“The revolution will be drowned in the ballot boxes—which is not surprising, since they were made for that purpose.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
It has been said: “It’s our responsibility to vote!” “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain!”
In the American Empire, one of the most taken for granted fundamentals of democracy becomes a sacred rite every four years. To many citizens, this is the one most important way in which we can “let our voice be heard.” And if you don’t participate in this one privilege, you aren’t allowed to complain about a single thing in our society.
It’s one thing for a Christian to be convicted that this one manner of participation in civil society is important; it’s another for them to judge another Christian for not participating in the same way they do.
If you didn’t vote, the argument goes, you have no right to complain, because you did not decide, did not contribute. On the surface, it seems legitimate. In many of life’s situations, our indecision leads us to trouble, and our refusal to act places us in a position where we have no right to fret about our circumstances.
This is not one of them.
The word vote derives from a word meaning “a lit candle” or “to reinforce one’s deepest prayer.” The word elect means “to pick out” or “to choose.” In the false religion of American nationalism, voting is often seen as a sacred duty, a ritual of the man-made religion of the state. Christians from various denominations (including Amish, Mennonite, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Catholic, Church of Christ) have a long history of abstaining from voting for this and other reasons. The very concept of democracy means “rule of the people,” and implies that majority rules. This form of living and functioning together with people by nature runs against the grain of Gospel. Should we easily buy into its legitimacy as a good way to go about getting good things done? Many Christians argue that we should not.
In the words of Tato Sumatra, “As brothers and sisters of Christ, we are a new humanity, citizens of Heaven, having been called out of our old identities and allegiances. Yahweh calls, adopts, and creates a ‘citizenry’ marked by unity, reconciliation, and shalom.” Because of this, we are not Greek or Hebrew, American or anything else. We belong to Christ. We would not be expected to behave like the rest of the world.
When a Christian refuses to participate in an election, they may have many reasons for doing so. To assume their motives is to put yourself in the position of a god. An attitude of judgement also assumes that the system works in a much simpler and cleaner way than it actually does. At best, this attitude makes awkward assumptions about the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men.
Christians are called to be a witness to the (rest of the) nations. It isn’t about how special we are, but about Christ, the Servant King. Patriotism and party loyalty are not to occupy our thoughts. Because we have declared “Jesus is Lord,” we eschew any substantial loyalty to any nation, state, tribe, party, or organization. The rest of society should find our ways very upside down. Regardless of whether we vote or how we vote, this uniqueness should mark our conduct in the world.
Let us examine some primary reasons why many Christians choose to abstain from voting in an election, either in a particular election or in any elections at all:
1. They cannot in good conscience support either of the major candidates
Consider an illustration:
Suppose I hold a gun up to you and ask you if you would like to be shot in the right foot or the left foot. I tell you that if you do not decide which, I will decide for you and shoot you in one of your feet. You’ll probably protest and say that you don’t want to be shot in either foot. Who would? Assuming you can’t escape, you know you’ll be shot in a foot. You can either choose to have some illusion of control by at least deciding which foot it will be,or you can protest the ludicrous situation by refusing to decide. Then I shoot you in one of your feet.
It would hurt. You would cry out. You would complain. Wouldn’t it be cruel and absurd for me to then tell you that you have no right to complain because I gave you the “freedom to choose”?
This understanding of reality is what lies behind those who consider not participating in elections, either every time or on certain occasions. Freedom and choice are not black and white, and not choosing from a selection is itself a viable choice in many of life’s situations.
2. The differences between the candidates are erroneous and nowhere near as vast as the difference between either of them and what we’d desire in a candidate
So let’s suppose you don’t like either candidate. What about the lesser of two evils? Isn’t that the most practical choice? Shouldn’t we go ahead and at least do what we can do pick the one we deem to be less evil than the other? If I’m right-footed, for example, shouldn’t I at least decide on my left foot so that my dominant foot is unharmed?
The “lesser of two evils” philosophy makes 3 sweeping assumptions:
- It is obvious which option will be “less evil.”
- It is morally sound to endorse an evil thing just because it is not as bad as a more evil thing.
- To not choose either evil is the equivalent of the greater evil.
If I’m choosing not to vote, I might excuse you for making a judgement call based on these assumptions. But what I will not excuse you for is judging my decision not to participate based on these assumptions. What we see in lesser evil-ism is mere pragmatics over principle. When you choose the “lesser evil,” you are forsaking an ideal you hold and endorsing something you do not believe in so that you can bring about what you believe is a good end. You believe the end justifies the means. I am not calling it inherently wrong, but inherently flawed and open to criticism.
