Tuesday, October 14, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part IV: Christian Arguments Against

We have summited, and now we begin the downward slope, in our series on whether American Christians ought to vote in the upcoming (or any other) Presidential election. Part I laid out the problem with a number of links representing multiple positions. Part II put forward ten arguments in favor of Christians voting, and Part III evaluated the quality of those arguments. This post will present arguments against, Part V will evaluate those arguments, and Part VI will offer preliminary conclusions, reflections, and principles. Let's begin the opposing case.

(Reminder: I am doing my best to present each of these arguments, as with the last batch, as honestly and forcefully as possible. If some of the language is strong, or seems overwrought, or even insulting, remember that these are not necessarily my views. I am trying to present arguments against Christians voting that I know of by word of mouth or reading, just as I did for Christians voting. In the next post I will take apart plenty of these formulations as well. That is, don't get riled up just yet.)

1. The American political system is broken. The parties aren't substantively different, everything is partisan, nothing is uncorrupted, elections are market-driven product advertising wars, and a vote either way only confounds the problem. Christians have better things to do than encouraging a once-great but now defunct form of democratic involvement.

2. There is no form of political involvement, including voting, in which violence and coercion are not implicated. Insofar as Christians are called to nonviolence, they should reject any and all systems of governance constituted on the maintenance of order through violence. Not only that, but the very form of politicking so pervasive today -- commercials, debates, stump speeches, etc. -- are so undeniably coercive that to involve oneself in them is to choose infection in a fallen, violent, irredeemable system unbeholden to anything properly Christian.

3. Neither party is Christian, and because Christians could only faithfully vote for a candidate wholly representing Christian priorities, voting is not a viable option. We might call this the purist position: if there isn't a candidate who fully represents the church -- or even, who isn't Jesus himself -- and we know that could never be the case, then we ought not to, and indeed know we can never, vote. Supporting evidence may be found in the first century church's use of kyrios (Lord) as a title for Jesus: in the Roman Empire, only Caesar was kyrios (kyrios kaiser); however, the central Christian confession was kyrios iesous: Jesus is Lord alone. Thus, in America, no man or woman is truly President: Jesus alone is truly President.

4. Neither party is in any substantial way different from the other; what meaning could it have to vote for either? Choosing between Republican and Democrat in 21st century America isn't exactly similar to choosing between apartheid and Mandela. Both owe their corporate sponsors backdoor promises, both are beholden to their rabid bases, both believe in American exceptionalism, both employ war as a means to further American interests, both must compromise any original positive vision. What is the point?

5. The Enlightenment experiment of the liberal democratic nation-state has failed; the only proper response for anyone, especially Christians, is protest, and what better way to protest the insanity of the state than by not voting? I have not read Alasdair MacIntyre, but as I understand it, he (and possibly John Milbank) represents something like this position. I won't get into the esoteric details; essentially, the idea is that the roots of what is today assumed to be natural about "the state" are in fact contrary to Christian faith and practice -- for example, being the captain of one's own soul; radical individualism; unfettered capitalism; centralized violence as means of maintaining the dominance of the state; a lack of any communal grounding story; religions being "free" to practice their faiths as long as they are not a threat to the state. As such a state has been wedded with uncritical religious endorsement, Christians must protest such governance through numerous forms, including not voting.

6. Apart from all other reasons, any viable Presidential candidate is willing to order violence to settle conflicts; quite simply, this is unacceptable for Christians, and they cannot in good conscience vote for any such candidate. God's peace has come in Jesus Christ, and his Lordship over all the earth entails the submission of all nations (and their leaders) to his peaceful order. Christians simply cannot endorse or install in office someone willing to kill others by their word. Thus, in this and any other election without a realistic pacifist option, Christians ought not to vote.

7. Voting seduces Christians into the democratic assumption that governmental politics is both the central unifying identity of an otherwise disjointed people and the primary way in which problems are solved; that is, voting subtly entices Christians to forget the power of God and the calling of the church. Like the foreign gods always leading Israel astray, the ability to vote eventually leads Christians to believe that their priority in life, over against faithful discipleship, is the democratic avenues of activism. Moreover, the state takes over the role of church as God's sovereign instrument of justice, order, peace, and change in the world. To the charge that if Christians want to be "realistic" they must engage in the (admittedly compromised) politics of the nation available to them, this argument would say that the church is itself an alternative politics in no need of validation by the world's understanding of what it means to be political.

8. Top-down influence through power is not how God has called the church to be in the world; insofar as voting is the exemplification of such top-down influence, Christians cannot participate in it. Many of these arguments have similar themes and may seem equivalent, but this one in particular is indeed separate. It is not concerned to say that X or Y issue is primary, or that voting has this or that effect, or that Christians can't per se be in office. Rather, government policy is simply not the way modeled by Jesus, and Christians ought to act accordingly. Christians must accept the New Testament teaching that, while ordained by God to maintain order, the state is pagan; it is not the means through which God is redeeming the world. Thus, regardless of the context in which Christians find themselves -- monarchy, dictatorship, communist, capitalist, democracy -- their vocation is clear and binding: be the church. The state will be the state, but its policies and its doings and its leaders are not the business of the church. (Sidenote: Stanley Hauerwas does vote -- "bad habits are hard to break" -- but his influence as a whole is present throughout most of this post, and especially in this and the previous argument.)

9. Due to the unacceptably low standards to which any legitimate (=electable) Presidential candidate must stoop in order to bash the opponent and win, no Christians can win modeling faithful Christian life; thus Christians cannot vote for any self-professing Christian. Few would argue that Presidential elections do not debase themselves in immoral, compromised, potentially corrupt, un-Christian practices that harm the name of Jesus in the process. Just look at the current race: all four candidates (President and VP) are confessing Christians who are murdering one another in a public forum. Can we even imagine the letter Paul would write to such a situation, especially one in which Christians accept this as reality? "Why not rather be wronged?" This is the reality: two Christian men, John McCain and Barack Obama, are vilifying each other, and have been for months, in order to become the most powerful man in the entire world, in order to lead the most powerful nation in the world, with plans each deems manifestly different from the other's; and Christians will be so divided in their votes for each Christian that, for the most part, they will be unable to peaceably discuss their differences of opinion with one another, to the extent that their local churches will largely be comprised of people who support one man or the other. At any time, in any place, this is an acceptable situation for the church?

10. In discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth -- suffering savior, Messiah of Israel, and crucified Lord of the earth -- every Christian is called to allegiance to God's kingdom alone as well as to pacifism; because the office of the Presidency in America demands swearing an oath of allegiance to the nation -- specifically to defend the Constitution, a document utterly unrelated to Christian faith or practice -- which entails the role of military Commander-in-Chief, it is inappropriate for any Christian, as a follower of Jesus, to run for or accept the Presidency: thus, no Christian ought to vote for a Christian running for the American Presidency. This is a complicated argument built on a worldview and biblical readings difficult and contentious for Christians in America. I don't know where John Howard Yoder stood on the actual issue of voting, but I am taking the substance of this argument directly from what I have learned from him (particularly in Discipleship as Political Responsibility, which is fleshed out more broadly in The Christian Witness to the State). The very fact that it is hard to imagine two American Christians in disagreement discussing this argument without coming to blows is itself a blow to the witness of the church in America in our time. Can this position be something other than heresy? Can we as Christians discuss it without accusing one another of motivations we cannot know? Can we raise the problem without being condemned? I believe the answer can be, is, and must be an emphatic yes. We will attempt to do just that in the final two posts of this series.

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