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Trump as Tragedy, Clinton as Farce

In December of 2015 I made the following quip:

The above applies all the more since we have Donald Trump instead of Jeb Bush!

Cynics like myself ought to admit that we experience a bit of glee when our expectations are fulfilled. And oh how they have been fulfilled! Trump v. Clinton is truly a ludicrous contest for choosing leadership for the United States of America. What's more, they are almost meant for each other, because neither would be competitive against a different opponent. A neo-Shakespeare in coming centuries is destined to dramatize this affair.

I will now provide my own account, dear reader, not with the subtle rhythm of a bard, but with my own meager faculties, because I feel the need to summarize my thoughts on this matter. And hopefully through summary comes serenity.

Prologue: Concerning Character

Much of my prior reflection on presidential politics has centered on the policies of candidates, and not on their character. I suppose this is a side-effect of the times in which I have come of age. After four terms of the Presidency being free from the blight of personal scandal, we Americans thought perhaps we had moved on from those historical messes. But alas, here we are, with "temperament" and "character" and "trustworthiness" taking a prominent place in the campaign.

I will not comment on the character of the candidates below, but will leave this observation: the hypocrisy of the partisan system with respect to sex scandals has been laid bare by scandalous videos and accusations against Trump. Everything the Republicans said to attack Bill Clinton the Democrats have charged against Trump. Every defense offered by Democrats has been issued by Republicans.

I do think character matters, but that's not the context of this reflection.

Trump as Tragedy

Donald J. Trump is something like a dream deferred for political reformists and radicals. He is a candidate from outside the political class who holds ideas which are genuinely contrary to the status quo. Trump even goes so far as to break with the bi-partisan consensus on global trade and foreign policy.

(I happen to agree with relatively little of Trump's proposals - prominent exceptions being his seeking to reform global trade and his criticism of the Iraq War. Nonetheless his ideas are important because they differ from bi-partisan consensus.)

This of course has drawn the ire of the elite (yes, there really are an "elite") who have targeted Trump this past year with an unprecedented barrage of Op-Eds and cross-party support. Yet in spite of his distinct lack of newspaper endorsements Trump's candidacy remains alive. Being criticized by the right people has done much to bolster his campaign.

Facing a genuine threat to established political order backed by a growing popular movement, one would expect the leaders of both parties and the media to make every effort to discredit and disqualify Trump before he has a chance to gain power. That they did, but the ammo was fully supplied by Trump himself, and in abounding quantities.

I will not rehearse the whole infamous list of his outrageous statements here, but suffice it to say that Trump is a wicked man who is running on a platform which appeals to the worst aspects of our political natures. It is fair to say in some cases that his words and actions have been unfairly portrayed by his opponents. But the preponderance of evidence is clear: he really is not the type of person whom you want leading our great republic.

Now imagine someone who espoused Trump's contrarian policy ideas but had a personality like John Kasich. I doubt that candidate would even make the "main" GOP primary debate stage, and instead be relegated to the "under-card" debate. In other words our political environment seems to only reward reformist policy with attention in exchange for Trump-like behavior. Not only does he want a radical halt to immigration, but he says that many immigrants are rapists. Not only does he say the Iraq war was a mistake, but he adds that the U.S. should plunder their natural resources. Not only does he argue for a constructive relationship with Russia in the middle east, but he praises the autocratic Vladimir Putin.

The establishment really received a boon. They were tasked with de-legitimizing the fringe candidate, but Trump mostly take care of the job himself. When it comes to protecting the insular status quo from new ideas, you could hardly script a better defense: "novel is crazy." However we may find that in 2016, the year of Brexit, voters do not care to listen to the intellectual wings of the political parties. In other words, Trump might win in spite of himself, or perhaps to spite the elites.

My primary concern with Trump is not the scandals but his avowed desire to be the strong-man. As he said in his nomination acceptance speech at the convention:

I alone can fix this.

This is obviously outside of the spirit of American republicanism. Let us contemplate for a moment how Republicans mocked the young Democrats who put near-salvific hope in Obama. Let the GOP recall that it is the party which had decried the expansion of the power of the Executive Branch to interfere in all areas of life. For there is no way for the leader to fix everything but by the erosion of local control.