Yes, if I do not endorse a lesser evil or the greater evil, and the greater evil wins, I still have the right to complain about it. If evil is evil, and I am against evil, I have the right to protest evil. Period.
Suppose candidate A and B are running for office as the two frontrunners from both parties. You don’t like either much at all. Suppose you find candidate A to be the “more evil” choice and candidate B to be the “less evil” choice. Suppose you say, “a vote for a candidate C is a vote for candidate A. Vote for candidate B and we can stop candidate A.” You say this because you believe candidate C has no chance at winning, and is therefore “spoiling” candidate B’s chances. I understand your pragmatism, but you are logically incorrect. A vote for candidate C is a vote for candidate C. Period.
But if you are to believe that a vote for candidate C is a vote for candidate A, then you are openly admitting that our votes do not count under certain circumstances. To be consistent, you must also admit that when special circumstances interfere with your goals, your vote doesn’t really count. One of these circumstances happens to occur every time. I am speaking of the electoral college (part of the next issue).
Sometimes, if we really want to go with the lesser evil, we can validly argue that not voting is itself the least evil.
3. They do not wish to support a system that is corrupt and flawed
Michael Degan has said it well. “Much of the choosing is done behind the scenes by political operatives who maneuver conditions over which voters have no control.”
The first obvious problem with selecting candidates is The Plurality Rule, in which a candidate can win an election even when the majority did not vote for them. If 4 candidates obtain roughly a quarter of votes, the one with the highest percent wins, even when roughly 75% of the voters did not want them. This is problematic, and is the main reason we have only 2 main political parties.
The practice of Gerrymandering is another way in which our votes are manipulated against us. Our voting districts are redrawn every ten years to capture certain demographics of voters, depending on which state legislature has the power to do so.
Also, thanks to the mechanism of the electoral college, your personal vote doesn’t really count. As this TED-ED video explains, it doesn’t matter who wins the popular vote. A President could lose 39 states and still become President.
Many citizens are also unable to vote because their state legislature has made it too difficult. John Oliver (and I apologize that not all of his foul language is censored) covers the absurdities of many so-called “anti-voting-fraud” laws:
According to The Texas Tribune, “more than 500,000 of the state’s registered voters did not have the credentials needed to cast ballots” under their new photo ID law. There are almost half that many in my home state of Virginia. As John Oliver points out, at state legislatures, politicians “ghost” vote for one another on a regular basis, undermining the integrity of the very system that got them elected.
Not only can we call the voting system corrupt, but we can also point to the candidates as corrupt. One New York Times article outlines the number of lies we know this year’s candidates have told, and the amount is staggering (see Trump and Clinton).
As Nekeisha Alexis-Baker puts it, “There is no space on ballots for people to share thoughts on issues that concern them[…]A ballot only has room too affirm prepackaged candidates whose vague plans have been publicized via soundbites, by negative campaign ads, in speeches, and in televised debates,” and “the [voting] laws are written by, administered by, and ultimately served by the major political parties.” What hope is there in such a world? Thus we put our hope in Christ.
4. Focusing on voting in elections turns our hearts away from service in the Kingdom
As a Christian, I want to put thought and effort and study and prayer into important decisions that affect people. If I am to do the same with a political vote, then all that energy could have been exerted for naught. It is absurd that I could spend countless hours researching the history and statements of candidates A and B in order to determine whether either of them qualifies, and my neighbor will simply look at one issue, or even the look of their hair, and make the same decision I do.
Additionally, I may become a different person when I focus on politics and which elected leader has “the solutions.” I may decide not to get wrapped up in voting because I’m admitting that getting wrapped up in political discussions makes me a weaker person. When we pour too much energy into using political elections to try and accomplish the goals of the Church, we run the risk of becoming someone we’re not meant to be in order to gain power, for it’s clear that we are participating in a system that turns people into something else in order to win them power. I have seen many good Christians become worse people in other places, whether it be in the back of a car, on a ball field, or on a political diatribe. People I’ve admired all my life sink to new lows come election season, as if they have put Christ aside in order to be a party booster for a lesser cause than the Gospel.
Along with this, many cannot endorse the choosing of a Commander in Chief who will order men to commit violence. For many Christians, regardless of the policies of the candidates, the Christian commitment to peace forbids their conscience from supporting any presidential candidate, simply because they will lead vast armies. We may not be comfortable with choosing to endorse the leadership of a person who is going to command these armies to kill people, especially if these orders will not even fall under what many call “just war” philosophy.
