
After the first part of the essay, I was wondering how Becker would come around to recommend non-voting in light of Barth's views. Thus far he done a fine exposition of what might be an argument for voting. However, while Barth was vocal in opposition to Nazism, he did not take sides in the Cold War. Becker understands Barth's non-commitment to a communism or capitalism as a form of protest against the political situation. There were important differences between World War 2 and the Cold War in Barth's thinking. For example, as opposed to Hitler marching into Poland and France, in the Cold War "war was not inevitable, and the church had a duty to say so." (47) It was a confrontation of ideologies. Moreover, there was no clearly righteous side, as judged by Barth's rubric of Gospel-freedom. By picking a side in the Cold War, he would be supporting the hubris of either side instead of supporting the divine mandate of the state.
History has vindicated Barth's position. War was indeed not necessary, and Europe has remained at peace (though tragically the big ideas were played out in wars in Asia). Next Becker translates this situation to the current political situation in the US. Partisan bickering is self-serving and not an expression of the divine mandate. Therefore, not voting "is a testimony to a better way of doing politics and a rebuke against a system that has abandoned its high calling." (49) Since it would be witness against the state, a non-vote must be both corporate and public. The essay ends on this point.
Becker's essay is especially helpful for those who do not necessarily come from an Anabaptist tradition (as opposed to most of the other essays in this collection). It is rooted with the Reformed understanding of the divine mandate of the state, yet it allows for non-voting as a legitimate expression in a democratic regime. He does not rule out voting altogether, but notes that disciplined abstention for a season may be the best way for the Church to bear witness against a malfunctioning state. I also agree with Becker that the American partisan politics is self-serving and not in line with the state's role as the executor of divine wrath. Therefore I agree with him that a principled Christian non-vote might be a good choice this year (and perhaps in the future).
This is the third in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Nekeisha Alexis-Baker provides an essay entitled "Freedom of Voice: Non-Voting and the Political Imagination." Alexis-Baker opens her essay by noting that not voting is an offensive gesture. In her case, the offense is at least four-fold, being black, a woman, a naturalized citizen, and an American in general. Not voting is offensive because voting is seen, whether people admit it or not, as a sacred rite. Voting is the citizen's voice, earned by struggle. However, in this essay she explores the effectiveness of electoral politics in bringing about change and challenges the notion of "voting-as-voice." The problematic nature of ballots is explained thus:
There is no space on ballots for people to share thoughts on issues that concern them. Ballots do not contain room for voters to indicate why thy have chosen a particular candidate or to identify agreeable policies. A ballot only has room to affirm prepackaged candidates whose vague plans have been publicized by sound bites, by negative camp, in speeches, and in televised debates. (25)
In other words, voting gives the citizen a voice which has only a few words it can say. Alexis-Baker also notes the problematic nature of interpreting the voice of the public once the votes have been cast. As she noted, there is no space for marginal notes on the ballot, so the politicians can choose to act or not act as they please. Another problem with voting, according to the author, is the problem of disenfranchisement and voter suppression. As an example, Alexis-Baker notes how in 2004 there was a trend to have fewer, older voting machines servicing high-density, minority districts in Ohio. The net result was that fewer blacks got to vote, whereas whites in richer areas had no line to wait in. (This sort of problem can be alleviated by vote-by-mail programs such as Oregon has implemented.)
Her point is that over a hundred years after the 15th Amendment, there are still many barriers to full and equal enfranchisement. In my opinion, this indicates a need for electoral reform. Not voting in solidarity with the voiceless might be a good way to engage the conscience of America. Alexis-Baker suggests that major changes are needed to the system, including the abolition of the Electoral College. I find this standpoint extremely problematic because I do not think there is anything wrong with the Electoral College, only that there is something wrong with most people's understanding of it. However, given that all 50 states have now for over a century been using a popular vote to choose their electors, perhaps a direct popular vote would be advisable. At the very least it would move the process (which is really an expression of federalism, not democracy) more in line with people's perceptions of what the presidential election ought to be.
