Should Christians Vote?

Posted: 11/01/2012 in Church
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As the election nears, the rhetoric for politics continues to build.  Commercials, lawn signs, and Facebook posts encourage us to vote and vote early.  Enthusiasm grows as some proclaim that this could be the most important election of our time… well, at least since last time.  As I watched the presidential debates and the commentary thereafter, I began to reflect on not just my civil duty or responsibilities, but on my Christian duty.  I began to ask myself a barrage of questions:

What does it mean for me to be a faithful Christian in the midst of this election?

Which policies are most relevant to my Christian convictions?

And should I, as a faithful Christian, even vote?

I believe this last question is one of grave importance… and it is one that most Christians I have talked to gloss over. Christians MUST think about such important matters thoroughly and understand the ramifications for whatever choices they make. In this post, I do not intend to endorse one political party or candidate over another. Nor do I intend to endorse the idea that Christians should or shouldn’t vote.

This is for you to decide.

I have spent the last few days researching and coming up with ideas that I feel could be valid Christian responses for both options.  This list I came up with is in no way comprehensive, and if you have more to add, please let me know, and I will add it to the list.

Since I believe the majority of Christian opinion in America is that one should vote, I will begin my listing with that perspective.

 Yes, Christians should vote.

  • There are countless people living in this country who do not have the ability to vote or voice their concerns about the laws in this country, yet laws are being made that directly affect them.  Across America, there are immigrants, unborn children, and prisoners who cannot cast their ballet, but they have voices that do matter.  Christians can stand in the gap and vote on behalf of a friend who cannot vote. This is not the only way in which a Christian can advocate for the voiceless, but voting is one way in which this can happen.
  • Christians cannot simply disengage from the world.  Christians are already taking advantage of the millions of ways that government is part of our lives.  We drive on roads, pay our taxes, and attend schools.  The government is already enmeshed in our lives, and some Christians believe that voting is just one more way that we “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
  • There may be some elections where one candidate may cause more violence and destruction than another.  In a sense, Christians may vote for the lesser of two evils. Some Christians (rightfully so) might find it problematic that Christians would vote for any sort of evil at all! However, in a less than idyllic world, some Christians find this to be the best option.
  • There are occasions when those in government work to affect great change.  In such circumstances, the person who is elected into office really can sometimes affect policy. This means that, if a politician intends to keep his/her promises, your vote for that person would matter.
  • There are those in America who have been persecuted and made unable to vote in the past, so the voting of some (specifically women and African-Americans) is a re-enactment of civil rights. This reminds the powers-that-be that those whom they have often tried to oppress are still counted as human. This is truly “sticking it to the man” for the ways in which “the man” has tried to manipulate the system and silence the oppressed. By this, I do not intend to imply that all women and minorities should vote, but this is certainly one Christian way to understand voting.
  • The two party system in America has a vast amount of problems. By voting for a minority party (like Libertarians or the Green Party), Christians can bring awareness to the neglected issues in two party politics and allow silenced voices to speak on a public stage.  Maybe with enough votes and support, America will hear from these minority positions during presidential debates.
  • Finally, you get a sticker for voting, and everyone loves stickers.

No, Christians shouldn’t vote.

