Thursday, October 9, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part III: Evaluating Christian Arguments in Favor

Continuing with our series assessing the validity of voting in presidential elections as Christians (see Part I and Part II), let's jump right into evaluating the 10 arguments previously given in favor of voting.

1. Whatever the witness of the New Testament, we now live in a different situation, one in which we can positively influence the course of society for the good. That is, even if the New Testament views the state as pagan, or a place unfit for Christian involvement, a new situation calls for new forms of action. We cannot act as if we live in Rome; we live in America, which allows, even asks, us to vote so as to influence the course of the country and various potential policies. How irresponsible would it be for Christians to forsake our context in such a way?

This argument recognizes the fact that the New Testament has to be interpreted; it was written in a context, and our present context matters. Voting is a hermeneutical question, and we ought to influence society for good -- a choice the original Christians did not have.

However, despite that positive understanding of context, I think this argument runs afoul of two things: first, the New Testament remains the normative witness for Christian practice, and its difference of context cannot impair our ability to apply its teachings to ours. Second, the assumption that we ought to influence society for good through voting is the very question we must answer through consulting Scripture, discerning communally, and listening to the Spirit. It cannot be an assumption.

(Note: I realize that the very wording of the argument was formed by me, so I musn't set up straw men then beat them to death. I hope to limit that as much as possible, but I did my best in the formulations of the arguments to word them precisely in ways they are most often argued. I have heard this argument formulated this way countless times, so I don't feel I am being dishonest or dishonoring to its essence.)

2. Though government is an imperfect institution (like all others), we can no more remove ourselves from it than we can from work, family, or even church. We don't recuse ourselves from working imperfect jobs, or belonging to imperfect families, or even (especially!) attending radically imperfect congregations. Why should participation in government through voting be any different? Accept that all of life is pervaded with both good and evil, divinity and fallenness, and work redemptively in all that you can.

This is an excellent point. There really is no adequate response to it other than an incisive commitment to discern what fallen institutions Christians ought to participate in, and which ones we ought not. For example, sex is God's good gift, but Christians agree that the pornography industry (and all forms of it) is an inappropriate realm for Christian involvement. Some institutions, and any involvement in them, entail a level of fallenness that is unacceptable to Christians.

An argument which we will see in the next post is that the New Testament teaches nonviolence and kingdom allegiance for Christians, and thus it is inappropriate for a Christian to serve as President or Congressman, because in either role he/she would have to make military decisions, as well as swear to defend the Constitution alongside allegiance to the nation. If this is so, and both Presidential candidates are professing Christians, neither can be properly elected. Thus, Christians ought not to vote (at least in this case).

That would be the argument naming voting in America (as every single Presidential candidate in American history, outside of Joe Lieberman, has been a Christian) as inappropriate for Christians, and thus the above argument would not stand. However, most Christians do not agree with this reading of the New Testament, so its strength does not lie in any widespread agreement on the part of Christians. Furthermore, many to most who would even allow such a reading might respond that we ought to still choose between the two candidates, because Christians aren't going to stop running for office anytime soon.

(Hint: as you will see, this is where I am wrestling.)

3. Voting is a gift from God; it would be wrong to spurn it. The progression of history has finally come to a point where the best (or the least worst) form of government statecraft has been bestowed upon us. To refuse such a gift would be tantamount to blasphemy, insofar as God gives all things and history is progressive. People all over the world would literally die to be in our situation; let us not fool ourselves into thinking we know better than they.

In the last post my brother Garrett commented and helpfully corrected my bias in this formulation. Many people feel that voting is a gift without identifying it as "from God." I was attempting to expand the logic of the idea and incorporate theological backing, but it also exposes my understanding of this argument as equating God's progressive blessing with American democracy -- which I do think is implicated in most expressions of this argument.

Regardless, this is a worthwhile argument, but ultimately, for me, doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Having the least worst form of government in the world does not compel voting, nor does it mean Christians as Christians ought to participate. Voting may or may not be a gift, but neither solves the question. If a Christian should not be in office, or the violence implicated in democratic involvement is too overwhelming, voting's giftedness makes no decisive impingement one way or the other.