Here Alexis-Baker turns to challenge Christians to "think outside the ballot box." Voting is not the only voice a citizen has - it is not even the most effective voice a citizen has. The 1960s civil rights movement in America is lifted up as a paragon of this principle. Voting did not achieve the changes which came about in that decade. In fact, part of the problem was that blacks could not vote in many places due to intimidation or segregation laws. Rather marches, boycotts, and sit-ins were the voice of the people. And this voice was heard, loud and clear, and it was carried forth by the literal voices of the movement's leaders, many of whom were churchmen. If voting is the only political expression one uses, one's voice can safely be ignored. But a loud, effective voice will take the form of disruptive political action, both because it is better heard and because it engages the conscience of the society at large. In other words, voting is not an effective means to achieving real change. Voting can only achieve the change which is allowed by the powers that be: column A or column B. Voting, as Alexis-Baker notes, allows for voices to be heard only at structured times.
Overall Alexis-Baker has made a good point: she has declawed voting. We can see how an act which may seem like a sacred rite is truly ineffective at producing large changes. Therefore the decision to not vote is no abdication of responsibility or opportunity. Rather it is a choice to use one's political voice in a truly unrestrained and more effective way.
Alexis-Baker provides some excellent ideas for consideration. At the very least, Christians must be challenged to not allow voting to be their sole form of political engagement. In so doing they are submitting to a process which might not allow their witness to be effectively heard. For example: though it is considered in bad taste by some Christians, protesting against abortion probably has a much better chance of ending its legality than does voting for Republican presidential candidates. Furthermore, Christians must recognize the truth that fighting abortion is not the same as fighting the legality of abortion, and therefore the most effective action in that area cannot be achieved with a ballot. It can only be achieved by us living out neighbor-love. I believe Nekeisha Alexis-Baker's Mennonite roots would have her agreeing with me on this point: non-voting political engagement must remain non-violent. Of course violent means can be quite effective in achieving political change (case in point: The USA). However, as Christians we ought to seek to follow Christ, who achieved the greatest change by refusing to fight back.
his is the second in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Andy Alexis-Baker provides an essay entitled "When There Is Nothing to Vote For: Liberalism, John Howard Yoder, and the Church." Alexis-Baker opens with a rather cynical deconstruction of the mythology of democracy and "state-as-savior." He notes that the nation state is more precisely a means of war rather than a means of peace, and that voting is, in a sense, a capitulation to the rebellious masses to decentralize their power. This is well illustrated by the fact that in response to the civil disobedience of America's youth in the Vietnam era (which in general was quite politically effective), congress lowered the voting age to 18, thereby channeling the youths' political energies through more "productive" channels. According to Yoder, the elite are still in control, yet the people feel as though they have the power. I am not so well qualified to evaluate these arguments, though they seem intuitive to me. The progression of Bush-Clinton-Bush-almostClinton definitely gave the feeling of an oligarchy in America. At any rate, Alexis-Baker seeks to demythologize American politics so as to undermine the rite of voting. He compares voters to "consumers in an electoral shopping mall where the same homogeneous goods are packaged under different logos . . ." (16). The Christian who is overly anxious about voting exhibits symptoms of Constantinianism according to Alexis-Baker. This is problematic in a number of ways. So Yoder's five practices are introduced to see how the church demands loyalty over against the nation-state. The first mentioned and only discussed, "the rule of Paul," deals with the church being in one accord with respect to an issue (this connects with Roth's #4 point about communal faith). According to Yoder, a vote does not resolve a disagreement within the body of Christ, it only hides it. As with the Jerusalem Council, Christians ought to come to an agreement over an issue, not simply state opposing viewpoints and vote. Alexis-Baker explains:
Precisely because each person participates in the decision-making procedures, it is by definition impossible for the individual's convictions to conflict with the group's unity . . . . The rule of Paul includes differences rather than denying them. The state's recourse to violence is ultimately the state's failure to be democratic. (20)