  • Christians have a communal understanding of faith and life, not one based on individualism. Voting is an individual, and somewhat violent, act that does not allow us even the opportunity to look our opposition in the eye and dialogue.  We vote behind closed doors, in secrecy.  We often refuse to even tell others who we voted for and why.  This does not open dialogue and avenues for communion.
  • Voting means participating in a system of perpetual violence. Every president in the history of America has given the charge to kill someone, whether through war or political assassination.  Often, these wars have not fulfilled the requirement of being a “just war” (the minimal requirement for a traditional Christian acceptance of war).  Therefore, voting for a candidate is likely casting your vote towards the death or violent mistreatment of other humans (by war, assassination, drone attacks, wrongful and untried imprisonment, etc.). If there are any who choose to vote based on Christian values, how could you ever get behind such violence?
  • Christians should devote themselves toward reconciliation, not a system that is so divisive, explosive, and often silences the minority. There is one thing that this election is clearly teaching us – the politics in this country are getting more and more divisive.  The two mainline candidates disagree on nearly every issue.  Yet there is no work to reconcile these differences.  Rather, voting is an attempt to overpower your opponent.  What would it look like if Christians worked to bridge the gap of divisive rhetoric and worked to reconcile a country tearing at the seams?
  • The powers that we are voting into office to help the oppressed are often the same powers that are oppressing. The reason that many are impoverished, without medical care, or without the ability to know and experience life is because the people that we have put in power have put laws into place that would do just that.  Too often, we divorce the facts that people are oppressed because the same powers that claim to help them have been oppressing them. It seems counter-intuitive to give power to a person on behalf of someone else who is oppressed.
  • The best and most promising movements of American history only happen secondarily by elected officials. Rather, these movements came from oppressed and inspired individuals who rose up and demanded change.  Civil rights movements did not happen from votes cast by individuals but by pressure and non-violent resistance put on those in power. In fact, there is reason to believe that offering the ability to vote has historically quelled the masses demanding real societal change.  Feminism and civil rights action dropped significantly from social consciousness once women and minorities were given the right to vote, but the gaps of disparity are still mightily present.
  • Christians believe all real change comes from the church, not the government.  Campaign promises are often empty.  Much of what these presidential candidates promise isn’t even feasible. Voting based on these promises is a false reality. Rather than investing so much time and energy on that which is illusory change, the church ought to invest their time, money, and energy on being the Church. Imagine what justices could be done in the world if Christians had only half as much passion toward the Church as they did in government.
  • Voting serves “Constantinian” values.  Constantine was a 4th century Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity and began to rule Rome as a conquering Christian empire.  This means that all that the empire did was stamped with a Christian label, even when the empire directly contradicted the words of Christ. The goal of Christians “voting their values” is implicitly so that a state will be created that most closely follows biblical precepts (or interpretations thereof).  By voting, both liberal and conservative Christians attempt to set up a country which imitates their religious beliefs – a dangerous precedent in church history, also a dangerous witness to the rest of the world.  When I spent time living in Israel, there were many who equated my Christianity with my American identity. To them, this often meant that I was mercilessly violent.  The more we align ourselves with the state, the more problematic our witness becomes.
  • There are some of us Christians who have made politics our god, putting more of our hope, trust, time, money, and energy into endorsing a candidate than we have into being a growing witness of Christ.  For those of us entirely enmeshed in politics, the practice of not voting can become a spiritual discipline for us. Maybe the practice of not voting could be an exercise for some in reminding them that Christ is the true and never-ending King, regardless of who might have earthly power.

Again, I want to make clear that I am not attempting to sway you into making a certain decision.  The Bible says nothing explicitly about voting, so how one ethically engages might be different than another. Whether you vote or not, Christians ought to be intentionally thinking about such matters and making a conscious choice.  It is inexcusable to either sit out or to vote without thinking about the ramifications of such actions.

Also, we must remember that we vote every day.  How we choose to live – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the place we live, and the people we help and serve – this is all casting a vote.  You cannot vote for a “trickle down economy” unless you are actively helping and serving the poor. You cannot vote for immigrant rights and the environment while eating vegetables drenched with countless pesticides that have been picked by slave labor.  You cannot vote “pro-life” and not be willing to take a pregnant teenager into your home who has the choice of getting an abortion or getting kicked out of her house and becoming homeless.  Whether you are Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green Party, or Anarchist… these are matters about which we can all agree. Where you spent your money, time, talents, and energy… these are the votes which do not work to divide but unify the Body of Christ.

As Election Day approaches, may you be a faithful witness earnestly asking God what God would have you do.  And be in prayer for those who have power and those who have none.

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Comments
  1. Brian Bither says:

    Thank you for saying this! I have read a number of blogs recently – including Miroslav Volf’s – where people discuss the appropriate criteria for Christians to consider when voting, but few dare to consider the prior question: whether we should vote at all! Also, I appreciate the way you laid it out. Although I haven’t done enough work to make these comments on my own blog, your post sets me up well to make it on yours.

    As I have considered whether I should vote in any election, the first question that I had to ask myself is whether voting in and of itself is a “violent” act. This is a somewhat ironic question to ask, because another one of the great reasons TO vote is because democracies are designed to curb violence. When you centralize power in a king or an oligarchy, this frustrates the masses who don’t have any power, and so people attempt coups and start civil wars to see who can rule the country. The genius of a democracy is that it spreads that power out across the board (though not proportionately), so that everyone at least has a little say in what happens in government, and this makes them more likely to use political mechanisms to improve their situation rather than to start a coup. Thus, “we” (the USA) test the stability of new democracies in the world by counting what percentage of the population votes. If a majority of people participate in elections, then this shows that people are beginning to trust the political system and may use it instead of violence. On the other hand, if people don’t participate, it means they don’t trust the system, and they’re likely to respond with warfare or coups.

    So, democracy reduces violence, which in itself is a good thing, but it also limits resistance. Michel Foucault points out in “Discipline and Punish” that the government has turned us into more docile creatures who don’t resist when we’re oppressed because the “punishments” are less shocking and more ubiquitous. When we vote in the United States, just as when people vote in “new democracies” (that the US sometimes forcibly establishes in other parts of the world), we legitimize that system of government, we say that we trust it. But perhaps this isn’t appropriate. For example, I don’t believe we should EVER torture anyone, including terrorists, and for this reason, I am tempted to vote for Obama, as he seems to be more likely than Romney to resist the ‘war spirit’ in the United States. But Obama does not have a perfect track record on this either, and for me to vote for the lesser of two evils is to give up my “resistance” as a non-voter (or, as you mentioned, third-party voter), which says that I will not cooperate with either option.