As well, the desire of people around the world to be in a similar situation, while valid (and further addressed below), remains primarily an emotional argument. Many crave the creature comforts and easy leisure that accompany excessive and gratuitous wealth; such desire does not validate the object itself. Similarly, voting may seem (or be) preferable to a host of other situations, but that does not entail Christians necessarily engaging in it.

4. Christians are called to be patriotic, and there is nothing less patriotic than refusing to vote. Christians should love their country and do their best to better it. In what way is the church transforming, or even affecting, society if it has removed itself from one of the premier acts which help to form, shape, direct, and guide the nation?

This argument -- patriotically bettering the nation -- implies a national duty to vote, which is one of the weakest arguments I have heard, because it confuses allegiances. Again, it may be appropriate for Christians to vote, but simply living in a nation in which all are expected to vote does not itself mean Christians ought to. Rome expected its citizens to do plenty of things the earliest Christians found abhorrent; just because we may "like" our Rome better does not mean we are compelled to any action at odds with Christian discipleship.

Furthermore, bettering society through voting assumes that that is the way the church "betters" its surroundings: from the top down. However, that is not the vision of the New Testament. Most certainly Christians ought to love their neighbors and love their country of birth (with qualifications for the latter), but that love ought to be expressed through practices like prayer, service, hospitality, presence with the poor, speaking for the oppressed, accepting the unwanted, modeling fidelity, loving children, speaking truth to power -- that is, being a people whose communal life together proclaims an alternative to the way of the world. In such a way, as John Howard Yoder put it, the gospel leavens into society from the bottom up. Such leavening is the way the church "influences"; not through power.

5. Not voting is a sectarian move away from the world, but we are called to live in the world. If Christians are called to be in the world but not of it, voting seems an ideal candidate for practice! Vote Christian values (whatever those may be): that is, vote ("in" the world) Christian ("not of"). It is both naive and dangerous to remove ourselves in such a way, and not voting is only the first step.

This is an excellent correction as well as a false dichotomy. Choosing not to vote in no way, shape, or form entails a sectarian "leaving" the world. There are plenty of things Christians do not do in national life, and not voting does not equate with forming an Amish community. As mentioned above, the leavening of the gospel is not subject to the forms of influence the powerful consecrate; God is the one who is truly powerful, and he will influence through the lowly service of his people as he sees fit. He does need the world's power to do so.

As well, "voting Christian values" is an exceedingly dangerous, amorphous idea. Non-Christians in America look at Christian political priorities as gay marriage and abortion. Since when did gospel ethics get reduced to matters of sex? Those are important, but in the larger context of all of life: matters of economics, violence, land, health, poverty, etc. That recognition does not negate the importance of marriage and children to God -- only to say that there are other concerns as well.

After all of that criticism, however, I do think this argument does hold some water, just not all it usually claims to. Not voting could become a retreat from the world, "leaving it to its own destruction," while we watch quietly and wait for the coming of the Lord. As Barth would say, Nein! That is not at all what I am entertaining. It thus remains possible that voting could be a proper way of engaging the world without being of it, and voting holistically Christian could be as well.

6. Refusing to vote is only an option for pampered white Americans who don't understand what a privilege they have been given; if in a different social situation, much less another country (totalitarian or rebuilding), this wouldn't even be a question. Minority Christians don't question whether they "ought" to vote or not, because they don't have the bourgeois luxury to esoterically consider actions as if they are not concrete realities. African-Americans were denied the right to vote until very recently; how dare we think a faithful option for Christians would be to give up the very right for which so many have suffered and died!

This one nails me to the wall. It was extremely helpful to read the article I previously linked to, written by a black Christian in the Emergent movement. In the article he discusses the ways in which white privilege in America distorts white Christians' minds to thinking as if everyone has the luxury of "deciding" whether to vote.