5. The choice not to vote is itself a symbolic protest against the ways of the world, as well as a protest in order to gain the leverage voting fails to gain.
Too easily Christians can be led to assume that our role in American politics is to either run for or vote for public office. Only, our Bible is filled with examples of people who, not having (or needing) democracy, played vital roles in the politics of the nations around them through their living, preaching, and prophecy. As Ted Lewis has said, the myth of “voting as a voice” “weakens a community’s political imaginations.” During the Civil Rights Era, Martin Luther King Jr. and others used the power of scripture and rhetoric to accomplish notable improvements in the lives of minorities through preaching and protesting. Ironically, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was accomplished mostly through the work of the very same people who were disenfranchised.
As John D. Roth has voiced, the Church serves best “not as magistrates but in a prophetic role—questioning, challenging, discomfiting, and tweaking those holding power, reminding them they are ultimately accountable to God for their actions.” He goes on to say that, “our conscientious abstention from the presidential elections could be a powerful symbol of our conviction that true power—the primary locus of God’s hand in history—resides ultimately in the gathered church.” In other words, those who do not vote are not turning away from responsibility, but rather pointing toward the most important one.
Consider the words of Wendy McElroy:
“Voting is not an act of political freedom. It is an act of political conformity. Those who refuse to vote are not expressing silence. They are screaming in the politician’s ear: ‘You do not represent me. This is not a process in which my voice matters. I do not believe you.'”
Not voting can also be a form of leverage (like a 3rd party “spoiler threat”). We want to threaten a bad system with new ideas, hoping to create change that way when the status quo method of creating change has not created much change at all.
To many Christians, continual participation as voters in a political system so currupt simply does not yield righteous results, nor does it represent our values. Not voting can also demonstrate our hope in a better way, and our citizenship in another kingdom.
God’s people have always been our own nation, a nation the rest of the world will always view as peculiar, one set apart in its ways, “not counting itself among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).
The scriptures do not say we are forbidden from voting in the world’s elections. But we can gather from scriptures that it would be absurd, and even unrighteous, to judge Christians for not voting in worldly elections. The Word does not address the issue of voting in democratic elections, a) because our kingdom is set apart, and b) the Church was not born into a democracy anything like America’s. The Church has never needed democracy. And because the Word clearly tells us that the ways of the world are rebellious, we have a right to verbally express such. Therefore, we can speak out against the decisions of our leaders, even if we did not vote for them or any other option presented to us.
I’d like to point to the words of Richard Hughes:
“According to the Bible, the kingdom of God and the nations of the earth embody radically different values and reflect radically different orders of reality. The kingdom of God relies on the power of self-giving love while nations—even so-called ‘Christian’ nations—rely on the power of coercion and the sword.”
When all is said and done, walking into a ballot box in a Presidential election ends up being one of the most minuscule ways an American citizen, let alone a Christian, can effect real change upon the world. Not only should we not judge others for not doing so, we should also question, if we do vote, what else we actually do to change the political world around us.
Voting in an election isn’t the only way to participate in politics and “let your voice be heard.” You can contact your representatives, campaign for change, march, rally, take a poll, blog, tumble, tweet, or use any of the tools they deem necessary under the vast freedom of speech we have. But before doing any of these, including voting, we must become more educated. Sadly, that is lacking.
That’s what I’ve hoped to do in these last few posts: Educate people. I believe that every post I make has the potential to be more powerful than any ballot I fill, because a) the Freedom of Speech guaranteed by the Constitution give me mower power than a choice between two corrupt officials, and b) the ability God granted me is more powerful than the coercive means of men to gain and maintain power.
As Christians, our lives are votes. Every choice we make is a vote. We are to be living sacrifices, candles lit to show the light of God. Jesus is political, and he is above all kings. We are called to be like the King we serve, the only one we need, and choosing not to choose another leader should be a powerful statement.
Let’s face it: if any candidate fully endorsed the Sermon on the Mount, they would never be elected in any earthly kingdom. Whether or not I vote, I have put my trust in the Servant King, who is my first and only loyalty. I don’t want to crack under pressure and tell Pilate I have no king but Caesar. I serve the Servant King. And if I choose not to vote in this or any other election, consider it, if anything, my proclamation that the Kingdom of God is here.