    But this is all beside the point. The real question I want to ask is whether voting is a “violent” act in a broader sense, not just with regards to its impact on war, but whether voting is a mode of “lording [our power] over others” that Jesus forbids his followers to do? (Mark 10:42-44 and parallels). There is no doubt that voting CAN BE violent in this sense. If a group of people wants to pick on an outcast in their group, and they take a vote on whether they should do it, the democratic principle may say that they have every right to torment the outcast because they gave him a chance to vote and he simply lost. The majority can be oppressive. And as you noted in your “No” section, voting isn’t set up to be a great way to resolve disputes (with all of the secrecy involved).

    But the question is not whether voting CAN BE violent (the answer to that is obviously “yes”) but whether it necessarily is violent, by virtue of its deference to the majority’s will. I think the answer to that is “no,” but only under this condition: that the decisions made by vote only apply to people who have voluntarily submitted themselves to that democratic community. If I join a book club, for example, because I respect the literary tastes of the people in it, and they vote to read a book that I don’t like and voted against, I don’t think that in this case, their insistence would amount to “violence,” because I choose them BECAUSE I respected the very tastes that led to the book selection and because I am free to leave if I don’t want to participate.

    Clearly, the United States government does not adhere to these rules. The decisions we make as citizens effect people throughout the world who have no say in them whatsoever. But would it be advisable for us to vote in such a way so that we SHOULD adhere to these rules? Would it be coercive to vote to open all of our borders and to disassemble our military? I’m not sure on that one. Would it be appropriate to vote in local communities, where nearly everyone willingly participates, on how to spend our money or redirect our resources? That seems appropriate, but there isn’t really an “opt-out” choice for those who disagree, which I think is important. Anyway, these are some of my thoughts. I am leaning toward not voting for now. But what do you think?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would pose the question: If you aren’t going to vote, then why are you here? “Here” as in residing in the USA, not “here” as in on this blog.

    • Brian Bither says:

      I can only speak for myself, as other nonvoters may have different reasons for voting and still living here. But for me, there’s both a simple answer and a complex answer to your question. The simple answer is that I was born here. My friends and family live in the USA. I was educated and trained to work in this country’s culture. This is my community, and my identity has been partially shaped by our shared history. Of course, I had nothing to do with any of this. It’s not like I CHOSE to be born and raised here, and therefore I have accepted some tacit agreement that obliges me to vote. Nevertheless, I am happy to be here and I feel responsible to do what’s best for my community. I’m just not convinced that voting is the best thing I can do for my fellow Americans, who already feel that they are in a hostile “culture war” where everyone is trying to manipulate or overpower one another politically.

      (Quick anecdotal story that helps make the point: When I was in college, I needed a ride to my home county to vote for the President. One guy offered me a ride, until he found out that I was voting for the other guy. Upon learning this, he decided not to give me a ride. And who can blame him? If he believed his candidate was the best choice for the country, it would be unpatriotic of him to help me undermine that candidate’s election.)

      That’s the simple answer. But here’s the more complex answer. You seem to be recommending that I “vote by my feet.” If I don’t like the way the American government runs things, then I should just move and go somewhere else. But this sounds more fair than it really is. It’s similar to a captain saying to his crew members while in the middle of the sea: “I’m setting some new rules. You don’t have to follow them, but if you don’t like them, I expect you to get off my ship.” But the question is, “Is there anywhere else to swim?” This is neither a realistic nor a fair option for many people who don’t like the way the US does things.

      But behind the comment, “If you don’t like the way the American government runs things, then you can leave” is an assumption that I reject: that the American government “owns” the land in the first place. Sometimes, we humans do silly things. For example, we send a man to the moon (which is an amazing feet), but once we get there, we stick a flag on a very small piece of it and then we think we own it. But that’s ridiculous. You don’t own something by claiming it in the name of England or in the name of liberty or anything else. But this is precisely the claim that every government makes. Governments believe that they have a justifiable moral claim over a piece of land, and therefore, they demand that we either do it their way or go somewhere else. But I believe that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1), so I don’t accept the assumption that lies beneath your question. I think we as humans have to figure out how to share and honor the resources that we have been given, but which properly belong to God. And, as we described above, I’m not sure that voting is the best way to figure out how to share it. It has some merits, no doubt, but in a democratic republic, we don’t actually get to vote directly for policy. We vote for candidates, who are shaped by political parties, which do not reflect my values. Furthermore, voting is done in secret, it appeals to the “might is right” principle by virtue of the majority winning, and at least some of my fellow citizens resent it when I vote against them. So, it is partially out of love for the people of this nation that I choose not to vote and yet stay here. And it is partially because I reject the assumption that the US government has a better moral claim the land I live on and the resources I use than I do, or than anyone else does (including illegal immigrants).