Trump is casting himself as the autocrat and the hero. He is already making threats to use the power of the office of the President to settle personal scores and punish his rivals. He unashamedly calls for unspeakable conduct in war. He should not be our President.

Clinton as Farce

Hillary Clinton's nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency has been fore-ordained since her loss to Obama in 2008. She is the chosen one. As private correspondence (which was stolen and made public) has shown, she was the preferred choice of the Democratic National Committee, which it was assumed should be neutral until the nomination was complete. Clinton's lock was so secure that only a no-name and a radical even bothered challenging her in the primaries.

It should have been a fairly clear warning sign that the Democrats had decided on a damaged candidate when a self-described socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union gave her a run for her money in a long and close primary race. Were the party elites really so blind to her weaknesses as a candidate? Or did they have a fatalistic commitment that she had to be nominated no matter what?

Hillary Clinton was already one of the least liked and least trusted politicians in the country. She was a carpetbagger. She voted for the Iraq War. She favored bombing Libya. She was paid ludicrous sums of money to regale bankers with her lackluster public speaking skills - what only the most naive would deny was a bribe. She had the liability of donations to their family foundation from questionable sources. She had the private email server. It was shown via leaks that her campaign thought of the press as a wing of their campaign communications team. And so on, and so on.

Of all the Democratic politicians in this country, it had to be her? It's farcical.

I personally do not find any one of those scandals extraordinary per se. I would not be caught chanting "lock her up!" Still, Clinton has managed to accumulate a rather impressive stable of scandals. But the central issue I have with her candidacy is not about her scandals, but about her relationships:

It is not appropriate for the close relation of a President to subsequently become President.

Republicans are loathe to bring up this criticism for the obvious reason of their recent electoral victory of a President's son. This has happened in the past, and the United States has survived it. However I would venture that when we were looking at the possibility of choosing between either the wife of an ex-President, or the man looking to be the third president in his nuclear family, the danger is getting acute. This nation is a republic, and political power is not supposed to be preserved in a family as in a monarchy, nor shared among a few as in an oligarchy.

Hillary Clinton is well-qualified but damaged goods. Her identity rather than her strength as a candidate was the primary criterion in her nomination. It is best to avoid the consolidation of power in a few families, therefore Hillary Clinton should not be the President.


Our free and mostly-fair nominating processes produced two really bad candidates. How does that work out for your democratic ideology?

I left the U.S. President portion of my ballot blank. I felt like the best way to deal with that question was to not dignify it with a response. Others may prefer to vote third-party or vote for a registered write-in candidate. Those are all great options.

The point is: if you think this situation is ridiculous, make it known with your vote (or lack thereof). But don't settle for just voting. Discuss it with your friends and family too. We are going to have to get over some social discomfort if we want to escape this ridiculous partisan circumstance.

If I am being honest, I would prefer Hillary Clinton to win. The simple reason is this: Assuming the worst on both sides, I believe that our republic is better able to cope with a corrupt politician than with a nationalist autocrat.

We'll see what happens. I am not too worried. More than likely in either case the winner will not be as bad as opponents claimed. But even in a worst-case scenario, people do not have to lay down and let terrible things happen.

Voting is the Act of an American

Erick Erickson this evening published a series of messages summarizing his stance on why voting for Donald Trump as the lesser of two evil is by no means compulsory for Christians. I must admit that in the past my previous conception of Erickson was more or less as a partisan hack. However in this election cycle he has been an unwavering pillar in the Never Trump movement. This has gained my attention. The below excerpt has earned my respect.

When I was working out my thoughts on non-voting in 2008, the idea seemed beyond the pale to many of my acquaintances. In 2016, given the preposterous choice set before the American public, non-voting is becoming more and more attractive to the general public. In particular it appeals to those conservative Christians who once felt comfortably at home in the GOP but now are alienated by the strongman who won that party's nomination.

Erickson is right in that pocket. In another message he cites his seminary education in the recent years has forced him to rank politics and religion, and we can see from the above which one came out on top.

Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton is a crisis for our republic, but a useful one. There have been many times throughout history when the faithful have worried about a friendly political status quo giving way. And yet the church persists. This is of course not to say that such epochal changes are without undesirable consequences. But part of the vocation of Christianity is courage.

