Tuesday, October 28, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part VII: A Brotherly Response

My brother Garrett commented on my concluding post to our voting series (I have a sneaking suspicion this blog is Garrett's and my secret way of having overblown and unending theological arguments over long distance):

"I enjoyed your final observations and comments. However, I'm not sure I agree with your final stance. It seems to me (if I am interpreting you right) that you think as long as people make their decision with the right reason or motive (one of the six you listed), then either act is faithful. That seems to locate the correct Christian action within our motives or reasons for doing something. It seems to me that the action of voting or not voting is the right or wrong thing to do, not the reason behind them. Does that make sense? Did I understand you right?"

An excellent correction.

Garrett is right to point out that it is our actions, not our intentions, that are right or wrong. Of course, books have been written explicating the extent to which that statement must be nuanced, modified, or enhanced, but the gist is true. If I lie to you intending to save you from some difficulty I envision if the truth were spoken, my good intentions do not mask the fact that I am not telling the truth. If I kill you because you are a burden to society, my intent to alleviate society does not make the action right. (Then, of course, we have arguments that to lie to the Nazis in order to secretly house Anne Frank is justified; and similar, though different, arguments for killing in self-defense or for reasons of justice.)

In this case, we are indeed talking about an action: voting in the Presidential election in one week. There is nothing to nuance about such a concrete action: we may or may not do it, it is ultimately our choice as individuals, and the action is either right or wrong.

On the other hand, as Christians we believe less in being "right" than in being good (having character like God's character), and in being faithful (living up to God's calling in Christ). Thus, not only what we do, but how and why we do it, it enormously important.

What I intended to do in this series, implicitly as much as explicitly, was twofold: 1) make the discussion, even more so than the conclusion, primary; and 2) argue the ethics of voting from a different vantage point than is usually done. I believe the former goal came out more than the latter.

From the different vantage point I was hoping to ask four questions: What are we doing when we vote? What kind of people does voting form us to be? What issues bear on whether Christians can or ought to vote? How should Christians (the church) go about discerning whether to vote?

My ultimate response to whether Christians "ought" or "ought not" to vote is that I can find no definitive answer, scriptural or theological, that points in either direction for American Christians at this point in time. That is, I find great moral ambiguity in the question, and thus cannot prescribe for all Christians "the" answer. I do believe there to be a number of issues with "an" answer, but at this point, I do not see one for the issue of voting.

Therefore, my conclusion in the last post was that I see viable options for Christians on both sides of the debate, but only insofar as the reason is legitimate. Such a claim sounds as if each individual Christian in America must have the time and patience and resources to walk through all of the arguments we laid out. That is certainly not what I mean.

What I mean is this: there are, most certainly, ways to vote that are antithetical to Christian discipleship. For example, voting against Obama because he is black, or against McCain because all Republicans are evil. Less extreme examples would be voting for the candidate most likely to secure long-lasting American power in the world, or against any candidate who would lessen the load of the poor.

Taking the next step, there are also arguments for and against (but especially for), widespread in their popularity, that do not stand up. An example would be the claim that it is a Christian duty to vote. No, actually, it is not. It may be wise for Christians to vote, it may be something from which Christians ought to abstain, but it is not a duty.

Evaluating the best arguments I could summon both ways, I found myself unable to conclude decisively on one side or the other. Thus I left it open for Christian discernment, having ruled out certain arguments and ways of going about it (namely, unquestioningly) I concluded were inappropriate for serious Christian discipleship.

Back to the implicit questions, though. They can be summed up in this single formulation: Residing in a democratic context, what kind of people is the church called to be, and is voting conducive to that communal calling?

My answer is that I simply do not have the wisdom or conviction to plant my feet for the church on either side. Instead, as in so many complex questions of character and context, let the church be the church: wise, messy, communal, Spirit-led, concrete, ragtag, discerning, peaceable, contextual, faithful to its story, and, finally, unburdened by the need to know its members' decisions are always right. God's mercy, as in all things, will prevail.

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