Monday, October 20, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part V: Evaluating Christian Arguments Against

All right, let's get down to business. We're winding down our series on whether Christians ought to vote in the American Presidential election (See Parts I, II, III, IV, and Excursus.) Let's jump right in.

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.

Few disagree with the sentiments voiced here; the question is whether they inherently entail not voting. Apathy is understandable in such a situation, but shouldn't be encouraged. As I see it, a broken system means one of three things: 1) fixable; 2) unfixable; 3) imperfect reality to accept and engage. The system's brokenness in itself does not necessarily lead to option 2, thus this argument does not work.

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.

This is one step beyond number 1, though it assumes Christian nonviolence. The idea is less the brokenness of the system than the overwhelming systemic violence implicated in the very acts of campaigning and voting. That may sound like an overwrought claim, but think about the ways in which campaigns engage in violence (covert and overt): threats against foreign nations; threats against certain classes of people; promises to do X or Y (regardless of consequences); squabbles between supporters of each. (Let us pause here to reflect on the potential rioting if Obama does not win in two weeks; this is real!) As for voting, just read about all of the accusations against ACORN in the media; regardless of the merits of the claims, there are undeniably numerous groups on both sides of the aisle who engage in mass propaganda and dishonest voting drives, and what election goes by without whispers of voter fraud or minority disenfranchisement? Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 are concrete examples of places where one side or the other (or both) claims the other illegally tampered with voting.

Having said all of that, once again we find ourselves with the question: are our standards the ideal of a perfect world, or the messy reality of lived life? There are likely smoother and less questionable elections in other nations around the world, but probably not many. Though worthy thoughts to reflect upon (and a situation to improve), this argument likewise does not stand up.

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.

Although this is not where I end up, and I don't think it ought to be "the" answer to our question, I do see it as a faithful and honorable choice for Christians in America. Shane Claiborne, author of Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President, seems likely to be in this spot. Members of the Anabaptist tradition may also include themselves here, though for other reasons as well. To humbly accept whatever/whomever rules over the state as that which God has appointed, and then to get about the serious business of God's kingdom coming on the earth as it is in heaven through his people the church -- it would be fine by me if Christians adopted such a coherent stance.

However, as it is, I don't find the argument itself compelling, inasmuch as all leaders in all areas of life (including and especially the church!) are imperfect and don't represent pure "Christian" priorities.

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?

This argument is pervasive as another example of apathy. Its main difference, though, seems to be an openness to a future in which an option exists that is not wholly compromised or equivalent to the other(s). Though the equivalence claim is somewhat true, the parties remain different (an Obama or McCain administration will not look identical!). Furthermore, this argument has nothing to do with being a Christian, merely the difficulty of making a choice in a broken system, which we addressed above -- and to which I believe both sides shout: Just pick (us) already!

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.

Mark Love has a fantastic post up about his support for Obama in which, for different reasons and in different ways, he outlines similar incongruities between America, as a product of the Enlightenment, and the disciplines, virtues, and worldview of the church. Mark's response is to vote for the candidate he deems more inclined to the church's perspective; this argument's response is to not vote as an act of protest.

One of the hardest choices to assess is that of a non-vote as protest. What does it mean to protest by not doing something? Nonviolence is visible in concrete practices of peace, in nonviolent activism, in suffering for good. Not voting is difficult to discern as an intelligible sign of protest.

Now, if it is understood as a faithful act regardless of effect or visibility, that is a different issue (one we will address below). However, as far as the argument goes, my honest feelings are twofold: 1) the argument is so academic that it is hard to make relevant for everyday life, and 2) what society on earth, at any point in history, could not be assailed with similar conclusions? Thus, while the argument itself may be true, the injustice of a form of government, inasmuch as all forms of government entail injustice, is not a convincing argument against 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.

Hands down, this is one of the very strongest arguments against Christians voting. I encountered it fully in a book review by Lauren Winner in an issue of Sojourners Magazine, and it struck me down with its hard simplicity. For pacifist Christians (who, I realize, make up a tiny minority of the American church) this seems like a dealbreaker. How could we?

Winner responds in a remarkable and creative way, one that does not necessarily dismantle the argument so much as reorient the way we approach the question. She replies that she is sympathetic to such a stance, but that it (like so many other American approches to Christian practice) ultimately gives in to the cultural mindset that "we" (the American voting public) not only control the course of human history, but know the future as well, such that when we vote for candidates A or B, we "know" what we are getting with either. In the face of such a view, Winner clarifies for us that, in fact, we do not know the first thing about what will happen. Electing candidate B over candidate A may, in fact, insure a future devoid of war -- as far as we know. Our arrogance in assuming we know the future for either option exchanges God's sovereignty for our own, and forsakes the Lordship of Christ. We simply do not know, and voting can be one act which holds potential for a more peaceable, albeit unknown, future.