Here the concept of democracy is recapitulated not as voting, but as a process by which individuals can come to a communal understanding and agreement. This strikes a powerful chord with me. Alexis-Baker places two criteria upon acceptable Christian voting situations:
The first point can be summed by the fact that most candidates, especially at the federal level, hold positions which are problematic from the standpoint of Christian ethics. The second is an area which I think deserves a lot more consideration in our current political discourse within the Church. How do we, as the Church, decide which issues have a decidedly Christian element, and which are a matter of taste? For example, some Christians count communism/socialism as morally unacceptable, and others count gun ownership as morally unacceptable. Are these the sort of political issues for which we can truly make a scriptural case, one way or the other? Or, are they merely a matter of personal preference? If it is the former, we have a rather difficult exegetical task ahead of us. If it is the latter, then it would be a scandalous case, since Christians would be seeking to lord it over others for "sentimental or selfish reasons." Ultimately Alexis-Baker concludes that it may be acceptable for Christians to vote in some cases, but it would be the exception rather than the rule. He concludes by noting that hope in elections is deceptive, because elections themselves are deceptive: they "deceive us into thinking that we control the world." (21) Meaningful political engagement at the national level is nearly impossible, therefore it is best for the church to continue in its mission without reliance on the political schemes of the state. Overall this is a powerfully thought-provoking essay. It is at times a bit dense for reading, but it does a good job explaining a major problem with Christian involvement in democratic politics.
This is the first in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. John D. Roth opens the work with his essay "Polls Apart: Why Believers Might Conscientiously Abstain From Voting." Roth opens his discussion with a remembrance of the 2004 US Presidential Election (as many of the other authors do in this collection). I will quote one of his insights, as it will serve as a nexus for his essay and my developing ideas on politics:
As the election wound to a close, it sometimes seemed as though we were living in two parallel universes with each side determined to reinforce its position by associating only with like-minded people. (2)
Likewise, Roth makes the crucial observation that most Christians desire that their vote be in some way informed by their faith. When this is combined with an increasing sense of voting as a spiritual imperative, the difference in voting preferences among Christians is both perplexing and troubling to the unity of the body. Five basic points are laid out by Roth as reasons why a Christian might abstain. Each is elaborated, but only in the most brief way, so the reader is left hungry for more discussion. The five points are also helpful because they provide a definite structure which make the article so portable to other discussions. I will list each and provide some comment.
1. Not voting in the presidential election might be understood as a practical expression of our pacifist convictions.
This an excellent point for pacifists. If you were a vegetarian who thought it immoral to kill animals for food, certainly you would not vote for butcher. As Roth notes, it is unethical to commission someone else to do a job I myself would not do. The principle could be applied by non-interventionist and even just war Christians as well, but it would be a matter of certain candidates or seasons instead of a general proscription. That is, if one subscribed to the just war theory, one could hardly vote for a candidate who has vowed to continue in (or launch anew) an unjust war. Unfortunately, candidates rarely announce their intentions ahead of time. Roth's point might also be expanded to include more than just presidential votes. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is not solely responsible for the military. A quick reading of Article 1 of the Constitution reveals that the legislature is responsible for declaring war, raising and financing the armed forces, and regulating their operation. So, according to Roth's rubric, Christian pacifist should also abstain from voting for federal Representatives and Senators. Moreover, all states have a national guard militia whose commander is the governor (when not federalized), and which is funded by the state legislature. Therefore a Christian pacifist may be restricted to voting for county commissioners and school board members. Overall I agree with Roth's point, but its application is broader than he mentions in his essay.
