Wednesday, October 1, 2008

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

Exactly a month ago I began a series exploring whether Christians ought to vote in the upcoming (and, by extension, any) presidential election, and somehow got so behind with other posts that I have yet to continue it until now! But with little more than a month remaining before Election Day, I am losing relevance quickly, so let's jump right in.

I realize for many to most Christians (much less Americans), it is an understood fact of life that voting as part of a democracy (a form of government understood to be desirable for all nations of the earth) is something Christians not only can faithfully participate in, but ought to. That is, voting is less a viable option than a religious duty. I would like to question that assumption, not because I outright disagree with it, but precisely because when a national assumption becomes a Christian assumption, something has gone wrong. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Christians ought to participate in what we now understand as "the state." A common response is that the biblical writers and communities did not live in participatory liberal democracies. Of course, this is true, but it gets us no closer to what Christians can or ought to do than before. That the church resides in a state which allows democratic participation does not compel the church to participation through voting, much less to voting/involvement as an assumed Christian duty.

So! My goal is not to ruffle feathers, but to ensure that we are not simply adopting cultural assumptions as Christian beliefs. No issue should become so sacred that the church cannot step back and reassess where we stand, how we got here, and what God is calling us to.

In my previous post, I offered a short strand of links to various Christians displaying all sides of the question, and engaging one another on the specific issue of voting. In this post I will discuss the Christian arguments for voting; in the next, I will assess those arguments. The following post will be Christian arguments against voting; after that, assessment; and in the final post, a summation and overall evaluation.

(One more caveat, or two: "Voting" itself does not stand in a vacuum, but is related to issues of power, governance, policy, violence, fallenness, institutions, and redemption. We will be addressing numerous issues throughout, and while other issues will enter into the discussion, I hope that they will not distract from the issue at hand. Which leads to my request, that (whoever you, my dear reader, be) we not allow ourselves to fall into anything resembling the kind of rancor that usually attends to such politically charged discussions as this one. Christians are forgiven people, called to extend to others the grace extended to them by the God of the universe. As Randy Harris would say, How does the fact that we are baptized people affect the way we treat each other? Let us hold that in mind as we proceed.)

I could write an extended, loquacious, soaringly grand, certifiably unreadable essay on the transcendent issue of voting as it relates to the pilgrim people of God. And there is no doubt I will fall into such moments in the course of things. But, instead, I could share in bullet points, as briefly as possible -- though without losing the theology -- so that we can understand together, rather than be blown away by my dense mess of words. I will do my best to do engage in the latter over the former.

As far as I can see, at the popular as well as scholarly levels, there are approximately 10 primary arguments for Christians voting, whose strengths and weaknesses I will critically evaluate in the next post in this series. They are as follows:

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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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!

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.

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?

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.

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 exampes from God's people as recorded in Scripture.

I think that will do for now. If I have missed an essential argument that can't be grouped under one of these ten, please let me know, and I'll update the post or mention it in a future one. To leave you on a lighter note, here is a clip (with transcribed text) forwarded to me by Chris Wiginton of my favorite comedian, Craig Ferguson, waxing an elephant on the topic of voting. Enjoy, and next week I will follow up with assessments of each of these arguments.

1 comment:

  1. I like this post. I thought you said up those 10 positions fairly, without setting up a straw man. Good job.

    Here are some thoughts:

    1. On number 3, I don't think it necessarily has to be gifts FROM GOD. I think a lot of people just see it as a gift or a blessing, a privilege that we are grateful for.

    2. A common argument I have encountered, specifically from N.T. Wright, but also from friends, is this: "Would you rather have a president in office who prays or who doesn't?" This is similar to number 7, although not as scared of non-Christians in office.

    3. You still need to read Engaging the Powers! I think you will be surprised by Wink's position in some cases. He talks about voting at one point, and says he thinks Christians should respond differently in different situations. He doesn't necessarily think Christians should vote in America.

    4. A question you may or may not have planned on answering later that I would love to hear you answer: Would the situation with voting change for you if both candidates weren't Christians?

    5. The other question I would like to hear you answer, which I am not sure if you plan to answer it or not, is this: If you were in Germany when Hitler was running for office, do you think it would have been a Christian duty to vote against him?

    You may have already thought of all those things and have planned to address them in one of your upcoming posts, but I just wanted to make sure you answer them.

    Thanks for writing on this topic.