In that wonderful tension I will leave the discussion for you to further wrestle.

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.

Stanley Hauerwas has influenced me deeply in this regard, and his book After Christendom exemplifies this position. Because Hauerwas votes, and because the argument (and his work) is less a cry to refuse voting/participation so much as a call to renewed faithfulness and identity, I don't think this will be the winner.

However, it is an altogether necessary reminder for the church in America to remember what God has called it to be. The United States of America is not God's people, nor his instrument of justice in the world, nor his means of salvation, nor even especially prized or favored or better than any other nation on the planet or in history. America's democratic form of government, and the subsequent expectation of involvement through voting and activism and public service, has proven a mighty seduction to Christians of all stripes and colors, and we forget our true calling and identity when we assume that the "we" of America is more determinative than the "we" of the church. So let us remember with Hauerwas that the church is alone God's people -- the church as the transnational body of Christ, which knows neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female.

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.)

I associated number 3 above with the Anabaptist tradition, but I think its members would also subscribe to 8-10 as well. As I state at the end, echoes of Hauerwas resound here. This is probably not too dissimilar from number 7 (how I wanted to make 10 full arguments!). It is different, particularly in its reminder about power and the ways in which the church leavens society, but it probably speaks more to the role of Christians in government than the role of Christians in voting in government.

The operative word remains: remember. The church must remember that its work -- and God's -- will not have either failed or been accomplished on Wednesday, November 5th. That is in fact the day when the church can move on from the chaos of an election in which so many fall prey to the lie that the state will provide salvation, and go about its God-given business of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and so on. Those things no administration has the power to solve.

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?

(It really is absurd how each question gets longer and longer; it's actually just a plot to make my posts seem more substantial than they really are.)

When I first began to write this argument, it wasn't one that personally affected me, but after finishing and re-reading it, I found myself overcome with sadness. The final question is sincerely from my heart: How can this ever be acceptable for God's people? Last Thursday night the candidates attended the same event and light-heartedly roasted one another and themselves, and it was a slight blip on an otherwise malicious, ugly, regrettable couple of months.

Again, we have to retrain ourselves to think differently: when Sarah Palin, a confessing Christian, incites a crowd with the line that Barack Obama, Palin's brother in Christ (as a fellow confessing Christian), is "palling around with terrorists," whom does she think she is talking about? A real terrorist? An evil man? Just a political opponent? A good man with whom she happens to disagree?

Any one of those options is not good enough for that kind of rhetoric, if we are to be followers of Jesus. If we really believe the gospel, and Palin and Obama both claim to be believers, then this kind of conduct is categorically unacceptable. What would happen if their respective churches were to discipline them as a community for treating a brother or sister in Christ as an enemy? ("Enemy" being my only option here, though Christians are called especially to love their enemies. Even worse!) That kind of situation is utterly unimaginable in an American context precisely because we have so succumbed to the cultural "fact" that Presidential opponents slander each other. If they "happen" to be Christians, then I guess it's just "politics as usual."

No! No, no, no. Christians cannot simply do "politics as usual." If "politics as usual" entails unfaithfulness to God's calling in Christ -- which, by the way, is a decidedly unusual politics -- then there is only one option: noninvolvement. Allow me to repeat: any job description in which unfaithfulness is a requisite for involvement, Christians simply cannot participate. I see no other available option.

I will leave for you to decide the implications for voting.

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.

I needn't elaborate much on this final argument. It should be obvious from the length, detail, and passion with which I wrote it that this is smack dab where I currently reside, where I have been wrestling for some time now. I have yet to come across a person or argument that dissuades me; honestly, I haven't seen or heard much at all that even directly addresses the issue. It seems so simple, but I realize why it remains unaddressed: the appropriateness of a Christian serving as President is not a question on almost anyone's mind in America. Should it be? I think so. Will it be anytime soon? I haven't a clue.

My only comment is that, historically, in situations where humanity could not imagine another way -- in our case, a non-Christian running for President, much less that being the norm -- God has always managed to surprise. And we cannot be a people devoid of the prophetic imagination that enables us to see a world totally new, a world recreated by God's wonderful imagination, yet for now unseen. That is the vision God grants in his Son and by his Spirit, and that is the vision we must seek, foster, and practice in order to be Christ's transforming body in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this post a lot. I also can't seem to find a good answer to numbers 6 and 10. The rest seem to be a matter of living with tensions. Those two just seem pretty strong to me. I'm looking forward to reading your next post on how to sort all this out and make a decision.