Yes, yes, and yes. This is a situation in which I, as a white American Christian, must listen and simply allow for the fact that my privilege is keeping me from seeing the bigger picture. I cannot disabuse myself from this fact, and that is why I cannot ever decide "once and for all" my "right" choice and denounce others. I live and think and argue and act from a specific context; in this case, my context may be influencing me more than my Christian faith.

However, in order to dialogue rather than remain static, this is my response. If it is true (and it may not be) that it is inappropriate to Christian discipleship to serve in a position of allegiance and military power such as President, then my privilege or lack thereof is meaningless. In truth, from my privilege I am being called down into a place where I cannot, in so many words, run for office. The fact that the black church tradition in America has been such a standard of faithfulness and subversive power actually witnesses to the fact that the church is most faithful and powerful when it is powerless. Now, don't hear me glorifying the suffering of blacks, as if slavery and oppression are in any way something other than hell on earth and an abomination to God. Rather: the witness of the black church over the last few centuries in America speaks to the fact that the church catholic best influence society through gospel means -- suffering service, powerlessness, faithful communal life -- in contrast to traditional methods of power and influence, one of which, potentially, is voting.

7. If Christians don't vote/participate, the world will go to hell. Though humorously put, this is a popular feeling: if a Christian is not voted into power and/or if Christians do not vote their values, America (and by extension, the world) will be qualitatively less filled with God's goodness, less held together by God's values, less led by moral leadership. The world's situation will be significantly negated if Christians do not vote.

No, no, no, no, no. Garrett responded in his comment with a quote from N.T. Wright that we have all heard repeated in various forms: "Would you rather have a president in office who prays or who doesn't?"

What a disastrous way to think. God is sovereign over the world. He does indeed call Christians to forms of leadership which involve power. Does he call Christians to lead nations through allegiance and military power? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, is that the way we should think? Would X situation be better if Y leader was Christian (or at least "prays," or is at least "religious")? With respect to Wright, from whom I have learned much, this is wrongheaded and in no way a gospel way to think.

As Christians we do not begin with questions of efficacy, nor do we assume that we (as "religious" people) are better equipped to do things than others. We have been called to be God's people, and we serve a God who unrelentingly upends the world's way of working. Thus, we begin with the knowledge, as the church, that God is the one who does things that shouldn't be able to happen; that is, we believe that God works miracles. Miracles are not realistic; they are unrealistic. They are the supreme form of unrealism. And Jesus is the embodiment of unrealism. Things do not get done the way you want them when you get crucified. That's just how it is.

Well, crucifixion is exactly the way God works, and we are God's cruciform people. So is our first question really going to involve assuming that we have to concede to the world its (perceived) reality of power and influence? No! God does not need any world leader to be a Christian in order for the world to run well. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Again, this does not mean that we shouldn't vote, or even that it is wrong for Christians to value that a leader prays, or is religious; it means that if we vote, we must not do it to insure that a Christian is the one in power. We have a different form of security: trust in God.

8. Christians are called to be, in a word, truly human; if human before anything, they ought to care enough about their fellow humans/citizens to vote for the candidate/person/policy they think would most benefit them/the world. I would place McLaren and much of the Emergent movement in this category. Simply put, Christians ought to be the best citizens imaginable. If we have been given the gift of true humanity by God, the holistic gospel calls us to work in every way possible to better the lives of our fellow human beings (and in miniature, these are our national fellow citizens). What does it mean to love our neighbor except to participate in national life with the hope for the betterment of all?

This is a newer argument (at least to me), and a respectable one. Its virtue and problem is the same: other-centered rather than God-centered. That may sound odd, as Christians ought to be other-centered, but when reasoning begins with the human before the divine, it usually runs afoul at some point. We love because God first loved us. We love God by loving our neighbor. Theologically, we don't begin down then work our way up; God works his way down to us, showing us how to relate to others. So, in the instance of voting, the first question cannot be, "What would a fully human person do as a good citizen?" though that may come later. The first question must be, "What is the faithful response of the church to God's calling in Christ?" That will always yield a more faithful answer, usually ending in other-centered activity, often more difficult to enact, but always theologically grounded

Thus, though we are called to be good citizens, we are first called to be members of God's kingdom. And that, which entails working for the betterment of our neighbors and the world, may or may not include voting.