The Banality of Voting

Two years ago I questioned [the conventional wisdom that voting constitutes one's political voice][]. I have to say that while my not voting for President in 2008 was fueled by the exploration of new political ideas, this year I am encumbered more by apathy and cynicism.

In spite of the media's attempt to whip me into a frenzy, I see no greater meaning behind the "narrative" of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives (though I think having a divided legislature is probably for the best). Despite being told that the choice is "stark," I really don't feel like there is much substantive difference between boxes A and B on the ballot. It just feels like the tide going in and out: the sand will shift a bit, but it's going to be the same beach.

Even for the local races and issues I cannot get excited. The voter's pamphlet just does not give enough information to make a good-faith vote for the candidates (and I can't trust the parties to nominate satisfactory candidates). The ballot measures leave me wondering, "isn't this why we have a legislature?" There is just nothing on my ballot which captures my interest.

That's not to say that voting is always banal. I think there have been times where electoral movements have resulted in real positive social change in this country. This just doesn't feel like one of those cycles to me. No offense to the tea party movement, but I don't see their handful of victories amounting to a substantive shift in spending and taxation at the federal level.

Now, here are some hypothetical federal ballot initiatives which I'd like to see:

  • Should the US withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan?
  • Should the US continue selling arms internationally?
  • Should the federal congress have term limits?
  • Should proposed laws be placed under version control (so that we can track who wrote each part of a bill)?
  • Should Social Security's impending deficit be remedied by increased taxation or reducing benefits?

Alas, there was nothing like any of those on the ballot.

In the mean time, if you have a political idea you'd like to share, please don't (only) vote. Embody that political idea, and share it creatively and compellingly with your neighbors.

[the conventional wisdom that voting constitutes one's political voice]:

Category: politics Tags: voting

Dispassionate Voting

I nearly voted, by write-in, for Pontius Pilate to be the President of the United States.  It would have been a joke, for sure, but the sort of joke which provokes more thought than laughter.  Instead I opted to vote for no one, which sparked quite the outrage among friends and family.  It seems anything is better than not voting, and even the non-vote born of laziness or apathy is better than what I did.  However, this was the desired effect, because I thought a non-vote to be the most effective means to raising my thoughts and concerns about Christianity and politics. Here I will present three basic reasons that I did not vote for President.  The first two will be rather brief, but the third will form the crux of my current thinking on voting.

First, I have become rather fond of federalism of late.  Therefore I think we would be better served by having our President elected by a means other than a popular vote.  For example, state legislatures could choose free-will electors by preferential vote.  I believe this would facilitate a better selection process which cannot be so heavily driven by the media.  Think of the money which could be saved if candidates only had to campaign for 538 individuals.  Moreover, think of the benefit to our society were we spared from the eternal election cycle and the divisive rhetoric which accompanies it.  This proposal is unpopular by definition, but I think at this present juncture it could be quite useful for states to follow their forebears and take the vote for President out of the hands of the people.

Second, I wanted to give concrete expression to my heavenly citizenship.  The preponderance of salvific and even messianic language coming from some high-profile candidates this season has given me pause.  The hope to which I so firmly hold is Jesus Christ, not the political movement of Barack Obama.  Moreover, the change I seek is the change of Jesus' inbreaking kingdom, not that of a political "maverick" named John McCain. Obviously, I have saddled each with a perhaps unfair equivocation of what each means by "hope" and "change."  Neither Obama nor McCain would say he is seeking to usurp a role which only God can fulfill.  Yet as I considered the concept of heavenly citizenship, I realized that I myself give very little expression to my understanding of the hope and change that are in Christ Jesus.  My hope was indeed vested in Presidential politics, at least in terms of any practical expression.  My hope in Jesus was purely theoretical.  Therefore I thought it best, for my own devotional edification, to opt out of voting for a leader and instead to merely say "Jesus is Lord."  By doing so, I am expressing that I am not expecting ultimate hope nor change from worldly leaders.  Rather I can relax in knowing that whoever wins this tiny election, Jesus Christ still sits at the right hand of the Father, waiting to usher in His kingdom on earth.

The final reason I elected not to vote this year centered around the question of voting as Christian orthopraxy.  In other words, as I have asked before, is it possible to vote righteously?  Another way of asking the same question: should faith inform one's voting?  Based on my purely anecdotal experiences, I believe that most Christians want to say that their faith affects how they vote.  My question is different from and prior to that question: how can faith inform voting?