2. From the perspective of an Anabaptist Christian, differences among the presidential candidates are illusory.
I certainly agree that both in the specific case of 2008 and in general the top two candidates both espouse unacceptable positions. So if one were to choose, one would have to parse the various constituent moral concerns to come up with a lesser of two evils. This is undesirable and problematic. One also must decide if a mere political opinion is sufficient for disqualification, or if the person who possesses the opinion must be able to act on it. For example, a county commissioner may be against legalized abortion, but he would have no actual bearing on the issue, so that opinion ought not to be a merit for electing him to the position. Likewise, it must be decided if a pro-choice position ought to be considered a demerit in that case. Unlikely as it may seem, this may have a direct application to the Presidential race. The conventional wisdom is that the President is responsible for abortion because he or she appoints the justices which could overturn Roe v. Wade. But is that the case? The practical truth is that seven of nine current justices were appointed by pro-life Republicans, yet Roe still stands. Should a political opinion on abortion be counted? It is a complex legal and moral consideration. The same in true of other issues. Here Roth makes clear that he is assuming an either/or two-party election. If the blue and the red are both bad, I cannot vote. But what about green, orange, and brown? This is a deficiency, in my opinion. If morally odious views are found in both the top two candidates, the search should not end there. It very well may be that all candidates could be disqualified for some reason. Still, a vote for a third party might have a more profound effect than a principled non-vote. Why? Because the result would be recorded and publicly visible. If a large faith community coordinated their votes for a third-party candidate, the unusual result would definitely send a message - a witness that Christians do not endorse the status quo. And it could be, depending on one's views on pacifism and participation in government, that a member of said faith community could be the ultimate conscientious candidate.
3. The "Constantinian logic" of voting our faith.
This happens to be, in my opinion, the weakest of Roth's five points. By "Constantinian logic," he means that by voting based on religious convictions, Christians are seeking to dominate government, and thereby "[wield] the machinery of political power in order to advance our particular religiously informed causes." (5) Roth's point is informed by Anabaptist history, where members often suffered at the hands of religious leadership. It seems that Roth here is implying a "do unto others" ethic in civil government: it is better to be secular and avoid persecuting anyone. Instead of the theocratic model, Roth advocates the church standing in a prophetic vocation - witnessing to the truth from outside the political establishment. I can definitely see the church filling the prophetic role, but I am not sure if the body must do so to the exclusion of its members. That is, I think individual Christians can serve civil government in good conscience while still participating in a prophetic witness.
4. The individualism and privacy of voting is in sharp tension with our communal understanding of faith.
This has been perhaps the most thought-provoking point raised in the entire collection. I personally know of an instance where two families, one Democratic, the other Republican, have sat in church and worshiped together for over 30 years. Moreover, their children married, and each of them maintains their own familial party affiliation. And they never, ever vote the same. The confess the same faith, yet vote differently. In what sense, then, could voting be based on faith convictions? Either faith is truly individualistic (which is incredibly problematic from the standpoint of ecclesiology), or faith cannot definitively inform voting. Roth notes that perhaps churches should "be of one mind" and work together to select how the corporate body votes. Of course, this would end their tax-exempt status, but that may actually be a good thing. That this concept is so offensive to most American Christians is a testimony to our individualism and our sacred view of voting. Nevertheless, I am inclined to agree with Roth that an individualistic vote cannot really be informed by faith exclusively. Now, this does not mean that faith convictions do not play a role. But it is still a matter of preference: for the Republican, the opposition to abortion might trump everything else. For the Democrat, the opposition to the war in Iraq might trump everything else. Both are honest, faith-informed, Christian positions, yet they result in a different outcome. Therefore I feel it best to reckon voting as a matter of personal preference.
5. Not voting in national elections may have a symbolic and pedagogical value.
Finally, we come to not voting as theopolitical witness. Here Roth allows a variety of reasons for not voting, from the personal to the communal. For instance, Roth notes how he was becoming consumed by a concern for politics. So he chose to abstain from voting as a spiritual discipline; a reflection on "Jesus is Lord." Communities can do so as well to express their status as sojourners and a people who owe their ultimate authority to God, not the state. It is a subjective matter, but that does not make it any less powerful. About all that would not be allowed would be abstaining because of cynicism. Ultimately Roth leaves voting as a matter of personal conviction, not normative practice. Yet he urges caution, especially in the context of the emotionally charged presidential races:
I urge you to enter cautiously into the arena of national politics, to withhold absolute judgement about God's will in regard to any particular candidate, and to give at least some passing consideration to an older tradition of conscientious abstention from this national ritual. (9)
This concept of dispassionate voting is emerging as an important piece of the puzzle of my understanding of voting in the Christian life.