      • Anonymous says:

        You say you did not CHOOSE to be born and raised here, but I have a feeling that you believe that God made that choice and probably for a reason.

        You say you aren’t convinced that voting is the best thing you can do for your fellow Americans, but are you convinced that not voting is the best thing you can do? Just as many arguments can be generated about voting vs not voting as voting one way vs another. You can just as easily be resented for not voting.

        I don’t think it would be “unpatriotic” for your friend to have given you a ride, but rather seeing as how patriotism is “love for or devotion to one’s country”, your friend would have been more patriotic to give you a ride and ensure that a fair constitutional/democracy is achieved as far as he can help to ensure it.

        I find some flaws in your ship analogy as with modern transportation and the current government situation it would be more like the captain asking you where you would like to be dropped off and then doing so but at your expense. Had you been on another ship (in a different country or another time) this would not have been so easy. Yet many colonials chose to overcome greater obstacles.

        “I reject: that the American government “owns” the land in the first place” This sounds pretty political to me and has been one of the foundations of human existence/culture/history for a very long time. Sounds Libertarian if you ask me, not that I am trying to endorse a political party, just an observation. I am a registered independent.

        Voting is done in secret? Your vote is only as secret as you make it and as I said before if your friends resent you for proclaiming your vote publicly, your friends could just as easily resent you for not voting.

        I apologize for picking apart your response and that I am doing so very ineloquently. This is the MOST IMPORTANT point I have: What if people did the same thing in your church as you are doing in (may I take the liberty of saying) your country?

        What if someone were to get into a position in your church and take it in a direction that you did not agree with? What would you do then? Would you be silent? Would you not cast your vote? If the next candidates didn’t agree with you on everything either would you not take any action?

        How would you resolve your dispute? Use the Bible as law acknowledging that you agree with everything contained within it?

        I think church leaders have a difficult time understanding why good Christians could give up on “The Church”. These Christians claim it is about “a relationship, not religion”. Or what of the Christians who break off and start their own church? Here we are with all of these denominations and nondenominations. Is there ever a point where people accept that something is worth believing in and working and taking action to change what is already established and if that change doesn’t occur still believing in the original institution enough to keep trying?

        I know that I have been not far from leaving “The Church” (or the churches, however you like to think about it) and pursuing my relationship with God and with others apart from the flaws of “The Church” or flaws of those within the Church. Liberate myself from the bad reputation the Church has associated with it. Then I would only have my own flaws and reputation to worry about with God’s ministry through me. Then when unbelievers told me “I don’t want to go to church with a bunch of hypocrites.” I could say, “You don’t have to. Don’t go to church or go to church, but don’t try to change the way things are. Just acknowledge that it is flawed and sit there and get what you need out of it.”

        I guess I read the Bible and find something worthwhile and I see the Church and knowing that the Bible is at the heart of it, I see something worth taking action over. In the same way, I read the Constitution and I find something worthwhile and I see this country and knowing that the Constitution is at the heart of it, I see something worth taking action over.

        So again I ask “What if people did the same thing in your church as you do in your country?” Sure you can see the flaws and say, “This is not my church/country”, but then when you acknowledge that “I feel responsible to do what’s best for my community” do you really think you are doing it?

  3. Jimmy Maxwell says:

    I know this is post election but i will weigh in anyway. Four years ago i elected not to vote. I did in fact give my vote away to a trusted friend who is from another country, who has lived here for a long time. He is very respected and i told him I had no intention of voting and he could have my vote. He only told me who to vote for in the presidential race and i have never told anyone who his vote was for, or who i voted on behalf of. I chose not to vote in that election, but gave someone else a choice to cast the ballot.

    I have an issue when people tell me that people died so i could vote. People died so i could choose to vote. I did vote in this election. People are secretive about it because politics cause more dissension and hostility in relationships than almost any other topic. I feel if you are going to get mad about politics, express your opinion with your vote and then let the rest go. Its not worth representing Jesus poorly in order to get mad about a government that, i feel, wont represent Jesus any better or worse no matter who the president is.

    I am a little divided on whether followers of Jesus should vote. I don’t mind either way. I think the bigger question would be which do you hold in higher regard, your relationship with Jesus or your politics. I don’t think there is anything sinful about voting, but when politics become something that you idolize, then it is detrimental to your relationship and the true kingdom in which we serve

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