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.

How someone can go from faith (as witnessed in the Nicene creed) to Democrat or Republican is a mystery to me.  I simply see nothing in any tradition's creed, confession of faith, catechism, or doctrinal statement which can tell me whether supply-side or demand-side economics are better; whether welfare programs are best executed in the US by the states or the federal government; whether "the right of the People to keep and bear arms" should include assault rifles; whether a federal ban on off-shore drilling should be lifted; etc., ad nauseum.  Christian faith, in and of itself, cannot inform our voting, unless there is a measure on the ballot, "Do you believe in one God . . . "

I think that if asked about these issues, most Christians who say that their faith affects their vote would agree that there is no clear "Christian" position on many of these partisan distinctives.  They are, for the most part, purely a matter of personal preference.  If someone would like to make a political case for a politician or an issue, one must do it from the standpoint of Christian ethics, not Christian faith.  Are there any issues facing the United States about which Christian ethics can make an authoritative pronouncement?  To each individual, it would seem there are.  However, I can affirm the Nicene creed with my Episcopalian friends, some of whom disagree with me on whether abortion should be illegal.  Also, I can affirm the Foursquare doctrinal statement, but many of my friends in that movement disagree with me on the wars. There is also the question of to what degree our Christian ethics should correspond to the laws of laws and politics of a liberal democracy.  My conservative friends believe that we should clothe and feed the poor, but they do not believe that such charity should be mandated and carried out by the government.  My liberal friends believe that homosexuality is wrong, but they do not believe that gay couples should be deprived of the same benefits as straight couples.  With regard to abortion, should Christians vote for McCain because he takes a principled stand against legalized abortion, or Obama, whose policies might greater reduce the actual occurrence of abortion in the United States?

Sarah Palin's former pastor said, "If every Christian will vote righteously, it would be a landslide every time."  In my opinion, the only way to vote righteously is to vote self-righteously.  I know I have made an inflammatory statement here, and I do not wish to unduly offend anyone.  Yet when I look at the complexity of voting and of Christian ethics, I can come to no other conclusion.  Voting is subjective.  Even on seemingly easy questions, Christian tradition cannot easily be boiled down to a vote for a single candidate. I believe we have to approach voting humbly and dispassionately, if at all.  We do so because in our weakness we admit that we lack the wisdom to discern God's will in every instance.  We do so because in nearly every case in politics, there is no one right answer, yet we feel compelled by our civic duty to do something.  We do so because our own Christian brothers and sisters, who believe in God with the same sincerity, may come to opposite conclusions.  And finally, by voting dispassionately, we acknowledge that the politics of this world are not the ultimate end.  It does not matter greatly if things do not go our way, because we trust that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him."

This year I assumed the ultimate dispassionate posture: I chose not to vote for President.  I may or may not make the same decision in the future.  Yet this year it seemed right to me to excuse myself from the noise.  On November 4th, I will be free to take in the greatest spectacle on earth without worrying about a right or wrong result.  I will be trusting in God's providence rather than the will of the electorate.

Category: politics Tags: voting

Voting: a voice with two notes

Only you can silence
yourself 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.

Voting is binary (or trinary, etc.)

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.

Voting is monolithic

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.

Voting is unqualified

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.

Voting is anonymous

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.

Electing Not to Vote (9): Ted Lewis

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.

Electing Not to Vote (8): Tato Sumantri

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.

Electing Not to Vote (7): Paul Alexander

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.

Electing Not to Vote (6): Todd David Whitmore

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.

Electing Not to Vote (5): Michael Degan

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.

All we have is our vote

Michael Moore on the financial upset:

The struggle between what is best for the people and what is best in order to line the pockets of Wall Street will continue. 150 million Americans combined can't even match the wealth of the richest 400 Americans. All we have is our vote. And there will always be more of us than them. We will all need to become more politically active if we are going to get our democracy back.

All we have is our vote?  Really?  Aren't there other forms of political expression, such as, I don't know, making documentary films?  Michael Moore knows something about that, I think.

Category: politics Tags: voting

Electing Not to Vote (4): G. Scott Becker

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).

Electing Not to Vote (3): Nekeisha Alexis-Baker

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.