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Electing Not to Vote (2): Andy Alexis-Baker

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:

  1. The candidates must provide Christians with a tolerable option.
  2. The Christians must actually have something to say about an issue.

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.

Electing Not to Vote (1): John D. Roth

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.

Political voices in the American pulpit

On September 28, about 50 American pastors organized by the Alliance Defense Fund will deliberately preach a political message:

For more than a half-century, federal law has restricted the right of most churches and pastors to speak out about candidates for office.  But on Sunday, Sept. 28, about 50 pastors nationwide . . . will deliberately challenge that law by speaking out politically from their pulpits. . . . Pastors long spoke out on great moral issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor and prostitution. Pastors also have spoken from the pulpit with great frequency for and against various candidates for government office. All that changed in 1954 with the passage of the “Johnson amendment,” which restricted the right of churches and pastors to speak about candidates for office. The amendment . . . changed the Internal Revenue Code to prohibit churches and other non-profit organizations from supporting or opposing a candidate for office.

Did the amendment really restrict the right of free speech?  No:

After the amendment passed, churches faced a choice of either continuing their tradition of speaking out or silencing themselves in order to retain their church’s tax exemption.

Churches and pastors can preach whatever they want to preach.  Whether or not they have the privilege of tax-exempt status is a matter of the content of their message.  Therefore, if a church feels it cannot fulfill its proper role, perhaps tax-exempt status should be abandoned in favor of a prophetic witness. The plan on the 28th is to draw the ire of the IRS and thereby file a lawsuit which can be appealed in hopes of invalidating the Johnson amendment.  I have no idea if it will work, though it is not a bad strategy for affecting political change (I believe the Scopes monkey trials came about in a similar way).  What is disconcerting is that churches who felt political speech was an essential part of their mission were voluntarily silent for 50 years in order to avoid financial hardship. Tax-exempt status is not everything.  Indeed, it might be better for churches to voluntarily renounce it, in the model of the rich young ruler selling all his possessions to follow Jesus.  In doing so they can reduce the power of the state over them.  But I am not convinced that true political preaching has anything to do with political candidates.  I'll repeat part of the quote:

Pastors long spoke out on great moral issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor and prostitution.Pastors also have spoken from the pulpit with great frequency for and against various candidates for government office.

The portion in bold remains possible for the tax-exempt American church.  This, I think, is the essence of political preaching.  Anything that has to do with a specific candidate is too vulnerable to mere partisanship.

Category: politics Tags: voting