9. In the example of Jesus the suffering servant, friend of the poor, and executed criminal, we have been given the definitive example for radical Christian politics and ought to do all that we can, including voting and influencing policy, in order to engender government policy that favors the kinds of ignored groups Jesus so cared for. I would identify this mindset with people like Jim Wallis, Walter Wink, or Ron Sider (though I realize they don't agree on everything). According to this view, Jesus' example was not apolitical, nor is the call of the gospel, and in every way that society offers to us (and even in revolutionary ways that are not), Christians ought to work and strive and (nonviolently) fight for radical change in accordance with what Jesus has called us to: justice for the poor, an end to violence, a voice for the oppressed, healing for the sick, freedom for the minority, etc. To not vote would be to forsake this essential responsibility given to followers of Jesus the crucified one.

Once again, Garrett corrected me on this, as Walter Wink may not be appropriately grouped on this argument (I feel certain about Wallis, close to sure on Sider). The reasoning itself is difficult to dispute. I certainly do not believe that the gospel is apolitical or merely spiritual, and Christians ought to work for all of the things listed above. Whether not voting constitutes forgetting the poor, or abdicating the responsibility to take care of those issues for which Jesus cared so much, is difficult to say.

Garrett also asked a question, the gist of which was, If Christians were in a situation like 1930s Germany, or post-apartheid South Africa, would voting against Hitler or apartheid be wrong? Could it be? Essentially, he's asking whether the lack of substantive difference between the American political parties -- or at least, the lack of a choice between obvious evil and merely fallen human -- is the decisive factor in any argument questioning the practice of voting. I will do my best to answer that in the final post. For now, his question relates to this specific argument insofar as not voting for a candidate that would presumably be better for the poor (or whatever other group/issue we have in mind) would be forsaking the political responsibility of discipleship.

My only answer is that it might, but whether or not in the long run, and in the big picture, electing a Christian as the leader of the most powerful military and economic force on the planet, in a time when much of the world sees America as a "Christian" nation doing "Christian" things, is better -- I don't know. But in this case, for us in our situation, the answer is less important than the asking. The question is the thing.

10. In the Old Testament, whenever Jews were in foreign lands, they often, according to the dictates of wisdom, excelled to their best abilities and were promoted to high levels of government, service, and leadership; such examples offer us an even clearer depiction than the New Testament of what God's people are called to be living as resident aliens in the world. Examples include Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon (if not David or Josiah as kings of Israel). Statecraft and governance are not antithetical to God's calling; in fact, they can be proper vocations thereof. Thus, voting, and specifically voting for policies and candidates deemed "more" Christian, is an act exactly in accordance with positive examples from God's people as recorded in Scripture.

This is an exceedingly popular argument, and while biblically robust, I don't think it measures up upon full examination. It does measure up as a general example of the ways in which God calls his people to be a leavening influence as resident aliens in their societies, and how that may involve forms of leadership (small businesses, local councils, universities, etc.). But Jews in the Old Testament were not called to follow Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one. If we truly believe that in Christ God has done a new thing, and that discipleship to him is a new call into that new thing -- that is, if we really believe God's kingdom has been planted upon the earth in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and its fulfillment awaits his return -- then there can be no one-to-one ratio between the behavior and ethics of Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New (and beyond). There are parallels, there are paradigms, there are echoes -- but following Jesus is not the same as obeying Torah. Our new Torah is the Sermon on the Mount, our new Moses Jesus (or, as N.T. Wright might say, Jesus, as lawgiver and not merely interpreter, is the "new" Yahweh).

All that is simply to say that the examples of Daniel and Joseph are not adequate for the task of Christian discipleship. Thus they do not answer the question either of voting or public office.

- - - - - - -

And with that, we move on. Next, I will post arguments against Christians voting, hopefully on Monday, then evaluate those arguments, and hopefully the following Monday (the 20th) we will have some preliminary conclusions, reflections, and principles to work with. Until then.

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